60 Shades of Jade
San Cristóbal de Las Casa, Chiapas, Mexico
60 shades of jade! This is a little treat for jade lovers. Small and sweet, the museum is set in a colonial building in the historic heart of San Cristóbal.
The museum is also an enterprise as it has its own workshops located both in San Cristóbal de las Casas and Antigua Guatemala and all the exhibits are created by current artisans as replicas of the famous originals.
Work is carried out on jade from ancient deposits in the mountains north of San Cristóbal and the Motagua River basin in Guatemala. If you buy a jade artefact, the shop will give you a certificate and a historical description of the original object. You may need to show this on leaving Mexico, to prove that you are not smuggling their original heritage!
My favourite exhibit in the museum is definitely Offering #4 from La Venta, followed by the sculptures of the Mokaya people (below).
The original of Offering #4 (second below) was found in the ancient Olmec La Venta site in Tabasco. The Olmec were the first major civilisation of Central Mexico, the ancestors of the Maya (1500BC-400 BC). The meaning of the scene has long been a mystery. It is an assemblage of 17 small stone Olmec figures arranged in front of a flat row of six slender jade celts or stelae. The figures have elongated heads (this fashion was 'copied' by the Maya; the mother put the baby's head between two wooden boards to get that shape). While the figures are similar in style, they have individualised features and colours. There are two prominent figures: the female with an especially large head and a light blue-green colour and the man facing the procession. Perhaps these are two leaders and the scene represents a meeting of two dignitaries, the establishing of an important alliance, or even the marriage of two people of high status.
But believe it or not, even the Olmec people had predecessors. The Mokaya or 'Corn people' were the first people in the coastal zone of Chiapas and Guatemala, between the years 1800 and 1200 BC. And just look at the similarity of the sculpture portraits, not to mention the physical features, such as elongated heads!
I can't cover the history of all of these people here so let's just enjoy the visual display of some of their masks. In order they are: Aztec from Central Mexico, today's Mexico City (bottom left), Toltec from a state centred around Tula (second from the left), Mixtec from the area of Oaxaca and Puebla (third left) and Maya across central America, represented here by the death mask of Pakal the Great from Palenque (bottom right).
For the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica, jade was indeed the most precious of all materials. It was believed to facilitate the transition through the underworld after death. It also symbolized immortality, eternity, power and love. For jewellery lovers there is plenty on display but also in the shop. In the fourth room there is also a life-sized replica of the burial chamber of Pakal the Great from Palenque (it's a bit kitschy for my taste, and the replica in Palenque Museum is much better presented and more informative, but who has time for everything!).
How to get there:
The address is very central: Avenida 16 de Septiembre Núm. 16, Centro Histórico. The cathedral of San Cristóbal de las Casas is just round the corner; you can practically see it when you are entering the museum. We walked out of the museum straight to the Museum of Cocoa, also round the corner (2 blocks). Entry is 30 pesos and it is a combined ticket for both museums.