Inca civilization Art

January 19, 2021 – 05:52 pm
Kallanka, Machu Picchu

Inca Bird-handled DishThe art of the Inca civilization of Peru (c. 1425-1532 CE) produced some of the finest works ever crafted in the ancient Americas. Inca art is best seen in highly polished metalwork, ceramics, and, above all, textiles, with the last being considered the most prestigious by the Incas themselves. Designs often use geometrical shapes, are standardized, and technically accomplished. The European invaders destroyed much of Inca art either for sheer monetary gain or religious reasons but enough examples survive as testimony to the magnificent range and skills of Inca artists.

Influences & Designs

Although influenced by the art and techniques of the earlier Chimu civilization, the Incas did create their own distinctive style which was an instantly recognisable symbol of imperial dominance across their massive empire. The Incas would go on to produce textiles, ceramics, and metal sculpture technically superior to any previous Andean culture, and this despite stiff competition from such masters of metalwork as the craftsmen of the Moche civilization.

Inca Silver AlpacaJust as the Incas imposed a political dominance over their conquered subjects, so too with art, they imposed standard Inca forms and designs. The art itself did not suffer as a consequence, though. As art historian Rebecca Stone puts it,

Standardisation, though powerfully unifying, did not necessarily lower the quality of art; technically Inca tapestry, large-scale ceramic vessels, mortar-less masonry, and miniature metal sculptures are unsurpassed. (Art of the Andes, 194)

The checkerboard stands out as a very popular design. One of the reasons for the repetition of designs was that pottery and textiles were often produced for the state as a tax, and so artworks were representative of specific communities and their cultural heritage. Just as today coins and stamps reflect a nation's history, so too, Andean artwork offered recognisable motifs which either represented the specific communities making them or the imposed designs of the ruling Inca class ordering them. The Incas did, though, allow local traditions to maintain their preferred colours and proportions. In addition, gifted artists such as those from Chan Chan or the Titicaca area and women particularly skilled at weaving were brought to Cuzco so that they could produce beautiful things for the Inca rulers.

Inca Gold Female FigurineAndean artwork offered recognisable motifs which represented the specific communities making them & the imposed designs of the ruling Inca class ordering them.

It is also notable that both Inca pottery decoration and textiles did not include representations of themselves, their rituals, their military conquests, or such common Andean images as monsters and half-human, half-animal figures. Rather, the Incas almost always preferred colourful geometrical designs and abstract motifs representing animals and birds.


Inca pottery used natural clay but added such materials as mica, sand, pulverised rock, and shell which prevented cracking during the firing process. There was no potter’s wheel in the ancient Americas and so vessels were made by hand, first creating a base and then laying a coil of clay around it until the vessel reached the size required. Then the sides were smoothed using a flat stone. Smaller and medium-sized vessels were made using clay moulds. Before firing, a clay ‘slip’ was added and the vessel was painted, incised (sometimes using stamps), or had reliefs added. In kilns, pits, or open fires, the vessel was then fired using the oxidising method (adding oxygen to the flames) to create red, yellow and cream coloured pottery, or, via the reduction method (limiting the oxygen supply) to produce black wares.

Inca Textile BagCeramics were for wider use, and so forms were, above all, practical. The most common shape was the urpu, a bulbous vessel used for storing maize with a long neck, flared lip, two small handles low on the pot, and a pointed base. The point at the base pressed into the ground and stabilised the pot while maize was poured into it. There were standardized sizes of urpu based on their content volume. They were decorated with abstract plant motifs and geometrical designs, most commonly zig-zags and dots. Examples from Cuzco are more elegant than those from other regions and are painted a distinctive black on red.

Other types of ceramics are large flat serving dishes with animal figure handles, bowls, tall qeros beakers (made in pairs and also in wood), and the paccha. The latter was a hollow tube in the shape of a foot plough, typically decorated with three-dimensional additions such as a corn cob and urpu. The paccha (meaning ‘waterfall’) was placed into the ground so that maize beer could be ritually poured into it in ceremonies to promote a good harvest.


Objects using precious metals such as discs, jewellery, figurines, ceremonial knives (tumi), lime dippers, and everyday objects were made exclusively for Inca nobles. Gold was considered the sweat of the sun, and silver was considered the tears of the moon. Copper was another popular material, and these metals would have been inlaid with precious stones such as emeralds, polished semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli, polished bone, and spondylus shell. Alternatively, gold and silver were inlaid into bronze. Metals were alloyed, cast, beaten, incised, embossed, beaded, and used as gilding. Inca jewellery pieces made from precious metals included earrings, earspools, pendants, bracelets, and dress pins.

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