Art of an Empire: The Imagination, Creativity and Craftsmanship of the Aztecs
The Aztec Empire, centred at the capital of Tenochtitlan, dominated most of Mesoamerica in the 15th and 16th centuries CE. With military conquest and trade expansion the art of the Aztecs also spread, helping the Aztecs achieve a cultural and political hegemony over their subjects and creating for posterity a tangible record of the artistic imagination and great talent of the artists from this last great Mesoamerican civilization.
Common threads run through the history of Mesoamerican art. The Olmec, Maya, Toltec, and Zapotec civilizations, amongst others, perpetuated an artistic tradition which displayed a love of monumental stone sculpture, imposing architecture, highly decorated pottery, geometric stamps for fabric and body art, and breathtaking metalwork which were all used to represent people, animals, plants, gods and features of religious ceremony, especially those rites and deities connected to fertility and agriculture.
Aztec artists were also influenced by their contemporaries from neighbouring states, especially artists from Oaxaca (a number of whom permanently resided at Tenochtitlan) and the Huastec region of the Gulf Coast where there was a strong tradition of three-dimensional sculpture. These diverse influences and the Aztecs' own eclectic tastes and admiration of ancient art made their art one of the most varied of all ancient cultures anywhere. Sculptures of gruesome gods with abstract imagery could come from the same workshop as naturalistic works which depicted the beauty and grace of the animal and human form.
Features of Aztec Art
Metalwork was a particular skill of the Aztecs. The great Renaissance artist Albrecht Drurer saw some of the artefacts brought back to Europe which caused him to say, '...I have never seen in all my days that which so rejoiced my heart, as these things. For I saw among them amazing artistic objects, and I marvelled over the subtle ingenuity of the men in these distant lands'. Unfortunately, as with most other artefacts, these objects were melted down for currency, and so very few examples survive of the Aztecs' fine metalworking skills in gold and silver. Smaller items have been discovered, amongst them gold labrets (lip piercings), pendants, rings, earrings and necklaces in gold representing everything from eagles to tortoise shells to gods, which are testimony to the skills in lost-wax casting and filigree work of the finest artisans or tolteca.
Aztec sculpture has been a better survivor, and its subject was very often individuals from the extensive family of gods they worshipped. Carved in stone and wood these figures, sometimes monumental in size, were not idols containing the spirit of the god, as in Aztec religion the spirit of a particular deity was thought to reside in sacred bundles kept within shrines and temples. However, it was thought necessary to 'feed' these sculptures with blood and precious objects, hence tales from the Spanish conquistadors of huge statues splattered with blood and encrusted with jewels and gold. Other large sculptures, more in the round, include the magnificent seated god Xochipilli and the various chacmools, reclining figures with a hollow carved in the chest which was used as a receptacle for the hearts of sacrificial victims. These, as with most other Aztec sculpture, would have once been painted using a wide range of bright colours.
Smaller scale sculpture has been found at sites across Central Mexico. These often take the form of local deities and especially gods related to agriculture. The most common are upright female figures of a maize deity, typically with an impressive headdress, and the maize god Xipe Totec. Lacking the finesse of imperial-sponsored art, these sculptures and similar pottery figures often represent the more benevolent side of the Aztec gods.
Aztec Ceremonial Knife ( Trustees of the British Museum )
Miniature work was also popular where subjects such as plants, insects, and shells were rendered in precious materials such as carnelite, pearl, amethyst, rock crystal, obsidian, shell, and the most highly valued of all materials, jade. One other material which was highly prized was exotic feathers, especially the green plumage of the quetzal bird. Feathers cut up into small pieces were used to create mosaic paintings, as decoration for shields, costumes and fans, and in magnificent headdresses such as the one ascribed to Motecuhzoma II which is now in the Museum für Völkerkunde in Vienna.
Turquoise was a particularly favoured material with Aztec artists, and the use of it in mosaic form to cover sculpture and masks has created some of the most striking imagery from Mesoamerica. A typical example is the decorated human skull which represents the god Tezcatlipoca and which now resides in the British Museum, London. Another fine example is the mask of Xiuhtecuhtli, the god of fire, with sleepy-looking mother-of-pearl eyes and a perfect set of white conch shell teeth. Finally, there is the magnificent double-headed snake pectoral, also now in the British Museum. With carved cedar wood completely covered in small squares of turquoise and the red mouths and white teeth rendered in spondylus and conch shell respectively, the piece was probably once part of a ceremonial costume. The snake was a potent image in Aztec art as the creature, able to shed its skin, represented regeneration and was also particularly associated with the god Quetzalcoatl.