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Special Report

Aztecs at Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany

Pektoral mit einem Bild von Xiuhtecuhtli, mixtekisch,um 1500
Gold, 10,5 x 7,5 cm
Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico-City, CONACULTA–INAH
Foto: Michel Zabé

Adlermann, aztekisch, um 1440 – 1469
gebrannter Ton, Stuck, bemalt, 170 x 118 x 55 cm
Museo del Templo Mayor, CONACULTA – INAH
Foto: Michel Zabé

Maske, Teotihuacan, um 450
Stein, Türkis, Obsidian, Muschelkalk, 21,5 x 20 cm
Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico-City, CONACULTA–INAH
Foto: Michel Zabé

Votivgefäss mit einem Bildnis der Maisgöttin Xilonen
gebrannter Ton, bemalt, 99 x 65 x 49 cm
Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico-City, CONACULTA–INAH
Foto: Michel Zabé


BONN, GERMANY.- Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany presents “Aztecs,” on view through January 11, 2004. Templo Mayor- The Aztec’s built conception of the world. A CAD-Reconstruction. The computer reconstruction and simulation, which includes the plateau of Mexico City, the old Tenochtitlan with its ceremonial area and the Templo Mayor, is based on the current state of the rapidly developing research of the Aztec’s main edifice. This research was developed in cooperation between scientists from the Museo del Templo Mayor and the TU Darmstadt’s special CAD Architecture department. It was created upon a request from the Art and Exhibition Hall (Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle) of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn and will be given to the Museo del Templo Mayor after the exhibition has ended. There it will be available for visitors and also for scientists, who can continue developing the model according to constant new insights.

The advanced state of development of the Templo Mayor with all its meaning for the Aztec’s is visualised in a 20 minute simulation. Atmospheric as well as geometrical, this simulation illustrates the astronomical components of the Templo Mayor. Based on today’s research the 10 built over layers of the Templo Mayor can be shown for the first time in their individual building steps and also the possible reasons for this procedure. For the first time, with the help of computers, the most likely design of the ceremonial area of the city of Tenochtitlan can now be reconstructed from the results of the current research from excavations in the centre of Mexico City. A view that corrects previous ideas. The religious aspect of this complex edifice forms the end of the simulation. Displayed are the rituals of sacrifice in the reconstructed places of worship of the so called building stage II and the fire celebration in the ceremonial district.

The exhibits include monumental sculptures - some made of clay - portraying people, animals and gods; included are also turquoise mosaics, gold jewellery, painted ceramics and illustrated manuscripts. AZTECS is a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the grandeur and sophistication of this great civilisation. The exhibition has been enhanced by a spectacular computer animation of the Great Temple of the Aztecs in Mexico City, especially developed for the Bonn exhibition by the Technical University Darmstadt - CAD Division of the Department of Architecture.

From Nomads to Settlers - According to ancient records, the Aztecs came from a mythical island called Aztlan, ‘the place of the white heron’. Their greatest god Huitzilopochtli, “Hummingbird of the South”, lead them in their migration to their traditional home in 1325, to Tenochtitlan (present day Mexico City). This sitefulfilled the prophecy that the Aztecs would settle on an island where they would find an “eagle poised on a cactus”. This image is to be found in many of the illustrated books of that time, and today has become immortalized as an emblem on the Mexican national flag.

Aztec Gods - The Aztecs had many gods, often represented by their animal attributes. The underworld was ruled by Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of Death. The world above was ruled by Ometeotl, who was both male and female. Religion permeated private and public life, creating a cosmic order that even the gods had to obey. This order not only shaped Aztec life but also that of their neighbors. The divine order was sustained by making sacrifices, even human ones. As a sign of gratitude and nourishment, human blood and hearts were offered to the gods. The importance of this major ceremony, guaranteeing the continuation of the Aztec world, is mirrored in many of the objects on exhibit.

Society - At the top of the Aztec hierarchically structured society stood its kings and priests. Precious status symbols document the wealth and magnificence of court life and the status of the “eagle warriors”. Artisans and merchants also enjoyed privileges, the latter of which brought luxury articles – valuable feathers, textiles, jewels - to the capital from all of the areas within the Aztec sphere of influence. Warriors who died in battle and sacrificed prisoners, as well as women who died during childbirth, after death enjoyed the privilege of accompanying the sun on its daily travels. The majority of the population were farmers and agricultural laborers.

The Centre of the Aztec World - The Great Temple, or Templo Mayor, was the spiritual and worldly centre of the Aztec empire. The temple, the original structure dating back to 1325, towered over the city of Tenochtitlan and its population of 250.000. Two shrines topped the gigantic double pyramid - the one dedicated to their greatest god Huitzilopochtli and the other to the rain god Tlaloc. Both shrines were approached by means of a central major stairway.

Painted Books - The Aztecs produced many elaborately illustrated and painted books, so-called ‘codices’. These texts were not written in letters but in pictograms - specially trained scribes were commissioned to work on them. Using natural colours they painted on prepared animal skins or paper, made from the rind of fig trees or from cotton.

