Around the World at the Time of Columbus

Let art take you on a journey around a world about to change forever.

Idea One: Gold, Language of the Gods

This small gold figure of a man holding a rattle comes from the part of Central America now known as Costa Rica. Costa Rica, which means rich coast in Spanish, was named for the quantities of gold the early Spanish explorers imagined they would find there.

The people of the region lived in small villages rather than in splendid cities like those built by the Aztecs of Mexico or the Incas of Peru. Clusters of villages were governed by local chiefs, who protected their chiefdoms through ritual ceremonies to control supernatural forces. Gold, pure and gleaming, was thought to be a channel for spiritual energy.

But gold in itself held little value until it was crafted into meaningful shapes. Common subjects appear to have been figures with drums, rattles, or snakes; figures with human bodies and animal heads; and animals such as birds, frogs, monkeys, and alligators. Gold objects worn by a chief symbolized his power with the gods. Other high-ranking people wore gold as a sign of their status in society.

The Spaniards seized much of the gold of the great Aztec and Incan empires and melted it down for Spain’s royal treasury. In Central America, however, gold objects were often buried with chiefs or hidden for the gods, and so escaped the invaders. But the people of Central America, like their neighbors to the north and south, suffered from diseases brought to the continent by Europeans. As populations dwindled and lifestyles changed, the exact meanings of the human and animal forms shaped from gold were lost.

Spanish conquistadors did not view the gold items they encountered in the Americas as sacred images. They sent thousands of tons of gold and silver to the Spanish treasury to be melted down for other purposes.


The people who created this figure lived in the region of Central America now known as Costa Rica.


Diquís people, Costa Rica, Frog, 800-1500, gold
Much Central American goldwork was buried in the tombs of chiefs, and the Spanish did not find it.


Veraguas people, Panama, Pendant of a monkey holding its tail, 800-1500, gold


Idea Two: Falcons on the Floodplain

Between 1000 and 1600, a network of communities thrived in the floodplains of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. Although the Mississippian peoples never united into a single culture, they had much in common. In their towns, for example, they constructed massive earthen mounds topped by temples. Human bones have been found in some of these mounds along with numerous ornaments, like this disk known as an “ear spool.” Such elaborate burials, however, were only for chiefs and other powerful people.

This ear spool came from a burial mound in Spiro, Oklahoma. It is about three inches across and features a falcon with outstretched wings. Archeologists debate whether it fit through a hole in the earlobe or was attached to a headdress. It is carved from limestone and once was covered with a thin layer of copper. A small piece of shell forms the falcon’s eye.

Limestone, copper, and shell may not seem exotic compared to the glittering gold common in Central and South America. (And that is one reason Europeans didn’t colonize the region until the 1700s.) But many of the materials prized by the Mississippians were not available to them locally. Much of the wealth of Spiro’s tombs were objects made of seashell, copper, feathers, bone, and fur, was brought along trade routes from the Midwest, the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee, and the Gulf coast of Florida and Mississippi.

Ideas and symbols traveled along these routes as well. Throughout the region, birds such as this falcon had special meaning. Mississippians linked them with the upper world of the sun and the life-giving forces of nature. (Serpents represented the dangerous forces of the lower world.) Chiefs and others of high rank claimed such images to reinforce their power and status, among their own people and also in the eyes of rival chiefs in neighboring communities.

Spiro, Oklahoma
Ear spool with falcon, about 1200-1350
Limestone, copper, shell


Mississippian peoples occupied territory from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes.

Spiro, Oklahoma,
Pair of gorgets,
about 1200-1350, shell

Gorgets (decorations for the neck) made of conch shells from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts have been found in every part of Mississippian territory.

Mississippian, Effigy bowl, 12th-15th century, ceramic

Mississippian tombs also contained many ceramic pots, often with similar designs.

Idea Three: Kings and Cats

Portuguese sailors in search of a route to India arrived in the African kingdom of Benin (now southern Nigeria) in 1485. They found there a city as large and bustling as those they knew back home. The great warrior-king Ewuare (eh-woo-AYE-ray), who ruled from 1440 to 1473, had expanded the kingdom’s boundaries and rebuilt the capital, Benin City. To solidify the authority and power of the king, or oba, Ewuare started some new traditions that would last for centuries.

One such tradition, linking the oba with leopards, began with a story from the days before Ewuare became king. One day, Ewuare took a nap under a tree and awoke to find blood dripping on him. Looking up into the branches, he saw a leopard with a dead antelope in its mouth. Ewuare leapt to his feet and killed the animal. He saw this close call as an omen of his good fortune and future kingship. The leopard might be the mightiest of wild beasts, but the oba was even mightier. From then on, the leopard symbolized the oba’s special powers.

Ewuare and the obas who came after him kept caged leopards, wore leopard skins, and were called leopard by their subjects. Court artists produced all kinds of leopard images for royal costumes and ceremonies. Like most royal art, leopard images were generally crafted out of durable materials, in this case bronze, to suggest the permanence of the oba’s power.

