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.
Despite the absence of the potter's wheel, the Aztecs were also skilled with ceramics as indicated by large hollow figures and several beautifully carved lidded-urns which were excavated by the side of the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan, probably used as receptacles for funeral ashes. Other examples of ceramic works are the moulded censers with tripod legs from Texcoco, spouted jugs, and elegant hourglass-shaped cups. These vessels are typically thin-walled, well proportioned, have a cream or red and black slip, and carry finely painted geometric designs in earlier designs and flora and fauna in later examples. The most highly-prized ceramics by the Aztecs themselves, and the type which Motecuhzoma himself used, were the ultra-thin Cholula ware from Cholollan in the Valley of Puebla. Vessels could also be made from moulds or carved while the clay was still leather-hard. A fine example of these anthropomorphic vessels is the celebrated vase representing the head of the rain god Tlaloc painted a bright blue, with goggle eyes and fearsome red fangs, now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
A 15th century CE vase representing the Mesoamerican god of rain, storms and agriculture Tlaloc (Alex Torres / Flickr)
Musical instruments were another important part of the Aztec artist's repertoire. These included ceramic flutes and wooden teponaztlis and huehuetls, respectively, long and upright ceremonial drums. They are richly decorated with carvings, and one of the finest is the Malinalco drum which is covered in dancing jaguars and eagles who represent sacrificial victims as indicated by banners and speech scrolls of warfare and fire symbols.
Art as Propaganda
The Aztecs, as with their cultural predecessors, employed art as a tool to reinforce their military and cultural dominance. Imposing buildings, frescoes, sculpture and even manuscripts, especially at such key sites as Tenochtitlan, not only represented and even replicated the key elements of Aztec religion, but they also reminded subject peoples of the wealth and power which permitted their construction and manufacture.
The supreme example of this use of art as a conveyor of political and religious messages is the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan which was much more than a hugely impressive pyramid. It was carefully designed in every detail to represent the sacred snake mountain of the earth Coatepec, so important in Aztec religion and mythology. This mountain was the site where Coatlicue (the earth) gave birth to her son Huitzilopochtli (the sun), who defeated the other gods (the stars) led by his sister Coyolxauhqui (the moon). A temple to Huitzilopochtli was built on top of the pyramid along with another in honour of the rain god Tlaloc. Further associations with the myth are the snake sculptures lining the base and the Great Coyolxauhqui Stone carved in c. 1473 CE, also found at the base of the pyramid and which represents in relief the dismembered body of the fallen goddess. The stone, along with other such sculptures as the Tizoc Stone, related this cosmic imagery to the contemporary defeat of local enemies. In the case of the Coyolxauhqui Stone, the defeat of the Tlatelolca is being referenced. Finally, the Templo Mayor was itself a repository of art as, when its interior was explored, a vast hord of sculpture and art objects were discovered entombed with the remains of the dead and these pieces are, in many cases, works that the Aztecs had themselves collected from more ancient cultures than their own.
Temples extolling the Aztec view of the world were also constructed in conquered territories. The Aztecs usually left existing political and administrative structures in place, but they did impose their own gods in a hierarchy above local deities, and this was largely done through architecture and art, backed up with sacrificial ceremonies at these new sacred places, typically constructed on previous sacred sites and often in spectacular settings such as on mountain peaks.
Aztec imagery which spread across the empire includes many lesser known deities than Huitzilopochtli and there are a surprising number of examples of nature and agricultural gods. Perhaps the most famous are the reliefs of the water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue on the Malinche Hill near ancient Tula. These and other works of Aztec art were most often made by local artists and may have been commissioned by authorities representing the state or by private colonists from the Aztec heartland. Architectural art, rock carvings of gods, animals and shields, and other art objects have been found across the empire from Puebla to Veracruz and especially around cities, hills, springs, and caves. Further, these works are usually unique, suggesting the absence of any organised workshops.
The Stone of Tizoc (Dennis Jarvis / Flickr)
The large circular Stone of Tizoc (carved in c. 1485 CE from basalt) is a masterful mix of cosmic mythology and real-world politics. It was originally used as a surface on which to perform human sacrifice and as these victims were usually defeated warriors it is entirely appropriate that the reliefs around the edge of the stone depict the Aztec ruler Tizoc attacking warriors from the Matlatzinca, an area conquered by Tizoc in the late 15th century CE. The defeated are also portrayed as Chichimecs i.e. landless barbarians, whilst the victors wear the noble dress of the revered ancient Toltec. The upper surface of the stone, 2.67 m in diameter, depicts an eight-pointed sun-disk. The Stone of Tizoc now resides in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
Statue of Coatlicue displayed in National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City (CC by SA 3.0 / Luidger)
The massive basalt statue of Coatlicue (carved in the final half century of Aztec rule) is widely considered one of the finest examples of Aztec sculpture. The goddess is presented in terrifying form with two snake heads, clawed feet and hands, a necklace of dismembered hands and human hearts with a skull pendant, and wearing a skirt of writhing snakes. Perhaps one of a group of four and representing the revelation of female power and terror, the 3.5 m high statue leans slightly forward so that the overall dramatic effect of the piece is so emotive that it is understandable why the statue was actually re-buried several times following its original excavation in 1790 CE. The statue of Coatlicue now resides in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
Aztec Sun Stone (Dennis Jarvis / Flickr)
The Sun Stone, also known as the Calendar Stone (despite the fact that it is not a functioning calendar), must be the most recognisable art object produced by any of the great civilizations of Mesoamerica. Discovered in the 18th century CE near the cathedral of Mexico City, the stone was carved c. 1427 CE and shows a solar disk which presents the five consecutive worlds of the sun from Aztec mythology. The basalt stone is 3.78 m in diameter, almost a metre thick and was once part of the Templo Mayor complex of Tenochtitlan. At the centre of the stone is a representation of either the sun god Tonatiuh (the Day Sun) or Yohualtonatiuh (the Night Sun) or the primordial earth monster Tlaltecuhtli, in the latter case representing the final destruction of the world when the 5th sun fell to earth. Around the central face at four points are the other four suns which successively replaced each other after the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca struggled for control of the cosmos until the era of the 5th sun was reached. On either side of the central face are two jaguar heads or paws, each clutching a heart, representing the terrestrial realm. The two heads at the bottom centre represent fire serpents, and their bodies run around the perimeter of the stone with each ending in a tail. The four cardinal and the inter-cardinal directions are also indicated with larger and lesser points respectively.
As one final example of the wealth of Aztec art which has survived the best destructive efforts of their conquerors, there is the life-sized eagle warrior from Tenochtitlan. The figure, seemingly about to take flight, is in terracotta and was made in four separate pieces. This Eagle Knight wears a helmet representing the bird of prey, has wings and even clawed feet. Remains of stucco suggest that the figure was once covered in real feathers for an even more life-like effect. Originally, it would have stood with a partner, either side of a doorway.
Following the fall of the Aztec Empire the production of indigenous art went into decline. However, some Aztec designs lived on in the work of local artists employed by Augustinian friars to decorate their new churches during the 16th century CE. Manuscripts and feather paintings also continued to be produced, but it was not until the late 18th century CE that an interest in Pre-columbian art and history would lead to a more systematic investigation of just what lay under the foundations of modern Mexican cities. Slowly, an ever-growing number of Aztec artefacts have revealed, in case there had ever been any doubt, proof-positive evidence that the Aztecs were amongst the most ambitious, creative, and eclectic artists that Mesoamerica had ever produced.