The Conquistadors - In 1521 Spanish conquistadors brutally conquered the Aztec empire in a short time. At first impressed by this bright metropolis, they soon were deeply shocked by its religious practices, in particular by its human sacrifices. With missionary zeal the conquistadors wiped out one of the most important cultures of human history, burning its libraries of ritual manuscripts and destroying the entire temple area. This exhibition was organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London. It has also been organised in cooperation with the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the Ethnological Museum, the Berlin Festspiele and the Martin-Gropius-Bau Berlin. The exhibition was made possible by the generous support of the Mexican Government. We would like to thank the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes and the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Wall Texts - AZTEKEN examines the art and culture of a spectacular civilisation. Now more commonly known as the Mexica, the Aztecs rose to prominence in 1325 and came to dominate central Mexico, from the Gulf coast to the Pacific, until the Spanish conquest in 1521. Astute military and economic expansion led them to form the largest Pre-Hispanic empire in North America. The Aztecs spoke Nahuatl, a language still used by several million Mexicans. Their religion, central to their daily existence, underpinned their empire and gave impetus to the arts. Their artistic style was based on those of preceding cultures in the region, especially Teotihuacan (AD 0 – 750) and Tula (AD 900 – 1200), and the skills of contemporary civilisations. Monumental sculptures in stone and wood, delicate jewellery in gold, jade and turquoise, polychrome ceramics, featherwork, mosaics and codices, also known as painted books, testify to the immense sophistication of Aztec art.

Aztec urban centres, dominated by monumental public buildings such as Tenochtitlan´s Templo Mayor, reflected the degree of law and order that prevailed. By the time the Spanish arrived, Tenochtitlan was one of the largest settlements in the world at that time, with a population of over 250.000. Dominated by its sacred precinct, the city was divided by canals for canoes, and was joined to the mainland by four causeways. A large aqueduct supplied fresh water. Flowers and food were grown on chinampas, fertile fields in the lake made of mud and silt. Fresh produce from all over the empire was available in the large market at Tlatelolco. A city of great riches, Tenochtitlan served as symbol of the power and authority of the Aztec empire. Various educational institutions taught the youth cultural values and skills. The children of the nobility went to temple schools, where both sexes acquired priestly knowledge and where the sons, in addition to that, learned the art of warfare. In a well-ordered society the arts flourished. But art for the Aztecs was more than merely decorative; it was highly symbolic and played an essential role in the religious beliefs of the state.

According to their myths, the Aztecs originated from an island called Aztlan, which they left in the early twelfth century. The location of this ancestral homeland has never been discovered. Under the protection of their tutelary god, Huitzilopochtli, the Aztecs became a nomadic group for two centuries as they moved south and eventually arrived in the Basin of Mexico, settling in Chapultepec, “grasshopper hill“, in around 1300. At this time they were one of a number of small peoples in a region dominated by the Tepanec culture. Forced to abandon Chapultepec, the Aztecs were afforded the protection of Culhuacan, “crooked mountain“. There they enraged their patrons by sacrificing the daughter of the ruler and were forced to seek refuge on the marshy islands of Lake Tetzcoco. It was here that they saw the sign promised by Huitzilopochtli: an eagle perched on a nopal (prickly-pear) cactus growing out of a stone. Tenochtitlan, “place of the stone cactus“, was founded and in 1325, the year “2-house“, the first Templo Mayor was built. In 1430 the Aztecs defeated their main rivals the Tepanecs and joined forces with Tlacopan (on the western shores of the lake) and Tetzcoco (on the eastern) to form the Triple Alliance. This union provided a power base for the Aztecs to spread their influence and to trade far beyond the confines of the Basin of Mexico.

The Aztec rulers were at the height of their power, when in 1492 the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, believing that he was bound for India, landed in the Caribbean. This extraordinary event, which erroneously labeled the inhabitants of America as Indians, heralded a momentous change in world history. No mention of America as a continent was made in the Bible and no medieval maps included what became known as the New World. In 1519 the Spanish mercenary Hernán Cortés left the Caribbean island of Cuba with a force of men and horses. Although he was not the first Spaniard to investigate the land mass of Mexico, Cortes was immortalised for claiming for the Spanish crown a huge empire with a magnificent capital city the like of which had never been seen before.

Mexico has witnessed the rise of numerous extraordinary civilisations in differing ecological regions. The Olmec, the so-called mother culture of the pre-Columbian civilisations in contemporary Mexico, the Maya and the Zapotec are just three of these. The Aztecs were certainly aware of Teotihuacan and Tula in the highland of central Mexico. They visited both sites and adopted elements of their artistic styles. They began a process of deliberate conscious cultural appropriation that saw them assume the gods, calendar, architectural practices and art styles of their forerunners. Thus the Aztecs constructed an ancestry for themselves whereby they could claim to be the rightful heirs of Teotihuacan and Tula. They did not simply adopt the characteristics of Teotihuacan and Tula wholesale, however, preferring to take elements and adapt them to their own requirements. In this manner, they created a distinctive artistic style which contained elements that could be traced back many hundreds of years.

Teotihuacan, located to the north-east of Mexico City, dominated central Mexico during the Classic period (AD 0 – 750). Teotihuacan, the name given to the site by the Aztecs, means “place where one becomes a god” in Nahuatl. According to Aztec legend the city was the location of the gods creation of the Fifth Sun or Aztec world-era, Nahui Ollin (”4-movement“). Teotihuacan is thought to have been the centre of a religious cult and a large trade network. It has been suggested that Teotihuacan derived its immense economic power from its control of the trade in obsidian, a hard, black volcanic glass widely used across Mesoamerica in art objects and weaponry. In 750 Teotihuacan was abandoned for unknown reasons. The Aztecs stumbled across the abandoned site during their nomadic travels. They began to collect objects they found there. It is even thought that they carried out their own excavations, and for this reason some scholars refer to them as the first Mexican archaeologists.

Tula, capital of the Toltec culture, is located to the north-west of Mexico City. Like Teotihuacan, the site is dominated by a ritual centre, albeit on a smaller scale. Tula flourished from 900 to 1250. The Toltecs were considered the founders of civilization - under the tutelage of their priest-ruler Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered serpent”- because of their calendar, writing, religion and art. The Aztecs were greatly influenced by the Toltecs and appropriated many of their cultural traits. Indeed they used the term ”toltec“ to refer to skilled craftsmen. Tula was abandoned for unknown reasons around 1250. The magnificent temple of the butterfly warriors, so-called after the huge Atlantean figures that supported its roof, was toppled and buried. The Aztecs certainly copied much of the art of the site, creating their own chacmools and a group of five Atlantean figures (cat. nr. 27 – 31)that have the characteristic butterfly pectorals of examples found at Tula.

The Human Form - Although the Aztecs adopted aspects of former cultures to embellish their history, they recognised that they needed to distinguish themselves from Teotihuacan and Tula, maintaining their forerunners cultural legacy but also making it clear that the style and iconography were their own. The quality of these works tells us much about the aesthetic demands of the Aztecs. There can be no doubt that we are looking at the idealised faces of Aztec persons. The clothing and physical proportions of the figures give us a glimpse of their world. Although many of these sculptures of individuals seem decorative to us, the Aztecs did not produce art for arts sake. Mindful as they were of quality, whether of material or finish, artisans produced work that functioned in a religious capacity. Individual gods with their paraphernalia, including elaborate headdresses and ornamentation, such as the representation of Chalchiuhtlicue (cat. nr. 38), were represented alongside much plainer examples like the standing male nudes. With rare exceptions, the Aztecs did not depict nudity in their sculpture. The adolescent boys seen here (cat. nr. 33 and 35) would probably have been clothed and may have been used in a coming-of-age ceremony. The Aztecs enforced a strict moral code that did not tolerate public drunkenness or adultery. Such crimes were severely punished. The red eyes of the stone head with inlaid teeth (cat. nr. 48) are thought to display the effect of pulque, the naturally fermented juice of the maguey plant (agave). Another seated male is a hunchback (cat. nr. 44); individuals with deformities were revered and afforded special treatment. Old age was shown by a wrinkled brow and gap teeth, as in the example of Huehueteotl, the ”old, old god“ (cat. nr. 37). The style and quality of Aztec sculptural art is very distinctive and belies the Aztecs supposed lack of technology. Aztec artists were able to work with the hardest stones to produce sculpture of exquisite quality and finish.

The Natural World (And the Vision of the World) - The Aztecs were acutely aware of their environment. Their survival depended on the production of crops in order to sustain the population of Tenochtitlan. Although maize, beans and cacao were imported, the island city produced much of its own food. Mexico has two seasons, wet and dry, and even the smallest climatic change had an immediate effect on the supply of foodstuffs. Droughts, floods or plagues of pests such as rats all threatened the city’s stability. Hence many Aztec gods and religious ceremonies focused on rainfall and fertility. Elegantly carved in stone, vegetables like squash and pumpkin may relate to harvest rituals. The sun was fundamental to the cycle of life. The eagle, largest, highest-flying and fiercest of birds, was the sun’s counterpart. During the night, when the sun disappeared from view and traversed Mictlan, the underworld, it became the jaguar, the largest and most-feared nocturnal predator. A beautiful casket discovered at Tizapan (cat. nr. 56), which retains most of its vivid internal colour, reflects the Aztecs’ vision of the world. Tenochtitlan, the symbolic centre of their universe, served as an axis that linked the human world to Mictlan, the underworld, and Topan, the upper world. The addition of the four directions completed the vision. Each of the directions had its own deity and was associated with a distinct colour, bird and tree.

The Natural World (And the Cycle of Life) - The Aztecs showed great interest in animals. Many are the animal counterparts of the gods, in the same way that the eagle and jaguar were associated with the sun. Lake Tetzcoco provided much of their fish, an important foodstuff. Their two main sources of meat were turkey and dog. A fine basalt sculptureon display shows a dog howling (cat. nr. 70), perhaps at the moon. Deer, rabbit and waterfowl were hunted. The rabbit was also associated with drunkenness and the moon. The Aztecs believed that a rabbit could be seen in the moon when it was full. A sculpture here shows a rabbit, full of natural movement (cat. nr. 72). Sculpted grasshoppers and fleas on a monumental scale reflect the skill of Aztec stone-carvers and their ability to capture minute details of insect anatomy. The flea’s thirst for human or animal blood may have been seen as sacred. At the end of the dry season grasshoppers chirping heralded the arrival of rain and new growth. Grasshoppers and other insects were also part of the varied Aztec diet, along with tadpoles, frogs and ants’ eggs. One of the most venerated of all creatures was the serpent, whose ability to move between water and land suggested that it could travel between Mictlan and the human world. The Aztecs were impressed by the way serpents shed their skins every year in order to grow, discarding the old. This cycle echoes the Aztecs’ fascination with duality, the endless pattern of life emerging from death. Reminiscent of the sun’s daily battle and the regeneration of crops brought by the rain, serpents were the living embodiment of the cycle of life.

The Ritual Calendar - The Aztecs employed a complex dual calendar system to regulate all aspects of their ritual life. The calendars were based on a combination of numbers and symbols. The 260-day calendar, or tonalpohualli, maintained the ritual cycle or sacred round. It was formed by the combination of twenty symbols and thirteen numbers to produce 260 individually named and numbered days (20 x 13 = 260). The twenty symbols followed a set order, as shown in the adjacent diagram. The sacred round began as 1-cipactli, 2-ehecatl and so on. When all thirteen numbers had been used the fourteenth symbol was given the number one and the count continued until thirteen was reached again, and returned to its starting point after 260 days. The ritual calendar acted as a divinatory mechanism which was used to determine the fates of humans and their activities. These were likewise influenced by the deity of the trecena (a Spanish term for the division of the tonalpohualli into twenty weeks of thirteen days each) and other forces, including the deities who presided over the hours of the day and night. The 365-day solar calendar, the xiuhpohualli, comprised eighteen ”months“ or feasts of twenty days called veintenas, with an additional five-day period of inauspicious days known as the nemontemi (18 x 20 + 5 = 365). Each of these eighteen feasts was celebrated through a public ritual dedicated to a specific god, although they were also directed towards social and religious issues of general importance to the community. On completion the year would change and the cycle recommence. Years were marked by only four symbols: calli (house), tochtli (rabbit), acatl (reed) and tecpatl (flint knife). The combination of four year symbols and thirteen numbers produced 52 years (4 x 13 = 52). Often referred to as an Aztec ”century“, the recommencement of the cycle every 52 years was marked by the New Fire ceremony, a time of great anxiety in which all fires were extinguished and replaced with a new fire ceremonially lit using a fire drill and board.

Duality - Aztec religion was based on two concepts: a cyclic notion of time, and duality. Complementary pairs, such as day and night, sky and earth, rainy season and dry season, life and death, were manifestations of the recognition that these opposites were insolubly interdependent. The Supreme Creator of the Aztecs, Ometeotl (“Two God”), the god of duality, embodies this concept very clearly. This one almighty being could be called on both in its male aspect (Ometecuhtli) and its female counterpart (Omecihuatl). Each god comprised various aspects and was neither exclusively positive nor negative.

The concept of duality opposed two interdependent parts to create a conflict or cycle through which the continuity of life and death was assured. Representations of this concept show a human figure divided into opposing parts, life and death. A greenstone figure (cat. nr. 58) is likewise divided, although in this example into wet and dry halves to reflect the seasons of central Mexico. The Aztecs were impressed by the way serpents shed their skins every year in order to grow, discarding the old, a perfect replica of their former selves, to re-emerge bigger and stronger. This cycle echoes the Aztecs’ fascination with duality, the endless pattern of life emerging from death. Reminiscent of the sun´s daily battle and the regeneration of crops brought by the rain, serpents were the living embodiment of the cycle of life.

The combination of feathers with a serpent (often the rattleserpent) produced the mythical creature known as Quetzalcoatl, literally ”feathered serpent“, a serpent that could fly. Two pipes refer to the sun’s passage: the red piece (cat. nr. 118) signifies the sun in the sky during the day, and the black (cat. nr. 117) the sun at night when, unseen, it traverses the underworld. The god of springtime, Xipe Totec, ”our flayed Lord“, likewise embodies the principle of duality. During ceremonies in honour of the god, a priest put on the skin of a sacrificed warrior which he wore for several days. However, the meaning of this rite was not glorification of death, but rather the celebration of rebirth and regeneration. The idea was that life was inseparable from death.

