The Incas are remembered for many things; its quick expansion and its elaborate road system quickly come to mind. But Inca art, in all its forms, is perhaps what they have remained most famous for. Many of these ancient art forms still survive today, with Andean peoples up-and-down South America continuing these proud traditions.
To get a better understanding of the Inca, how their society functioned, and how they conceived of their empire, we need to understand Incan art.
The Most Important Inca Art Forms
The Incas practiced, and excelled, at many forms of artwork. The most important of these were textiles, metalwork and jewelry, pottery and ceramics, and architecture. By the time the Inca came on to the scene, these art forms were well established in Andean cultures and had been practiced for centuries.
But as the Incas became the dominant force in the area, they took these artistic traditions to a whole new level.
The Incas have a long tradition of creating fine textiles that continues to this day among their descendants in Peru and Ecuador. Considered the first art form of the Andes, the Inca drew upon a longstanding tradition of textile arts.
Known for their complex geometric patterns, like the chakana, Inca textiles show the ingenuity and creative genius of Inca artists. Unlike other cultures, however, Inca textiles did not draw heavily upon human or animal forms, preferring instead intricate geometric patterns. When this art form did depict humans or animals, they tended to have a very abstract feel to them.
Incan artisans crafted textiles with a variety of colors, each bringing a unique symbolic meaning to the cloth. The most common colors used within Incan textiles included:
- Red: Surprise, surprise, red became associated with blood. This then caused red to become associated with Inca imperial expansion and their empire.
- Green: Much like red, green became a symbol for the natural world, as the Inca used green to represent the rainforest as well as its people and agricultural outputs (like cacao).
- Yellow: Associated with maize and gold (and gold was heavily associated with the sun god Inti)
- Purple: Associated with the mother goddess, Mama Oclla, purple held a special religious meaning within Inca art and textiles.
- Black: This was the color of clothes worn by any foreigners who visited the Inca capital of Cusco.
Metalwork and Jewelry
Metalwork holds a unique place within the Inca artistic tradition. Unlike other Inca artforms, metal was often used to portray flora and fauna. Archaeologists have unearthed golden statues of llamas and humans, corn stalks made of sheet metal, and more.
The precious metals used to make different objects gives us a clue as to the object’s use and the importance of the metal used to make it. In Inca culture, gold and silver were considered sacred: gold was the tears of Inti, the sun god, while silver was the tears of Mama Killa, the moon goddess. This sacred association meant that gold and silver metalwork was reserved for the elite and religious ceremonies.
This meant that Inca royalty and other Inca nobles had jewelry made from gold and silver. This included earrings, bracelets, nose rings, and, of course, the Inca Emperor’s crown, known as the mascapaycha.
For those not lucky enough to be born into royalty, tools and trinkets made of copper and bronze were the norm. Copper is a famously soft metal and easily worked into a variety of forms, making it a great choice of material for everyday objects that the wearer would put through the wringer. Though non-elites in Inca society didn’t have the same drip as the ruling class, they did often wear copper adornments, like a pin to keep one’s shawl closed tight against the Andean winds.
Pottery and Ceramics
Pottery and ceramics have a long history among Andean societies that goes way back before the emergence of the Inca. So, when the Incas rose to power, they were able to tap into this tradition to create highly stylized pottery for daily and ceremonial use.
While the pottery used by most people within Tawantinsuyu would have been more utilitarian than artistic, the pottery created for the elite classes was truly stunning. Indeed, The creators of Inca pottery and ceramics combined the geometric styles used in textiles and the representations of life in metalwork to create fascinating pieces.
One beautiful example is the drinking vessel above. Inca artisans worked the natural clay into the shape of a seabird, replete with a detailed beak, two eyes, and two little feet. For feathers, the potters drew upon the Inca tradition of geometric patterns, using a checkerboard pattern across the bird’s back.
Though these types of ceramics are certainly the most memorable, they were far from common. Most Incas, instead, would have used mass produced pottery. Incredible organizers, the Inca government actually set up pottery production centers across their empire, allowing them to churn out tons of nearly identical ceramics, such as storage jars. Despite their mass-produced nature, these ceramics still had a bit of flair, often decorated with geometric shapes.
When it came to building, the Incas knew what they were doing. With so much Inca architecture nestled in the steep slopes of the Andes, the beauty of their architecture is truly remarkable. Though there were several different types of architecture that existed within the Inca Empire, we’re going to concentrate on the most artistically remarkable – fine masonry.
The style of architecture used to construct religious temples, imperial complexes, and the homes of the elite, fine masonry has become famous in modern times for a rather unique construction style. Hand hewn by Incan masons, the stones used to construct these buildings were carefully shaped that they fit together so precisely that the building would be able to stand without any cement holding the stones together. Sometimes, this technique gave the stones a billowing effect, to where they almost look like giant stone pillows. This was the style of architecture used to construct famous Inca sites like Machu Picchu.
Apart from this unique construction style, Inca religious and imperial buildings were designed with interesting styles. Using giant, finely worked stones, Inca masons crafted doorways and windows into trapezoidal shapes. The buildings themselves were often rectangular, though some circular and U-shaped buildings have survived. This variety of designs that we can see in the limited number of Inca buildings that have survived to our day is a true testament to the level of artistry Inca masons achieved.
What Inca Art Tells Us About Inca Civilization
We’ve already hinted at a few of the things Inca art can tell us about the Inca civilization. From class systems to gender roles to imperial domination, Inca artwork was never created simply for artistic expression.
As we discussed in the textiles section, women created textiles in Inca society. This shows a clear division of labor based upon Incan gender identities. But, while women were relegated to only certain types of work, they clearly found a means of expressing themselves through the textiles they created. Incan textiles were the cream of the crop during the hay-day of the empire, and they remain to this day an iconic part of Andean culture.
The social classes that existed within Inca society were also clearly delineated by the artwork made available to people from these classes. Only the elite could wear gold jewelry or have precious stones and metals incorporated into their clothing. Beyond that, however, the Inca state enforced a strict dress code based upon the area you were born and the class you belonged to. In this way, government officials could, at a literal glance, keep track of movement within the empire (either up the socio-economic chain or across large areas of land).
And, like all good empires, the Inca built giant structures across their acquired territories to symbolize their power and remind the locals who was in charge. To accentuate this point, fine masonry was used in many of these grander constructions. While it was, and remains, beautiful, the message was clear enough: if we can make something this nice, this far from home, we’re too powerful to consider rebelling against.
Sources on Inca Art
- Mark Cartwright, “Inca Textiles,” worldhistory.org
- “Science at the Museum: Analyzing a Fifteenth Century Inca Corn Stalk, Part 1 of 2,” denverartmuseum.org
- Emily C. Floyd, “Tears of the Sun: The Naturalistic and Anthropomorphic in Inca Metalwork,” yale.edu
- “Inca Jewelry,” discover-peru.org and Dana Leibsohn and Barbara E. Mundy, “General History of Peru, Tupac Inca Yupanqui and Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui,” fordham.edu
- Michael A. Malpass, Daily Life in the Inca Empire (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 49
- Malpass, Daily Life in the Inca Empire, 44-45
- Ginger Pigeon, “Inca Architecture: The Function of a Building in Relation to its Form,” wisconsin.edu
- Mark Cartwright, “Inca Architecture,” worldhistory.org