February 2010 Artifact of the Month

Tree of Life

Contemporary
Mexican
Materials: clay, paint and wire
2005.4.1

Tree of LifeThe name "Tree of Life" comes from the Mayans who believed that the gods used the ceiba tree to raise up the heavens in order to allow life to flourish on earth. The tree itself represented the three worlds: the upper world where the gods resided, the middle world that the living inhabited and the underworld where the dead rested. The trunk became a path for the gods and the deceased to move between the worlds.

When the conquistadores landed in Central America, they tried to eradicate the Mayans' religious beliefs. Instead of abandoning them completely, the Mayans incorporated them with the new Christian beliefs. El Día de los Muertos is a good representation of these blended beliefs. Many Mexicans believe that their deceased loved ones briefly return to this world during the Day of the Dead celebration, which takes place over two Catholic holidays: All Saints Day and All Souls Day. They honor them by constructing private altars, preparing food, praying and attending vigils.

Our Tree of Life artifact is a three-tiered candelabrum that can be placed on a private altar and lit during the celebration. It stands 13½ inches tall by 12 inches wide and is made of painted clay. Its brightest colors, such as red, pink and yellow, are tempered by its more moderate colors of blue, green and purple. Figures of Adam and Eve, with apple in hand, recreate their expulsion from the Garden of Eden while the Devil in snake form slithers down the tree trunk. Birds, fruit and flowers adorn its branches.