This article is part of the feature „Great guys. Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt

Where can I find Humboldt?

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The featherwork mosaic Nuestra Señora de la Salud de Pátzcuaro, which Humboldt himself called a “featherwork painting”, was an object he found in Mexico. It is a depiction of the Virgin Mary with attributes of the Immaculate Conception: a crowned Madonna, without child, standing on a crescent moon. Made of thousands of tiny pieces of feathers, the mosaic surprises the viewer with a minor optical sensation: when viewed from a certain angle or when the light falls in a particular way, the hummingbird feathers making up the background behind the Madonna suddenly begin to shimmer in an iridescent, metallic blue. As soon as the perspective shifts, the impressive effect vanishes again.

Aztec Goddess

On his great journey through the Americas Alexander von Humboldt collected not only plants and minerals, but also several works of art which he brought back to Berlin. Among them was this basalt sculpture which combines the attributes of the Aztec goddess Chalchiuhtlicue and the goddess of maize Chicomecoatl. The goddess of the rivers and lakes, of fertility and maize wears a cotton headband with tassels, held in place by a large bow at the back of her head. In her left hand she carries two corncobs. The cavity at chest level was probably once inlaid with a prized precious greenstone whose colour stood for fresh spring water, lakes and rivers.

Photo by Maria Gaida
Maria Gaida

Dr. Maria Gaida has been custodian of the Mesoamerican Collection in the Ethnological Museum, National Museums in Berlin since 1993 and head of the Collections Department since 1998.

Photo by Stefan Müchler
Stefan Müchler

Stefan Müchler is press and public relations officer at the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz.