Each fall and spring semester, I accompany my upper division art history students from Westminster College to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts so they have the experience of viewing global art in person, resulting in a research paper. After a tour of the galleries, I steal away to pay homage to one of my favorite works in the museum’s collections, Bat Effigy Head, an early work of Mesoamerican art (300-500 CE). With its vacant eyes, large ears, and enormous fangs positioned in a widely exaggerated mouth, this work created in terracotta is endlessly fascinating. The head is unadorned by color, the clay the color of desert rocks. Its power lies not in possible embellishments, though, but in the violent contrasts it presents and the visceral emotions it always stirs in me.
Bats terrify me; even sculptural renditions send shivers up my spine. While I know this is an irrational response to these remarkable, indispensible mammals, the fear is still there. Their acute sense of hearing, ability to maintain sustained flight, and nocturnal activities contributed to cultural interpretations ranging from the superhuman (Batman) to the bloodsucking (Dracula). Mesoamerican societies associated bats with the underworld: a representation of death, destruction, and decay.
Based upon the head’s size (9.75” in diameter and 17.75” wide), we could be looking at a hybrid creature, part bat and part human. An effigy is often sculpted to represent a human, most often within funerary art. If Bat Effigy Head is indeed a hybrid creature, the intended force of its power would have been truly incredible. Further research into the bat head’s human size lead to the following passage, allowing for this interpretation:
An impressive, life-size ceramic bat-man has been unearthed from the Templo Mayor in the center of the Mexica [Aztec] capital of Tenochtitlan. This god of death has a human body, but his clawed feet and hands are those of a bat. His bulging, humanoid eyes peer menacingly from a bat-like head…huge fangs protrude from his gaping mouth, and his mouse-ears are incongruously large.
So, the work of art I will miss the most during Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ upcoming closure is the one work that terrifies me the most. I wouldn’t have it any other way – the sheer delight found in seeing art from global cultures makes for a unique experience in Utah. I look forward to the museum’s reopening to see new art, new interpretations, and hopefully to seeing Bat Effigy Head again in the future.
 Read, Kay Almere and Jason J. Gonzalez. Handbook of Mesoamerican Mythology. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002): 132-133.
On January 18th, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts will be closing its galleries to upgrade the vapor barrier system in the Marcia and John Price Museum Building on the University of Utah campus. The project is expected to take a year, with the galleries expected to be reopened, with a new installation of the museum’s permanent galleries, in Spring of 2017.
The UMFA will kick off its remodeling and reinstallation project with a celebratory weekend of free admission to the galleries and the Museum’s most popular art experiences. The Long Live Art! Kickoff Party on Saturday, January 16, and Sunday, January 17, is the public’s last opportunity to visit the UMFA before the Museum pauses its exhibition program. In anticipation of the museum’s closing, we’ve asked some local artists, art lovers and art professionals to tell us which piece from the museum’s permanent collection they will miss most over this next year We’ll be posting these in the weeks leading up to the Long Live Art! Kickoff Party (for more information visit http://www.umfa.utah.edu.
has taught art history at Westminster College since 2006, and has also taught at the University of Utah and Weber State University. Her extensive exploration of Spiral Jetty was published by The University of Utah Press and the Tanner Trust Fund in a book titled “The Spiral Jetty Encyclo: Exploring Robert Smithson’s Earthwork Through Time and Place” in 2017; it won the 15 Bytes Art Book Award in 2018.
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