The Mexican Tree of Life

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Mexican Tree of Life is the name given to a hand coiled pottery sculpture depicting the biblical Tree of Life; traditionally the tree sculpture would include Adam and Eve with the tempting Serpent but the themes have evolved and today is common to find trees about various subjects such as Day of the Dead and Folk Art.

The decorative clay pieces known as Arboles de la Vida developed from the ceremonial candelabra and incense burners made by crafters from Izucar de Matamoros a town in Puebla State. The design was probably taken from the bronze and silver pieces brought by the friars to use in the church.

As time went by the clay replicas became colorful and intricately decorated pieces with flowers, leaves and animals on their branches; Adam, Eve and the Serpent on their main trunk and the Archangel Gabriel at their base.

Aurelio Flores Tree of Life

Tree of Life by Aurelio Flores

The first potter to develop the more intricate candelabra and incense burners was Aurelio Flores, who began making them in the 1920's.

Besides their use at church the clay candelabra were also given to newlyweds to ensure them a good harvest referring not only to children but to their livelihood as Izucar is a farming community. This costume has dwindled in the last years.

Incense Burners on the other hand continue to be used in the most important religious celebration in town, on The San Pedro and San Pablo day on June 29th.

Nobody knows for sure who and when named these pieces Arbol de la Vida; the oldest mention of the name related to an Izucar clay sculpture dates from 1952 in a book about Mexican folk art written by Patricia Fent Ross.

By the 1970's not only the clay sculptures from Izucar were known as Arbol de la Vida; similar pieces made in Acatlan, Puebla and Metepec, in Mexico State were already called the same name.

As the demand increased artists in the different towns developed new themes and the sculptures were used to account religious stories, historic moments and Mexican culture. Among those themes are Day of the Dead, Nativity Scenes, Mexican Crafts, and Mata Ortiz Pottery.

Arboles de la Vida from Izucar de Matamoros
Arboles de la Vida from Izucar always come in the shape of candelabra or incense burners; they are painted with multiple colors and are decorated with colored lines. The trees come in different sizes from 10 cms up to 2 meters and are about a variety of themes that include The Conquest, The Creation, Regional Costumes, etc.

Aurelio Flores was for many years the only one in town making arboles de la vida and his style inherited to his son Francisco Flores is considered the most traditional in town.

In the 1960's the Castillo Orta family developed a new style based on the decoration of the clay pieces with fine lines that almost look like filigree and introduced new themes as the Day of the Dead. Alfonso Castillo Orta the youngest sibling gave the multicolored clay from Izucar international fame.

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Tree of Life
Talavera Pottery Tree of Life by Alfonso Castillo Orta

Arboles de la Vida from Acatlan
Arboles de la vida in Acatlan were first made by Heron Martinez Mendoza (1918-1990) who began making sculptures similar to the ones from Izucar but with an animal or mermaid as their base.

As his work evolved he made burnished trees of life that were decorated with leaves and flowers. His themes included Nativity scenes, circus figures, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Adam and Eve, and all kind of animals. Some of the more elaborated pieces were decorated on both sides.

Heron's style greatly influenced Acatlan's pottery and today beautiful burnished Arboles de la Vida are still made in the community. A noteworthy potter from that school is Pedro Martinez Lopez.

Heron Martinez Mendoza tree of life
Tree of Life by Heron Martinez Mendoza

Arboles de la Vida from Metepec
Metepec has a pre-Hispanic pottery tradition making utilitarian pieces but in the 1940's Modesta Fernandez Mata began experimenting with decorative pieces and came up with the sculptures later known as Arboles de la Vida.

Modesta and her husband Dario Soteno Leon had 10 children and all of them are potters. Among the most recognized artists in the Soteno family are Tiburcio Soteno Fernandez, son of Modesta and Dario and Oscar Soteno Elias their grandson.

The Soteno family has given Metepec international fame with their intricate trees of life that can be colored or unpainted. These Arboles de la Vida can be shaped into candelabrum or into altarpieces and come in sizes from 5 cms to 5 meters.

The Soteno make trees upon request so their themes are as varied as the costumers' taste and include Day of the Dead, Nativity Scenes, Virgin of Guadalupe and Mexican History.

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Tree of Life

Mexican Crafts Tree of Life by Oscar Soteno Elias

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