Xipe Totec - One of the more extraordinary members of the Aztec pantheon is Xipe Totec, ”our flayed Lord“, the god of spring and patron of goldsmiths. During the Tlacaxipehualiztli feast of twenty days in honour of Xipe Totec, goldsmiths adorned his priests with red spoonbill feathers and jewellery of gold. In his temple, Xipe Totec also received offerings from individuals seeking miraculous cures. Indeed, the worship of Xipe Totec had existed long before the Aztecs. The particularly elaborate ceremonies celebrating Xipe Totec appear gruesome because they involved human sacrifice. After sacrifice the victim was flayed and the skin placed in a ceramic container that graphically portrayed the bobbles of fat found inside skin. The skin would then be worn by a priest in imitation of Xipe Totec or placed over a sculpture of the deity. Some images display an incision in the area where the heart had been removed before the flaying. At the time of Spanish conquest, the feast of the vegetation deity Xipe Totec was celebrated in spring, in the month of March. The renewal of the agrarian cycle around that time of year is manifested in the fresh shoots that sprout from the rotten stalks of old plants. In like fashion, Xipe Totec renewed himself: A priestly impersonator of the god would put on a human skin and wear it until it was rotten, eventually re-emerging from it as a young adult. Many images of Xipe Totec exist, signalling his importance. Far from being a celebration of death, the rites performed in his honour were concerned with rebirth and renewal. They echo the Aztecs’ fascination with a serpent’s shedding of its skin: a reference to germination and the appearance of shoots in the apparently lifeless earth.

Quetzalcoatl – Ehecatl - One of the most venerated of all creatures was the serpent, whose ability to move between water and land suggested that it could travel between Mictlan (the underworld) and the human world. The combination of feathers with a serpent (often the rattleserpent) produced the mythical creature known as Quetzalcoatl, literally ”feathered serpent“, a serpent that could fly. Quetzalcoatl, the legendary priest-ruler of Tula, was tricked into a state of drunkenness and forced to leave the city. Some said that he went to the Yucatan peninsula to found the famous Mayan city of Chichén Itzá. Other legends recount that he flew away across the eastern sea (the Gulf of Mexico), vowing to return to reclaim what was legitimately his. The arrival of Hernán Cortés in 1519 from the east was interpreted by some Aztecs as the fulfillment of Quetzalcoatl’s promise. The god Quetzalcoatl had been adopted from earlier cultures. Like many gods, Quetzalcoatl has more than one aspect and is interchangeable with Ehecatl, god of wind. Each aspect of a god usually has a defining emblem that allows identification. Ehecatl’s attribute is the extraordinary beak apparatus that he wears around his face. This allowed him to create wind to give rise to storm clouds, bringers of rain. Quetzalcoatl can be readily identified as a feathered serpent. He is also characterised by a spiral pendant made from a Strombus conch. The same form characterises temples dedicated to Quetzalcoatl-Ehecatl, echoing the whirlwinds that precede the rainy season. Quetzalcoatl-Ehecatl is also commonly depicted as a monkey, sporting ornaments such as the beak or shell earrings and pendants. Quetzalcoatl-Ehecatl was patron of the day “wind”, the second of twenty day signs of the 260-day ritual calendar. As divine Creator and culture heros, he plays an important role in the creation mythology. In the process of creating earth and sky, he rescued with the aid of the multi-faceted and powerful god Tezcatlipoca (“Smoking mirror”) the bones of humans from the underworld in order to create the current mankind.

Gods - Religion was a vital part of the daily life of the Aztecs. Numerous gods were worshipped in elaborate public ceremonies as well as in smaller domestic rituals. The Aztecs saw divinity in everything and their gods covered all aspects of life. Images of stone represent a wide array of these gods. Some public sculptures weigh several tons apiece and would have adorned religious buildings designed to be registered over a considerable distance. Much of the sculpture is refined and reflects an extraordinary attention to detail. Most stone sculpture would have been covered with stucco, a type of plaster, and decorated with vegetable- and mineral-based paints. Chalchiuhtlicue, a popular goddess, is usually shown as a kneeling or seated young woman with plaited hair and necklace (cat. nr. 120, 122 and 123). Her name means ”she of the jade skirt“. Jade was highly valued and had many associations, especially water. Goddess of the sea, lakes and flowing water, Chalchiuhtlicue was closely linked with agricultural fertility and is seen as the female counterpart of Tlaloc, god of rain.Tlaloc, like other gods, was appropriated from previous cultures. Indeed the rain god is one of the most prevalent deities across Mesoamerica. Tlaloc’s goggle eyes and fanged mouth make him immediately recognisable (cat. nr. 112 and 113). His eyes and nose occasionally take the form of entwined serpents. Rain was fundamental to the production of maize, the principal food staple. Chicomecoatl, the goddess of maize, is usually shown holding ripe cobs of corn and an ornate paper headdress. Such headdresses mimic temples and were fashioned from brightly coloured amatl paper, made from the bark of a fig tree. Other gods are portrayed realistically, like Xochipilli, god of poetry and flowers. Much Aztec poetry has survived, a form of art used to pose philosophical questions concerning existence and life after death.

