When Adam and Eve first sinned against God in the garden of Eden by eating the forbidden fruit, little did they know that their simple act of disobedience will be among the world’s greatest influences in stories, plays and art. The Tree of Life or Árbol de la Vida is a thematic clay sculpture from Mexico which can trace its historic roots to the biblical fall of Adam and Eve. Origins of such complex piece of art-crafting is said to have began in Izúcar de Matamoros in the state of Puebla or Metepec in the State of Mexico.

Ceramic tradition evolved over the years with the influences of Olmec civilization that brought painting into pottery, and later in 800 A.D by the city of Teotihuacan that infused religious symbols into pottery. During the colonial period, ceramic articles that depicted the natives’ gods were destroyed. Spanish Friars commissioned native sculptors to create candelabras with carved figures of Adam and Eve as means of evangelizing to the natives of the Bible’s creation of the world, and the religion of Catholicism.

The fusion of the two cultures, Spanish and indigenous Mexican, saw a tremendous shift in the look and feel of ceramic art, and it was not until the first half of the 20th century that the Tree of Life began to look more and more complex adorned with colour and intricate ornaments.

Mexico's Tree of Life

Today, Mexico credits three of its localities – Metepec, Izucar de Matamoros and Acatlan – to producing these unique crafts. The Tree of Life now consists of creative varieties that involve both religious and non-religious themes. Themes can include Nativity, Noah’s Ark, Day of the Dead, Greek mythology and contemporary stories, the most common of themes being the relationship between life and death. The trees are made of clay and fired at low temperatures, many between 26cm to 60cm in height. Ambitious giant trees can take months or years to create compared to a few weeks needed to create the smaller versions, a fascinating proof of the meticulous and careful crafting of the artisans who learn the trade passed down through generations in their families.

One prominent artist is Oscar Sotano who created a gigantic life-size Tree of Life adorned with multitudes of bright-coloured flowers and leaves, figurines and pottery that is on display at the Museum de Artes Populares in Mexico City.
And just as Eve gazed upon the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, the tempting yet intricate details of each Tree of Life is a feast for the eyes of a first-time onlooker that can stay glued for a long time. The tree can be as simple in its monotone color or its minimal structure, or flaring bright in an array of fascinating colors striking hundreds of minute details gathered in a massive column. Some of these trees accommodate incense burners as means of religious use. Interestingly enough, most of the Trees of Life are meant to be viewed on its front and deciphered from the bottom to the top. Despite its name, the Tree of Life is sadly fighting for its survival due to competition with cheap imitations from Asia, that the Mexican government has stepped up with efforts to prevent craft’s extinction, including pottery and ceramic art sponsorships and developing trademarks.

So the next time you step inside Mexico, remember to buy a Tree of Life. This will not only add vibrance and character to your room, but also keep the Mexican ceramic tradition alive and going.

This article was published on Vida De Latinos’ online magazine, 1 April 2013.

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