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Unseen Art

Unseen Art
Making, Vision, and Power in Ancient Mesoamerica

An examination of how ancient Mesoamerican sculpture was experienced by its original audiences.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

January 2023
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184 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 127 color and b&w photos, 36 color and b&w illustrations, 4 maps |

In Unseen Art, Claudia Brittenham unravels one of the most puzzling phenomena in Mesoamerican art history: why many of the objects that we view in museums today were once so difficult to see. She examines the importance that ancient Mesoamerican people assigned to the process of making and enlivening the things we now call art, as well as Mesoamerican understandings of sight as an especially godlike and elite power, in order to trace a gradual evolution in the uses of secrecy and concealment, from a communal practice that fostered social memory to a tool of imperial power.

Addressing some of the most charismatic of all Mesoamerican sculptures, such as Olmec buried offerings, Maya lintels, and carvings on the undersides of Aztec sculptures, Brittenham shows that the creation of unseen art has important implications both for understanding status in ancient Mesoamerica and for analyzing art in the present. Spanning nearly three thousand years of the Indigenous art of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize, Unseen Art connects the dots between vision, power, and inequality, providing a critical perspective on our own way of looking.

  • List of Tables and Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Seeing and Knowing
  • Chapter 1. Making: Building Community at La Venta
  • Chapter 2. Vision: Seeing Maya Lintels
  • Chapter 3. Power: Carving the Undersides of Aztec Sculpture
  • Conclusion. The Language of Zuyua
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Claudia Brittenham is an associate professor of ancient American art at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book is The Murals of Cacaxtla: The Power of Painting in Ancient Mexico.