Art & Architecture of the Moche People

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever seen a ceramic jug that's also a portrait? Some ancient cultures excelled in very sophisticated forms of art. In this lesson, explore the art and architecture of the Moche people.

Who are the Moche People?

Thousands of years ago, a native culture lived in dry lands below the Andes mountains. They created farmland out of desert, built huge architectural complexes from clay brick and made fabulous works of art. This culture was the Moche People, also known as the Mochica.

From the 1st to the 8th century AD, they lived along the northern coast and dry valleys of what is today Peru. The Moche, who settled into farming communities, were a wealthy and powerful culture that created sophisticated art and architecture. The culture gets its name from its capital, Moche, a city complex at the foot of one of the mountain chains of the Andes.

Now let's look at the some of the architecture and art made by the Moche people.

Architecture of the Moche People

The Moche were accomplished builders. They created urban housing and commercial buildings used for storage and workshops. They are especially known for large religious and ceremonial complexes called huacas. The huacas had pyramid-like structures with multiple levels, access ramps, stairs, connecting plazas and sometimes sections with slanted roofs. And sometimes, the Moche built new huacas on top of old ones, filling in older structures with brick to form flattened platforms on which new buildings were erected.

Two examples of such complexes are the Huaca del Sol and the Huaca de la Luna, both built of adobe brick. The massive, 4-tier Huaca del Sol or Temple of the Sun, was one of the largest pre-Columbian structures in Peru. Unfortunately, sections washed away long ago and other parts are in ruins, so it isn't easy to truly understand what it looked like when the Moche used it.

View of Huaca del Sol
Huaca del Sol

Better preserved is the slightly smaller but stunning Huaca de la Luna or Temple of the Moon. It's a 3-tiered, terraced platform, which means it looks like a series of broad layered steps. On its wall are many colorful paintings and relief sculptures. More on those in a moment.

The Moche also built sophisticated irrigation systems, including canals, reservoirs and aqueducts. These systems enabled their successful farming practices. Although they lived in the desert, they channeled Andean streams and rivers flowing to the Pacific Ocean for the own purposes.

Art of the Moche People

The Moche people also displayed their creativity in art, much of it nature-based. Common subjects included animals like cats and deer, people, and anthropomorphic figures that combined animal and human elements. Other subjects included elaborate rituals as well as hunting and military scenes. In many works, figures tend to be in motion. Whether running, jumping, or fighting, figures in Moche art are rarely stationary.

Murals and Relief Sculptures

On walls of structures like the Huaca de la Luna, the Moche created murals and relief sculptures, in which molded clay figures were slightly raised from the surface. Rows of horizontal lines of soldiers and religious figures mixed with animals and supernatural creatures. Everything was brightly colored, and walking into those structures must have been awe-inspiring.

Moche wall painting from the Huaca de la Luna
Moche wall painting

Ceramics

Moche ceramics included many stirrup-spouted pots on which a long neck served as both spout and handle. Some vessels were produced from molds, into which clay was pressed so that many pieces would have the same shape. Some Moche ceramics are strikingly realistic, so much that some are thought to be portraits of individuals with facial features carefully rendered. Other Moche ceramics feature images painted in red on white or light backgrounds.

Example of a Moche stirrup-spout vessel in the shape of a cat
stirrup spout vessel

Moche molded clay vessel in the shape of an anthropomorphic human head with fangs
Moche fanged creature

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