Gods of the Night - The Aztec universe was divided into three vertical levels: Topan (the upper world), the world inhabited by man (Cemanahuatl), and Mictlan (the underworld). Mictlan, presided over by Mictlantecuhtli, lord of death, was a dangerous place full of difficult trials. The jaguar, as the sun, did
battle there in order to be reborn each day. Mictlantecuhtli is usually shown as a fearsome individual with a skull face with full eyes. Despite his skeletal appearance his eyes symbolise life in death. A necklace of alternate human hearts and hands can be seen on a representation of a Cihuateotl, who kneels on an altar decorated with skulls, dedicated to the earth (cat. nr. 145). Cihuateteo were the spirits of women who had died during childbirth. They were accorded the highest honour by being equated with warriors who died on the battlefield; like them they were permitted to accompany the sun on its daily passage across the sky. Warriors accompanied the sunrise until its midday zenith; the cihuateteo followed the sun until it set. Also known as tzitzimime, literally spooks, they prowled crossroads at night, capturing the souls of unborn children and driving men to commit adultery. Night was the time of fearsome creatures and was viewed as a time of peril. Pulque, associated with the night and the souls of warriors killed in combat or sacrifice, was consumed after dark. The passage through Mictlan was full of dangers. Xolotl, another incarnation of Quetzalcoatl, was represented in canine form (cat. nr. 140). Patron of twins and deformities, he accompanied Quetzalcoatl into the underworld to retrieve the bones of mankind. Representations of dogs were often buried with individuals to act as their guides and protectors on their journey through Mictlan. The ”earth lord“ Tlaltecuhtli is often shown on the base of sculptures, communicating between the land of the living and that of the dead. He is the male counterpart to Coatlicue, ”serpent skirt“, the mother of Huitzilopochtli, patron god of the Aztecs.

Priests - Aztec society was disciplined and well ordered. Numerous administrators ensured the smooth running of the empire. Chief among them were priests, who fulfilled many different roles but were mainly concerned with mediation between the world of the gods and that of humans. The priesthood oversaw these ceremonies and ensured that they took place at the right time and in the correct order. As deity impersonators, priests would dress in the ritual clothes of a given god, transforming themselves into the god with the aid of pulque, the naturally fermented juice of the maguey plant, which was often mixed with psychotropic plants to enhance its potency. A priest dressed as the god became that god during ceremonies, while the human characteristics of the god made the distinction between human and divine very faint. Priests carried out their duties in the open air on top of the pyramids, using the small shrines found there. The Templo Mayor hosted the most important of these rituals. Music was an important aspect of ceremonial life, as was the burning of copal, an incense, in large brasiers. Priests, learned men who discussed philosophical issues, often in the form of poetry, instructed the sons of nobles in religious matters in special schools called calmecac. The Aztec tlatoani (ruler) was also a head priest. Priests interpreted painted books (codices) which marked the festivities of the gods and were used for naming newborn children and predicting their destiny.

Sacrifice and Ritual - Human sacrifice was an important element of Aztec religious ritual. Large public ceremonies included human sacrifice as an offering to the gods. In return for having sacrificed themselves to create the sun, moon, mankind and maize, the gods demanded supplication and sustenance in the form of human blood and hearts. Items of the paraphernalia required for sacrifice can be seen here. Victims were taken to the top of the Templo Mayor where twin shrines were located. In front of the shrine stood an altar upon which a victim was stretched out and the breastbone split open to remove the heart. A double-headed serpent altar (cat. nr. 155), sacrificial knife (cat. nr. 153)and a greenstone heart (cat. nr. 154), representative of the sacred food of the gods, allude to this ceremony. Blood and hearts were gathered in special vessels called cuauhxicalli. Victims for sacrifice were captured during elaborate ritual battles. Because the warriors engaged in them were adorned with colourful finery such battles were known as ”flowery wars“. Their aim was to bring back captives to Tenochtitlan for sacrifice, not to make territorial gains or to kill the enemy. Wars were fought at particular times of the year and did not take place during sowing, harvesting or at night. The Aztecs’ ritual approach to warfare proved a great handicap when they were confronted with the ruthless battlefield tactics and conventions of the Spanish. Sacrifices did not take place every day. Human sacrifice marked important occasions and festivities. It was more common for priests to offer their own blood to the gods in much less public ceremonies. The practice of auto-sacrifice involved the drawing of one’s own blood by piercing the tongue, ear lobes, nose or genitalia using maguey tips, fine obsidian blades and other such implements. Blood collected in this way was likewise collected in cuauhxicalli.

