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Cat culture is nothing new. Today we post memes and cute kitty pictures on social media; 2,000 years ago the Paracas people living in the desert of southern Peru displayed their feline fascination through textiles. But instead of being pictured in contexts that expose humor in daily life, cats were depicted as metaphors for the balance between life and death. A remarkable textile in the Saint Louis Art Museum’s collection, Mantle demonstrates the values of cats, cloth, and the dead held by the Paracas culture. This textile has maintained its vibrant color and structural integrity for two millennia as a result of its use as a mummy wrapping.

Mantle, c.200 BC–AD 100; Paracas, Peru; camelid fiber; 50 x 102 3/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase, Friends Fund, and funds provided by the Maymar Corporation 21:1956

In 1927 indigenous Peruvian archaeologist Julio C. Tello excavated 429 cloth-wrapped bundles from stone-lined structures buried in the sandy Paracas Peninsula at the site of Wari Kayan. As teams of experts carefully unwrapped these bundles in subsequent years, they encountered layers of finely embroidered rectangular textiles enclosing clothing and other adornments, tools, shells, food, ceramics, and finally, a series of plain textiles enveloping a mummy. The large rectangular cloths were originally thought to be worn as capes, hence their name, mantle. This Mantle, like many others in museum collections, is in such excellent condition that it is thought that it was never worn but rather was made exclusively for the dead. The enormous time dedicated to constructing mummy bundles, some of which reached five feet tall and seven feet wide, followed by their transportation to cemeteries in the wind-blown desert, indicates significant reverence for the dead.

Paracas textiles are known for their virtuosity and wide array of colors; Mantle falls into the Linear style, which relies on a limited color palette and straight lines to make repeated designs. A group of artists, possibly sitting side-by-side, embroidered the pattern atop the hand-woven rectangular black cloth and the two separate border pieces, resulting in an enormous work, more than four by eight and a half feet in size [1]. Remarkably, the design pattern of smiling felines with triangular fluffy fur was stitched row by row, instead of by motif, showing incredible levels of memorization [2]. The finely hand-spun alpaca fiber used for the embroidery was dyed with natural pigments. The vibrant pink comes from cochineal, a small insect that breeds on the nopal cactus, while other colors derive from plants and marine shells.

Mantle(detail), c.200 BC–AD 100; Paracas, Peru; camelid fiber; 50 x 102 3/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase, Friends Fund, and funds provided by the Maymar Corporation 21:1956

Mantle’s design is complex, with ever-smaller cats nesting inside larger ones. Ninety-degree rotations and alternations of colors compound the visual puzzle. The extended tails of some of the felines bend and undulate, melding with the body of another feline of different scale and orientation to create a two-bodied being.

Wild pampas cats, slightly larger than modern house cats, prowled the fields of the Paracas, attacking rodents and insects feeding on a wide array of cultivated crops. Paracas ceramics, including this Double Spout and Bridge Vessel with Incised Feline Face, that predate Mantle demonstrate their long-standing appreciation for felines’ ferocity. Through the act of killing, cats protected the livelihood of the Paracas, their image serving as a metaphor for human sacrifice.

Double Spout and Bridge Vessel with Incised Feline Face, c.800–500 BC; Paracas, Peru, Early Horizon; ceramic with pigment; 7 1/16 x 5 7/8 x 5 7/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Morton D. May 183:1979

Mantle was last on view in 2018 for the exhibition Balance and Opposition in Ancient Peruvian Textiles. While this textile remains off view for conservation purposes, Paracas ceramic depictions of cats are currently on display in Gallery 111.

  • [1] Ann H. Peters, “Paracas Necropolis: Communities of Textile Production, Exchange Networks, and Social Boundaries in the Central Andes, 150 BC to AD 250,” in Textiles, Technical Practice, and Power in the Andes, Denise Y. Arnold and Penelope Dransart, eds. (London: Archetype Publications, 2014): 109–139.

    [2] Anne Paul, “The Stitching of Paracas Embroidered Images: Procedural Variations and Differences in Meaning,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 9 (Spring 1985): 91–100.

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