the exhibition was conceived by the Museo Chileno de arte precolombino, Santiago de Chile, and will be presented from 31st October 2007 to 30th March 2008 under the title Morir para gobernar. Sexo y poder en la sociedad Moche.


the majority of the ceramics come from the exceptional collections of the Museo Larco de Lima, Peru.

manifestation organisée dans le cadre des célébrations du bicentenaire des
indépendances d’Amérique latine en 2010



Sex, death, and sacrifice

in Moche religion

  • East mezzanine
  • Collection ticket 8.50 € full price and 6 € discount price

from Tuesday 9th March 9 - Sunday 23rd May 2010

Curator: Steve Bourget, associate professor of the Department of Art and History of Art at the University of Texas, Austin

Scientific advisor: Anne-Christine Taylor, head of the department of research and education at the musée du quai Branly


The exhibition "Sex, death and sacrifice in the Mochica religion" brings together for the first time in Europe 134 Mochica ceramics depicting sexual or sacrificial acts with a surprising level of realism. These ceramics depict the links established by the Mochica populations between religion, power, sexuality and death. 


This amazing religious iconography, in which the sexual act meets the sacred, is unique in Precolumbian art and specific to Mochica mythology.

It represents sacrificial acts, predominantly of a sexual nature between animals and/or anthropomorphous figures.

The Mochica craftsmen moulded these non-reproductive rites into their pottery, using stylized sexual attributes as the leitmotifs of an iconography that served a ritual purpose. The boldness of the graphic motifs reflect the strength of their beliefs.

Steve Bourget offers certain insights to help interpret this sexual imagery which, far from expressing the Moche's daily lives, refers in fact to a political and religious ideology that is characteristic of their society. This ideology attaches great importance to the reproduction of the governing authority in order to ensure the proper evolution of society of the universe as a whole.

This exhibition presents Moche ceramics that depict explicit sexual acts

figura 63 © Museo Larco, Lima photo Daniel Giannoni et Steve Bourget

Deciphering the rituals of a barely-known civilization

This major Precolumbian civilization, contemporary to the Nazca culture of the southern coast, is ranked amongst the greatest indigenous cultures of the Andes along with the Inca empire that it preceded by more than five centuries. It flourished from the 1st century to the 7th century A.D. in an arid zone of northern Peru. Imposing funeral sites (such as "Lord of Sipan", exhumed in 1987), and the huacas (huge pyramid shaped ceremonial sites), have led to a deeper understanding of this civilization thanks to a number of exhumed testimonials of burials and the wall paintings which adorn funeral monuments.

The exhibition gives us the opportunity to discover this Precolumbian civilization through the prism of its unique mythology which, in the absence of writings, is handed over to us through its specific imagery in which the sacred, the sexual act and death are surprisingly brought together.

It is important to understand that the sexual images represented on Mochica ceramics are not illustrations of the day-to-day life of the Moche society. Therefore, their interpretation cannot be based on the ideas and values upheld by our own society: their message must be decoded by reconstructing the particular context of the Moche world. This is precisely what the current exhibition aims to achieve.

By focusing more specifically on ceramic production, a particularly rich facet of Mochica craftsmanship that is well known for its abundance and its realism, the archeologist Steve Bourget unravels the outcome of the research works that he has conducted while studying the whole of Moche iconography in a systematic manner.

However, the interpretations put forward in the exhibition are necessarily speculative in nature, given the incomplete nature of archeological sources pertaining to this civilization.

The exhibition is freely based on the book published by Steve Bourget, in 2006: Sex, Death and Sacrifice in Moche Religion and Visual Culture.

woman caressing a skeleton figure with ape-like attributes © Museo Larco, Lima photo Daniel Giannoni and Steve Bourget

A unique and complex ideology

The vestiges of Mochica culture refer to a complex cosmology organized according to a dualistic principle that continues to characterise the indigenous cultures of the Andes. The underlying notion is that the universe and the phenomena that make it up are split into two parts and the elements of the world, arranged in pairs, are assigned to one or the other part.

The Mochica society, as it is represented in iconography, consists of four major classes of beings:

  • the living beings (humans and domestic animals),
  • the dead
  • animal spirits
  • principal divinities and ancestral spirits

All these beings are caught in reproduction cycles involving one half transferring over to the other during large group rituals in which sacrifices, in particular those of imprisoned warriors, played an important role.

One of the most complex aspects of the Mochica religion are the rites associated with the passing of their Lord - an omnipotent dignitary who ruled alone over his subjects and nature - from the World of the living to the World of the dead. In the absence of written documents, these rites are evoked by the red brick coloured ceramics. The vases are decorated with painted or sculpted sexual and sacrificial scenes; the representation of explicit acts, involving human beings, animals and even skeletons, accompanied the Lord and the Mochica elite in their journey to the World of the dead, thus guaranteeing their return to life and fertility.

“Wrinkle Face” copulating with a woman © Museo Larco, Lima photo Daniel Giannoni and Steve Bourget

An unparalleled know-how, an unpublished reading

The Mochica have long been famous for their technical virtuosity, the abundance and amazing "realism" of their ceramic production, particularly those portraying sexual acts between animals and between anthropomorphous figures. The complexity of this sexual imagery makes it unique in Precolumbian art. It is extremely difficult to decipher, all the more so since it is linked to funeral contexts, most probably pertaining to dignitaries.

Through a systematic study of the religious iconography, the curator Steve Bourget was able to determine that two major forms of sexuality are present on funeral ceramics:

  • one involving non-procreative sexual acts (sodomy, masturbation, fellation…) between a living human being (generally a woman) and possibly a sacrificial victim, a dead being or a skeletal being.
  • the other pertains to procreative copulation either between animals symbolizing important elements of fertility (amphibia, rodents…), or between an important divinity – mainly the divinity known under the name of "Wrinkle Face" – and a human woman.

The first category of images would seem to refer to a reversed sexuality and one that could not lead to the procreation of the inhabitants of the infraworld, while the second, representing the copulation between a divinity and a sacrificial victim, would seem to invoke a fruitful sexuality with a cosmologic dimension - thereby guaranteeing the fertility of the world inhabited by the Mochicas.

There is thus nothing erotic about these astonishing representations and their naturalism is merely superficial, since they generally represent super-natural entities or processes which combine objects that are not usually associated together: the living dead, animals with human attributes, gods who are both destructive and regenerative. They are, in essence, religious images used in ritual where sexuality symbolizes abstract cosmological operations. These operations include: the journey from this world to the infra world; the continuous exchange of nourishing substances such as blood, seminal fluid and water, between the living and the divine or between the living and ancestral spirits and finally, regulated exchanges that guarantee the proper functioning of the universe, the management of which is the responsibility of the sovereign and religious dignitaries.