The Templo Mayor - The Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, was the ritual and symbolic centre of the Aztec universe. A large pyramid surmounted by twin shrines, each with its own stairway, this imposing structure lay at the ritual heart of the city. It was here that public rituals, including human sacrifice, took place. Like most buildings of the time, the Templo Mayor was covered in stucco, a type of plaster, and painted. Large sculptures, such as a monumental head of a rattlesnake ( cat. nr. 251), further decorated the building. The foundations of the original structure date from 1325. The twin shrines were dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the supreme Aztec god who was associated with the sun and fire, and Tlaloc, god of rain. Together the elements of water and fire referred to warfare. These opposing forces are an example of the Aztec concept of duality. Over the next two hundred years the Templo Mayor was enlarged on six occasions. These amplifications literally encased the existing structure. The Templo Mayor was of enormous significance to the Aztecs. Over 100 sacrificial deposits or offerings containing more than 6.000 objects have been discovered built into the structure. These offerings were placed in stone cists or boxes. Offering 106 (cat. nr. 265)is displayed here as it was discovered. The majority relate to Tlaloc, god of rain, and contain objects of non-Aztec origin from areas under the control of the empire. Jaguar skulls, alligator skeletons, coral, shells, masks, flint knives, ceramic containers, mother-of-pearl fish and delicate objects made from alabaster are among the many items recorded. Objects from Teotihuacan, such as the magnificent mask with ear spools (cat. nr. 260), have also been discovered. Even an Olmec mask (cat. nr. 256), over a thousand years old when it was buried, has been found.

The discovery of the Templo Mayor constituted a major breakthrough in Aztec studies. Excavations continue there today and many treasures have been found, such as the funerary urn with codex-style reliefs. The best-preserved structure is that of the second temple, which dates to before 1428. The original structure remains beneath but cannot be excavated due to the high level of the water table. More recent levels are only partly preserved; the Spanish used the Templo Mayor as a quarry when rebuilding the city, using its cut volcanic stone to build the cathedral, among other structures. It was long thought that the Templo Mayor was lost to archaeologists, who assumed that the Spanish, had built the cathedral on its site. But in 1978 workers carrying out routine maintenance work on electric-lighting equipment uncovered a large circular sculpture that was identified by archaeologists as a representation of the dismembered body of Coyolxauhqui, goddess of the moon. Subsequent excavations revealed that the site of the Templo Mayor had been unexpectedly discovered. Aztec myth recalls that Coatlicue, ”serpent skirt“, was sweeping out the temple on top of ”serpent mountain“ when a ball of feathers lodged in her bosom and miraculously impregnated her. Coatlicue’s daughter Coyolxauhqui was furious on hearing of her mother’s pregnancy. Along with her 400 brothers, the Centzon Huitznahua, she vowed to kill her mother and her unborn child. As the aggressors arrived at Coatepec, Coatlicue gave birth to Huitzilopochtli, who emerged fully armed. With his weapon, the burning Xiuhcoatl, or turquoise serpent, he dismembered Coyolxauhqui, who tumbled down the hill, and killed or put flight to her 400 brothers. It is thought that this battle represents the victory of the sun over the moon and stars. The depiction of the dismembered Coyolxauhqui reveals that the Templo Mayor was intended to represent ”serpent mountain“, scene of the original battle for superiority. The battle, it became clear, was ritually re-enacted at the Templo Mayor.

The World View - The Templo Mayor was the center of the Aztec universe. According to Aztec world view, the universe consisted of three layers. The middle layer was the earthly one, inhabited by humans. Above that world, the Aztecs imagined thirteen levels or heavens, Omeyocan, the “place of duality”, being the uppermost. Below the earthly layer, there were the nine levels of the underworld. The lowest of these was the realm of Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Land of the Dead, and of his consort, Mictlancihuatl. Each of the four cardinal directions radiated out from the Templo Mayor and was associated with a deity, a bird, a color, and a glyph. The god Tetzcatlipoca ruled over the north, the direction of death and cold. The colors of Mictlampa, the region of death, were black and yellow. North was symbolized by a glyph showing a sacrificial knife. South was the direction of humidity. This region was associated with the color blue and with the god Huitzilopochtli. The glyph was a rabbit, symbol of fertility and abundance. East, where the sun rises, was viewed as the male sector of the universe. It was the segment of the sky where warriors who had been killed in war or sacrifice accompanied the sun from dawn till midday. The color red was associated with east, and Red Tezcatlipoca ruled over that direction. It was symbolized by a glyph showing a grass bundle. The god Quetzalcoatl was in charge of West, the female segment of the sky. Women who had died in childbirth escorted the sun from midday till dusk – until the sun was devoured by Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Monster. The sun then traveled through the Land of the Dead, until it was reborn the next morning by the earth deity Coatlicue. The glyph “house” and the color white were associated with the west. The sacred Templo Mayor, as the axis mundi, stood right in the center of this conception of the cosmos. The four directions, as well as the levels of the upper and lower worlds, departed from the twin temple dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc. As powers travelled up and down between the worlds, they crossed that point in space. Therefore, all these powers concentrated within the Templo Mayor. It was the focal point of the Aztec world.

