Unraveling the Mystery behind the Raimondi Stele
The Raimondi Stele is an artifact that was made by the Chavín culture, which was a prehistoric civilization that developed between 1500 and 300 BC in Peru. The Raimondi Stele is said to have been regarded as a sacred object by the Chavín people, and is also considered by modern scholars as an important example of Chavín art.
The Chavín culture is named after the archaeological site of Chavín de Huántar, which is located in what is today Huari, a province in the Peruvian department of Ancash. The Chavín culture developed in the Peruvian Andes, and the site of Chavín de Huántar is believed to have served as a ceremonial and religious site for the Andean religious world. This is evidenced by the temples that were discovered at Chavín de Huántar, as well as the artefacts that were uncovered there. One of the objects attesting to Chavín de Huántar’s religious role is the Raimondi Stele.
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Overview of Chavín de Huantar. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Raimondi Stele is recorded to have been discovered in 1874. This stele was name after an Italian traveler by the name of Antonio Raimondi, who discovered the object. According to one source, Raimondi discovered the stele in the main temple at Chavín de Huántar. According to another source, the discovery was made in the hut of a peasant in Callejon de Conchucos.
Antonio Raimondi. ( Public Domain )
The Raimondi Stele has been measured to be just over 2 m (6.5 ft.) in height, and was made of highly polished granite. The design on the stele was very lightly incised, so much so that it is almost unnoticeable on the actual sculpture. Depending on the direction that the Raimondi Stele is viewed, different visual interpretations may be arrived at. The technique used to produce this effect is known as contour rivalry, and it has been pointed out that the Chavín used it frequently in their artwork. It may be added that scholars today consider the Raimondi Stele as one of the best examples of contour rivalry.
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When viewed one way, the image on the Raimondi Stele is said to depict a ‘staff god’, in other words, a deity holding two staffs. The figure of the god is said to occupy a third of the stele, whilst the god’s headdress fills the rest of this artefact. According to one source, the god has “a man’s body with a bull’s head and a cat’s hands and feet.” Additionally, this source argues that the Raimondi Stele has some association with the Hindu faith, and that the god depicted on it is essentially “another representation of Siva at the moment of attaining perfect self-mastery.” Other sources are less certain about the god’s identity, and speculate that he was an important god worshipped by the people of the Chavín culture. As for the god’s headdress, it has been commonly described as consisting of “snakes and volutes”.
The Raimondi Stela. ( Public Domain )
By flipping the stele, a different image is produced. The god’ headdress is transformed into “a stacked row of smiling, fanged faces.” The deity’s facial expression also changes, from a fearsome one to a smiling one. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that the staffs in the god’s hands are turned into rows of stacked faces when the stele is flipped over.
Flipped stele . ( Public Domain )
The double image produced by the Raimondi Stele may have been used by the Chavín culture to express a belief in the duality and reciprocal character of nature, life and human society. It has also been pointed out that these concerns were shared by other cultural groups inhabiting the Andes, and that this idea can be detected in the art of many other Andean civilizations. In addition, it has been pointed out that one of the core aspects of Andean religion is the ability of their gods to transform themselves in front of their devotees. Thus, it may be possible that part of the rituals surrounding the Raimondi Stele involved the flipping of this object, thus changing the god right in front of his worshippers.
Top image: A detail of the Raimondi Stele, from the Chavín culture in Peru. ( Public Domain )
By Wu Mingren
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