This leopard, made in the 17th century, is actually a pitcher for pouring water (it has a hole at the top of its head and holes in its nostrils). The oba would have used it in ceremonies honoring an ancestral oba. When not in use, the leopard stood inside a shrine to the ancestor, in the oba’s palace.

Benin (Nigeria)
Leopard, 17th century


The Portuguese encountered the kingdom of Benin as they sailed along the coast of West Africa in the 1480s.

Ife, Shrine head,
12th-14th century,

The obas of Benin trace their roots to the neighboring ancient city of Ife, where this terra-cotta head of a royal woman was made.

Benin, Leopard pendant,
17th-18th century,
ivory, copper


Idea Four: Emperor of the Ocean

Nearly a century before Christopher Columbus set sail for the Americas, China was the world’s greatest sea power. Between 1405 and 1433, seven expeditions led by Admiral Zheng He (jung huh), each with hundreds of ships, sailed to ports in Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, and East Africa. These expeditions were meant to impress the nations they visited with the might and magnificence of the Chinese Ming dynasty.

Zheng He traveled with enormous treasure ships up to 500 feet long. (European oceangoing ships of the time were only about 100 feet long.) The ships were loaded with silk and porcelain and other Chinese luxury goods. In exchange for these gifts, the Chinese collected tribute (payment) in the form of money, horses, minerals, timber, drugs and spices, and even a giraffe.

The secret of making porcelain, a lightweight yet strong ceramic, was closely guarded by the Chinese government. Porcelain had been carried overland from China to Middle Eastern markets beginning in the 14th century. To suit the tastes of Arab traders, Chinese potters soon began adding designs in blue and white. Before long, the Chinese, too, developed a taste for blue-and-white designs. Pieces of blue-and-white porcelain, like this plate, were among the most highly prized Chinese treasures in the lands visited by Zheng He.

By the end of the 15th century, however, China had turned away from the outside world. The Chinese believed they themselves could produce everything they needed, and they lost interest in foreign trade. European traders eventually made their way by sea to Chinese ports in the 16th century, and they immediately placed orders for blue-and-white porcelain. This was the start of a trading relationship that lasted until European potters figured out how to make porcelain themselves, in the 18th century.

Dish, 1403-24
Porcelain with blue decor under clear glaze


The seven voyages of Admiral Zheng He took China’s vast fleets as far as the east coast of Africa

Syria, Hexagonal wall tile, 16th century, earthenware with underglaze blue and turquoise

Blue-and-white designs in Middle Eastern traditions, as seen in this wall tile from Syria, first inspired Chinese blue-and-white porcelain designs.

China, Manchu emperor’s court robe, 1723-35, silk tapestry

Chinese philosophy taught that China was the center of the universe. Thus many rulers did not consider foreign trade of great importance, and by the end of the 15th century China’s early navy had been disbanded.

Idea Five: Prosperity and Painters

During most of the 15th century, the city of Bruges (now in Belgium) was a rich international port. Trade centered on the woolen cloth produced in the region. Merchants from northern and southern Europe met in Bruges, exchanging luxury goods and supporting a sophisticated banking industry.

Great wealth created a demand for paintings, and Bruges attracted a highly talented group of artists. Rich merchants built large houses for themselves and sponsored private family chapels in churches, all of which needed decoration. This painting, by an artist known today only as the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy, was probably made for the altar of a private chapel.

The image of the Virgin Mary lamenting the death of her son is common in Christian art. But this picture places the scene clearly in 15th-century Bruges. The towers and rooftops of the city rise in the distance. Gold brocaded fabrics recall the famous cloth produced nearby. And the figure in rich robes cradling the head of Christ is almost certainly the wealthy man who paid for the picture.

Even as this picture was painted, however, the glory days of Bruges were waning. The river (visible in the background), Bruges’s vital link to the sea, silted up in the late 15th century and ship traffic ceased. A local rebellion caused foreign merchants to move to Antwerp. By the end of the 16th century, Bruges had become a modest and quiet city.

Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy (Netherlandish, active 1480-1500)
Lamentation with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 1493-1501
Oil on panel


Some of the buildings pictured here still stand in Bruges today.

A river connecting Bruges to the sea allowed the city to become a center of trade in Europe.


Bruges was famous across Europe for luxurious fabrics like the gold brocade robe worn by the man holding Christ’s head.

Related Activities

Compare and Contrast

Choose two of the featured objects. What do they have in common? How do they differ? Consider the materials they are made of, the subjects depicted, how realistic they appear, and how they were used. Replace one of the objects with a third and repeat the comparison with this new pair. How might the differences you notice reflect differences among the people who made the objects and where they lived?

Travel Log

Ed Ruscha paid special attention to the buildings and signs he encountered when he traveled Route 66. If you go on a road trip, keep a travel log of the things you see along the way. Then create an artwork inspired by what you saw. You could also take notes and make art about what you see if you ride a bus or train.

Combining Scenes

Create your own Timeline of Art History. Search Mia’s website for global images of art from the 15th century. Print your favorites and affix them to a world map. Research what was going on in each location at the time and add a summary to the map.

View FSA Photographs

Levenson, Jay. Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991.”