Jade, more correctly – Jadeite, was prehispanic Mexico’s diamonds. This green stone was no less valuable in Asian cultures. “Stones from Heaven: Civilizations of Jade” offers a glimpse into both the ritual and decorative aspects of what was once, and continues to be, a highly prized stone in both Mesoamerica and China. The 220 pieces on display at this relatively small but highly illustrative exhibit currently on at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is one not to be missed.
Called “yu” in Chinese, “chalchihuitl” in Nahuatl, and “ya’ax chin hun” in Mayan, the term “jade” loosely refers to a variety of metamorphic green stones including jadeites and nephrites (a distinction best left for geologists and gemologists to differentiate) – all of which were of great value to early civilizations. Varying in size, craftsmanship and hues, the pieces showcased were hand-picked from hundreds of pieces crafted by the ancient cultures of China and Mexico.
The Chinese items are on loan from the Forbidden City’s Chinese Imperial Palace Museum (of Beijing) marking the framework of the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Mexico and the People’s Republic of China. The Mexican objects have been culled from collections of the Olmec civilization, Teotihuacan culture, Mexica and Maya zones (borrowed from the National Museum of Anthropology), Teotihuacan, the Regional Museum of Yucatan, the Regional Museum of Campeche, the INAH in Veracruz, the Regional Museum of Tabasco, the Templo Mayor Museum and the Anthropology Museum of Xalapa).
All are stunning. The displays are divided into five principal themes touching on the characteristics of jade/jadeite and the techniques of working with these stones; the rituals involving jade/jadeite and its aesthetics; jade/jadeite as a symbol of power and the last segment of the exhibit shows evidence of how it was believed that jade/jadeite accompanied people into the after-world, both in Mesoamerican and Chinese cultures. The use of funeral masks in ancient Mexico is illustrated with a spectacular piece from the tomb of Calakmul’s great ruler Jaguar Claw, dating back to the late 7th century.
The oldest item shown is a piece from China – shaped like a ring – calculated to be close to 7,000 years old.
The array of carved items, range from utilitarian pieces such as incense burners, arrow heads, musical instruments and jewelry, to sculptures of animals, humans and scenes, provide viewers with an ample selection of styles, uses, materials and symbols. It is fascination how these two unrelated early civilizations showed parallel esteem for this naturally occurring ornamental stone.
Ironically the color green has taken on a renewed relevance today. Whether it be nephrite or jadite from Asia or the Americas, this exhibit curiously reminded me that the color green, symbolizing life and vitality for early agricultural societies, has come full circle. Given our 21st century environmental sensitivities, once again the color green has become not only pertinent but fashionable to our cultural – with people “thinking green,” and activist groups baring names such as Green Peace or Partido Verde (a Mexican political party). Whether you are an environmentalist or not, be sure to catch this unusual collection which shows how two unrelated civilizations held such a high regard for this rare, natural stone.
The National Museum of Anthropology is in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City. It is open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday, 9 am to 7 pm. General entrance fee is $57 pesos.