Colima Embracing Couple


Colima, Mexico
100 B.C. – AD 190
Burnished Earthenware
Length: 8.6 inches (22 cm)
Width: 4.9 inches (12.5 cm)
Provenance: Ex collection Raul Kampfer 1965; private collection Edward H. Merrin 1965-1985; private collection Sam Merrin 1985.
Published: REDISCOVERED MASTERPIECES OF MESOAMERICA (page 155, fig. 205) (1985)
Exhibited: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Texas 2005-2015. LAW BUILDING, 205M WIESS GALLERY, CASE 16B


The Colima culture is unique for having created and left behind a multitude of ceramic artifacts that depict scenes of anecdotal, everyday life as well as those relating to more religious scenes. It is common for a culture to leave behind artistic works showing those things most important to them; deities, rituals, mythology, and priests. To find a piece that shows the secular life of an individual is a rare treat.

This figurine is typical of Colima ceramic style, with well-proportioned figures, burnished clay, and high attention to detail. The faces of both figures are finely modeled with smiling lips and eyes raised in relief. Each of their fingers and toes are defined, and the nails carefully etched onto the ends. The texture and direction of the weave of the hair in the braids of the elaborate hairstyles worn by both figures are depicted as well, with consideration given to the differences between what appear to be the fashion worn by men and women. The clothes and the designs on them are for the most part etched onto the bodies of the couple; only the knot at the front of the maxtlatl and the bottom of the skirt are separate from the figures themselves.

The heads of the embracing couple rest on a long pillow that accommodates them both as they lie on a bed. The figure on the right wears a maxtlatl, the traditional loincloth worn by men in many ancient cultures throughout Mesoamerica, while the figure on the left is clothed in a long skirt with decoration near the knees and an embroidered hem. Both figures wear similar elaborate hairdos, their hair gathered into coiled braids that wrap around the front of their heads. These details, as well as the bands etched into their upper arms and the large plugs worn in their pierced ears, signify the couples’ high status.

One indication that this is indeed a secular scene lies in the manner in which the man wears his maxtlatl. According to the Handbook on Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno (2006), which describes the maxtlatl on page 364, the “long, narrow piece of cloth [was] worn by men and boys to shield the genitalia. Wrapped around the lower torso and passed between the legs, the ends were then tied at the waist. Two different styles of tying the ends served different purposes. The ends could be tied in front with a distinctive knot; this served a daily, secular, and functional purpose. The ends could also be tied so that one fell in front, over the genitalia, and the other end fell in the back, over the buttocks. This style was reserved for deities and ritual ceremonies and was probably the most archaic of the two styles.” As is evident by the photograph, the maxtlatl worn by the figure in this piece is clearly tied in the first, more secular, style.

This piece, like most Colima pieces, is well burnished. The artist must have waited for the perfect time, right between the piece’s leather hard and bone dry stages, and rubbed each part of it with a smooth stone. In this way they produced a highly polished piece without using glaze by rearranging the platelets in the clay so that they lay in the same direction. This had to be done for every part of the piece; from the surface of the bed on which the couple rests to their curved arms and the delicate features of their faces and hair.

The whole piece is soft curves and sweeping lines, the only hard edges to be found are those that define the bed. Even those are made less harsh by rounded corners. Despite the natural asymmetry in the poses of the couple on the bed there is clear bilateral symmetry to the negative space of bed that frames their curving forms.

The ceramic piece is incredibly intimate; the viewer is allowed to see a couple in a private moment, hands resting softly on each other’s sides and faces close together. Their encircling arms curve with gentle grace, a movement echoed by hips angled towards each other. The woman embraces the man with both arms, one resting on his shoulder to draw him closer. The man’s left arm embraces her in return, the other hand resting comfortably on his stomach. One of his legs is thrown over hers, holding her foot between his ankles in a relaxed position. The special thing about this piece is that both figures, while being fully clothed, are expressing affection and joy in each other’s presence without sexual context; something rarely seen even in today’s art.


References: Townsend, Richard F., Ancient West Mexico: Art and Archaeology of the Unknown Past (Chicago, 1998), fig. 25, 26, p. 31

Metropolitan Museum of Art; Accession No. 1978.412.156; Nayarit Couple