The Tree of Life – Mexico’s Evolving Art Form

1 April 2016

Everything must change, so the saying goes.  Art is no exception and folk art has always been particularly in tune with cultural shifts being, by its nature, by the people for the people.  So it is with the Mexican sculptural tradition of the Tree of Life or Árbol de la vida.  It has gone from an instructional tool of religious imposition to, contemporarily, something quite different. Yet it wasn’t itself an art form which sprang spontaneously in to being with the arrival of people from the Old World: its roots are much older.

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A Biblical story is now considered traditional, but Árbol de la vida originates with the Olmec culture, which arrived in central Mexico around 800 AD. This, together with the huge cultural influence of the pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan (which at its height in the first centuries AD was at least the sixth most populated city in the world) brought about an age of intricate, sophisticated ceramics.  The Tree of Life embodied the four cardinal directions (north, east, south and west) for these ancient cultures as well as connecting the realms of the underworld and sky with the dominions of the Earth.


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As the Romans had discovered at around the same time Teotihuacan was at its zenith, the conquest of a people should not involve the complete destruction of their artistic traditions: imitation is a more diplomatic method of cultural usurpation and supersession.  The Friars who brought Christianity to central Mexico destroyed any old ceramics they could find which depicted the old gods yet they retained the form (yet some are still discovered in tombs such as the one above).  The Olmec tree of life became that of the Christian trinity.  It was an easy nod the friars could make to local culture in their attempt to transplant the old gods with their own.  After all, in Christianity the tree of life represents the immaculate state of humanity free from corruption and Original Sin before the Fall.

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In this way, Biblical stories could be represented in a familiar way and the local population could be evangelized.  Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was particularly popular in Metepec where the art from is distinguished by the bright colors used to adorn the baked clay.

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As this adaptation developed, so did demand and the pieces went from being purely instructional to, additionally, a more and more decorative and – despite their Biblical depictions – luxurious form.  By the first half of the twentieth century they had developed in to their current but not quite final form.

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Typically, an Árbol de la vida contains a number of fixed images.  At the very top of each an image of God appears and below are depictions of events related to the creation of the world, celestial bodies such as the sun or the moon and, of course, the first two misbehaving humans of Biblical history, Adam and Eve.  Often the serpent which tempted them also appears as will a rather cross looking Archangel Gabriel in charge of their expulsion from the earthly paradise that was their former home.
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Many of the trees are made for use and have a space inside for the burning of incense.  In the city of Izucar de Matamoros, these are carried through the streets on the feast of Corpus Christi.

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Although a number of Árbol de la vida had depicted things other than Biblical stories and characters they had remained related thematically with death and spring being popular motifs.  Yet as the twentieth century progressed these trees of life also evolved with mermaids, flying horses and lions (among many others) also making an appearance.  People from Mexico's vast history can also stand side-by-side: the centuries between them mean nothing.

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Yes. Mermaids.  We're not talking Darryl Hannah in Splash either.

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Arbol de la vida
Artisans in the Metepec municipality will create Árbol de la vida on commission and on any subject.  Even so, it is still something of a rarity to see one without at least a nod to Adam, Eve and the garden home from which they were so forcefully rejected for apple scrumping.

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However, all rules can be considered off as the tree of life grows a new branch on its very own metaphorical evolutionary tree.  Some of the newest pieces are as far removed from the original form as one might imagine – certainly the Olmecs and friars might be more than a little perturbed at the sight of what their art has become.

Yet when you encounter a clay tree brimming with monarch butterflies, it is difficult to argue that the form should have remained fixed.


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