Humboldt Forum
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum / Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss, digitale Reproduktion: Jester Blank GbR


The sublime-looking Madonna and her magnificent background are composed of countless feathers from at least thirteen different species of bird. As a work of art that fuses the pre-Columbian featherwork tradition with a Christian motif, the mosaic bears witness to the commingling of Spanish and Mexican history.

If you view the cloak composed of hummingbird feathers from a specific angle, it appears brightly iridescent and the picture radiates blue, red and yellow tones. This impressive effect would have also left its mark on the faithful. Only the uncovered parts of the Madonna’s body have been added as painted sections in an incarnadine skin tone.

The Madonna from Pátzcuaro

The picture was made in Pátzcuaro. To this day the city in the Mexican state of Michoacán is known as a centre of featherwork artisanry. In the local Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud there is a sculpture of the Virgin Mary which probably served as the model for the mosaic. The portable featherwork picture would allow the faithful to take their Madonna from Pátzcuaro back to their private homes and use it for devotional purposes.

An almost identical feather picture can be found in the Museum of Tepotzotlán in Mexico, providing us with a further indication of the spread of these feather mosaics as votive images. They were possibly even serially produced. Europeans prized them above all for their exotic appearance. As early as the seventeenth century Jesuits would send these feather pictures back home from the missions.

Indigenous Arts and Crafts and Christian Tradition

As a work of art that blends the pre-Columbian featherwork tradition with a Christian motif, the feather mosaic bears witness to the interwoven nature of Spanish and Mexican history. The highly sophisticated artisanry of the feather mosaic has its origins in the pre-Columbian tradition of the Aztecs, who were famous for their clothing decorated with feathers and magnificent feather headdresses which were reserved for the most powerful. Feathers were considered an expression of political influence.

Following the Spanish missionizing, the tradition of the amanteca, as the Aztec featherwork artists were known, lived on in Christian motifs. The veneration of the Virgin Mary, especially the idea of the immaculada, the “immaculate conception”, played a decisive role in the Christianization of America by the Spanish.

The Road to Berlin

Alexander von Humboldt brought back this work of art from his expedition to America in 1803/04. A letter confirms that he sent the “feather painting” to Berlin along with mineral samples, stone sculptures and medals. The featherwork Madonna is an artefact from the Ethnologisches Museum and in future will be presented on the second floor of the Humboldt Forum.

To be seen in the museums on the second floor of the Humboldt Forum.

Event (5 December 2018)

International experts, eye witnesses and representatives from the Humboldt Forum adressed questions in various conversations. They weaved exciting stories and histories from different cultures and epochs, current research results and personal experiences to create surprising and sometimes astounding narratives.

Talk #3
Feathers, Lacquer & Break Dance
December 5, 2018, 7.30pm

Exhibition at the Kulturforum (27 November 2018 – 24 February 2019)

From November 2018 until February 2019 the Featherwork Madonna was on view at the Gemäldegalerie at the Kulturforum.

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Humboldt Forum Highlights

The first 15 of these Humboldt Forum Highlights were being presented between October 2018 and May 2019 in two formats: in an exhibition as well as during conversations that will be held at various locations in Berlin. The exhibition on Museum Island has been extended until the end of September 2019.

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