Olmec
Veracruz, Mexico
Standing Figurine
800/400 B.C.

Green hornfels and cinnabar
H. 30.2 cm (11 7/8 in.)
Ada Turnbull Hertle Fund, 1971.314

Olmec art is typified by monumental stone sculptures such as colossal portrait heads, thronelike altars, and stelae commemorating important people and historical or mythical events. Such monuments were placed in grand ceremonial centers where rulers conducted the religious and administrative duties of their domains. Olmec artists also produced smaller sculptures, such as this one, that are monumental in their own way. This carved and polished figurine is of a type known as an "Olmec baby" because of its proportions and puffy facial features, including fleshy lips and slit eyes. The elongated head suggests an Olmec custom of infant cranial shaping, which was considered beautiful and a sign of high rank.

The simplified abstract torso and limbs with their gleaming, curving planes skillfully take advantage of the beauty of the stone. The artist has exploited the contrast of the dark green legs with the lighter tones of the torso and head. Figurines like this one were most often carved of serpentine, jade, or green jadeite. (Olmec sculptures carved of these materials are rivaled only by works of the ancient Chinese.) Because of their beautiful color and often translucent quality, such greenish stones were highly valued and symbolically associated with water and fertility, regeneration and renewal. The figurine was originally part of a religious offering and buried in a ceremonial plaza as a gift to the earth, perhaps as part of the inauguration or funeral of an important ruler.