Mexican Folk Art 101: The Tree of Life

Foreword

Folk art is rooted in the history and culture of every nation. The appreciation of folk art strengthens the identity of a community and enables it to take pride in its history. In many cases, the appeal of folk art is centered on the many ways it can connect people across cultures, in the sublime appreciation of the different ways in which a community has chosen to express themselves. Folk art comes alive in different ways for different individuals and different reasons. This series will explore the many ways in which that 'magic' happens.


This series will be divided as follows:


  1. Mexican Folk Art 101: Ancestry and Modernity

  2. Mexican Folk Art 101: Alebrijes

  3. Mexican Folk Art 101: Tree of Life

  4. Mexican Folk Art 101: Skulls and Skeletons

  5. Mexican Folk Art 101: Huichol Art

  6. Mexican Folk Art 101: Talavera Pottery


The Tree of Life or ‘Árbol de la Vida’ in Spanish refers to a type of sculpture in Mexican culture depicting a tree with details pertaining to the creation of life according to the Catholic tradition. While the Tree of Life is not the only one of its kind, it is the one which has garnered vast amounts of popularity and it is also the most well-known both in Mexico and abroad. Perhaps this popularity is due to the positive iconography and the hopeful message that the Biblical scene of creation inspires on those that look at these Trees. On the top part of the Tree there are often depictions of God the Father, often surrounded by clouds to symbolise heaven, and in some Trees a depiction of the Holy Ghost is present below. The scene from Genesis cannot be complete without Adam and Eve, and the serpent. In some Trees there are also various apples surrounding Adam and Eve but in others only a single apple is present. Surrounding these figures are flowers and plants, some also include animals. The Tree of Life is often painted using a bold palette which often mixes contrasting and complimentary colours.


Traditional Tree of Life. Tikal. 20th Century.

These sculptures are primarily created in the mountainous regions of Mexico and in particular the city of Metepec, near Mexico City. The cultural roots of the Tree of Life, however, come from the ancient Mayans, who believed that a particular tree, from the family of the silk floss tree or yaxché, was the central axis of the universe. According to the Popol Vuh, a text that recounts the mythology and history of the Mayans, the gods planted four silk floss trees to mark the four cardinal points. These trees were also believed the branches were connected to the heavens, the trunk was connected to the earth (where mankind lived), and the roots were connected to the underworld (Vargas, 2020).


The Tree of Life is not the only of its kind. In fact, it can be placed in a category along with the Tree of Death and the Tree of Spring, all of which are inextricably linked. The opposite of the Tree of Life is the Tree of Death, which often includes skeletons, skulls, and other motifs that represent death, such as bones. The Tree of Death does not always have obvious religious symbolism added to it, which can be surprising given the prevalent religious motifs in its counterpart. There is a small nod to the religious belief that the dead are in need of light which is present in the Tree of Death in the form of candle holders (UNAM, 2019). Though these are not necessarily prominent and the candles are not needed in order to appreciate the beauty of the Tree of Death, as well as the quality it has as a memento mori, or the inevitability of death. The Tree of Death is also reminiscent of the Day of the Dead, a celebration in which Mexicans symbolically invite the dead to return to the world of the living for a short period of time to spend time together and celebrate.


Tree of Death. Casa Mexico Boutique. 20th Century.

The Tree of Spring can be seen as the tree in between the Tree of Life and the Tree of Death. In a way, this Tree completes the circle of life, which begins, flourishes, ends, and begins again. The Tree of Spring is linked to the seasonal changes the world experiences throughout the year and most of these trees do not have prominent religious iconography in them. The Tree of Spring also features monarch butterflies, which signify transformation and are closely associated with Spring in Mexican culture (UNAM, 2019). Ideally, the three types of Trees would be on display together to exemplify the complex relationship between life, death, and rebirth.


Tree of Spring. Caracol Purpura. 20th Century.

The first Tree of Life is believed to have been made by Timoteo González in 1945 as a small commission for a foreigner. From that moment onwards the creation of the Trees evolved as well as their size, materials, technique, and religious iconography. Today, more than fifty years later, it is even possible to find Trees without Biblical iconography (Vargas, 2020). While the first Tree was made in 1945, it is important to note that the Biblical figures present in it were prominent during the years following the Conquest, and were especially used to teach the indigenous people of Mexico about the Catholic religion (Morales, 2021). The ceramic techniques used to create the Trees date from 1800 B.C. while the pigments used have their roots in the Olmec pigment techniques from the eighth century. In time, the Tree of Life became a mixture between religious iconography and Mayan mythology (Osegueda, n.d.).


The creation of one Tree can take anywhere between two weeks to three years and the time required depends mostly on the size and the amount of details. The knowledge of how to create these Trees is passed down from generation to generation, which makes the protection of the artisans’ work paramount to the continued existence of the Trees. Actually, the Tree of Life has exponentially grown in popularity since 2009, the year in which the Mexican government registered the Tree of Life as a trademark of Metepec and Calimaya to protect artisans from copyright violations both nationally and internationally. In an effort to promote this form of folk art, every year in the city of Metepec there is a contest named the Concurso Nacional de Alfarería y Cerámica Árbol de la Vida (National Contest of Pottery and Ceramic of the Tree of Life) which accepts entries from artisans from across the country (Morales, 2021).


Non-traditional Tree of Life. Tikal. 20th Century.

The importance of the Tree of Life does not reside only in the message of hope that can be found in between its branches. In between the subtle details and vibrant colours it is possible to appreciate the sublime beauty of the meeting place between cultures. It is not everyday that two cultures, two religions, can touch without clashing but the Tree of Life acts as a vessel to impart the message that from two seemingly polar opposites, life and beauty can be born.


Bibliographical References


Morales, L. E. (2021). Árbol de la vida, la artesanía icónica del Pueblo Mágico de Metepec. El Universal. https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/destinos/arbol-de-la-vida-la-artesania-iconica-del-pueblo-magico-de-metepec


Olguín Lacunza, M. and Núñez, M. (2019, October 30). El árbol de la vida dentro la cultura mexicana. UNAM. https://unamglobal.unam.mx/el-arbol-de-la-vida-dentro-la-cultura-mexicana/


Osegueda, R. n.d. El árbol de la vida, una artesanía que todo mexicano debería tener. Mexico Desconocido. https://www.mexicodesconocido.com.mx/el-arbol-de-la-vida-una-artesania-que-todo-mexicano-deberia-tener.html


Vargas, S. (2020). El árbol de la vida: una colorida artesanía mexicana que fusiona dos culturas. My Modern Met. https://mymodernmet.com/es/arbol-de-la-vida-artesania/


Visual Sources


Unknown. (20th Century). Traditional Tree of Life. [Sculpture]. Tikal. Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Retrieved from: https://www.tikal.com.mx/arboles-de-la-vida/arbol-de-la-vida-rosa-tradicional


Unknown. (20th Century). Tree of Death. [Sculpture]. Casa Mexico Boutique. CDMC, Mexico. Retrieved from: https://casamexicoboutique.com/producto/arbol-de-la-vida-policromado-con-catrina/


Unknown. (20th Century). Tree of Spring. [Sculpture]. Caracol Purpura. Oaxaca, Mexico. Retrieved from: https://caracolpurpura.com.mx/collections/all/products/arbol-de-la-vida-pigmentado-mini-mariposas


Unknown. (20th Century). Non-traditional Tree of Life. [Sculpture]. Tikal. Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Retrieved from: https://www.tikal.com.mx/arboles-de-la-vida/arbol-de-la-vida-bailes-regionales

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Analicia Garcia Priego

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