Symbols of Status - Aztec society was highly stratified. Royalty and nobility ruled over a large number of civil servants who were responsible for the administration of Tenochtitlan and the tribute empire. Beneath these privileged classes,, a working class and slave class tilled the land and provided labour. The higher classes were distinguished by their fine decorated textiles and their sandals, which were important symbols of rank. The elite lived in palatial complexes, enjoyed objects of the finest quality and high quality ceramics graced the tables of the nobility. One majestic example of a plate has the legs of a jaguar, complete with claws. Gold, which was brought to Tenochtitlan as a raw material, often as a tribute commodity, was fashioned into objects of rare beauty. Although we tend to think of gold as the most precious of materials, as did the Spanish conquistadors, the Aztecs did not. They worked the gold into exquisite pieces of jewellery, but referred to it as the excrement of the gods. Perhaps surprisingly to us, the most venerated material were feathers. Brightly coloured plumes were gathered, often from farmed birds, and sent to Tenochtitlan as tax payment or tribute. They were fashioned into objects of great beauty, such as fans, shields,, and headdresses. Featherworks were insignia of wealth and power, and an important element of the ritual outfit of warriors. The art of mosaics, made of turquoise and other stones, and of shell, was highly priced.

Trade and Tribute: Gold and Precious Stone - Brought to Tenochtitlan as a raw material, often as a tribute commodity, gold was fashioned into objects of rare beauty. Gold jewellery was worn in various forms, from earrings, rings, and necklaces to lip-plugs or labrets. Other pieces made of obsidian and red chert reveal the level of hardstone workmanship achieved by the Aztecs. In some instances the obsidian is so fine that it has become become translucent. Nose ornaments were also worn. Rings were very popular and, like labrets, often bore designs inspired by birds, in some cases felines were favoured. Gold objects, like ceramics, were not made by the Aztecs themselves but by the Mixtecs renowned for their skill in fashioning gold (using the lost-wax and filigree techniques) and as skilled tlacuiloque (scribes), makers of painted books. The Aztecs recognized their skills, trading with them for these fine objects and maintaining workshops in Tenochtitlan. The elaborate pendants arguably were the most beautiful of all forms of jewellery. Like much Aztec jewellery, these were designed to produce tinkling sounds when the wearer moved. Frequently, small bells were attached to them, while in some cases the body of the piece functioned as a bell. The art of turquoise mosaic was likewise highly prized. Various forms existed, including the wooden shield shown here (cat. nr. 298), which once had fine codex-style imagery picked out in turquoise of different hues. Feathers were once attached to the shield´s edges. Turquoise was used in combination with other stones to decorate objects like the ceremonial sacrificial knives. Bone was a popular material for ornaments and, like shell, was often carved. Deer antlers and human bones were sometimes made into decorated musical instruments. Pochteca, professional merchants, were held in high esteem by city-state rulers. They travelled widely, trading their own personal goods as well as those of their ruler. These ambitious members of Mexica society were able to accumulate abundant wealth.

Trade and Tribute: Polychrome Ceramics - High-quality ceramics graced the tables of the nobility. As shown here in a variety of forms, ceramics were painted and decorated with great skill. In some cases,, such items were used as well as funerary offerings. Many plates have a tripod shape, balancing on three legs of differing styles. Some plates were used not for food but as receptacles for precious items such as jewellery. Many of the ceramics used by the Aztecs come from the area of Cholula and Puebla, immediately to the east of Tenochtitlan, on the other side of the Basin of Mexico. Some examples were made in the Mixtec region, much further south. The quality of decoration and the variety of shapes in such pieces would have been much appreciated in Tenochtitlan. They would habe been used for trade and also made in workshops in the city by potters from these regions.

Painted Bookks (Codices) - Among the rarest surviving Aztec artefacts from the early colonial period are the painted books or codices. Unfortunately, no single Aztec manuscript from the pre-Hispanic period has survived the Spanish conquest. However, five Pre-Hispanic examples from the Nahuatl- and probably Mixtecspeaking area of Central Mexico remain. Located to the south-east of Tenochtitlan, near modern-day Oaxaca, the Mixtecs were renowned for their skilled tlacuiloque (scribes), makers of painted books. The Aztecs had no alphabet (although their language, Nahuatl, was alphabetised during the colonial period). Instead they employed a pictographic and ideographic script. Images were used to convey a variety of information on genealogies, almanacs, histories, tribute lists and calendars. Written by highly skilled scribes these books were read by priests and officials. Before the arrival of the Spanish, scripts were written on both sides of prepared deerskin and folded concertina-like. Books were also made of amatl paper (formed from the bark of the fig tree) and maps of cotton fabric (called lienzos by the Spanish). With the arrival of the Spanish, things began to change. European paper was introduced and books began to be bound like European manuscripts. Explanatory texts or annotations in Spanish or Nahuatl often accompany the pictographic script. Codices are an extremely important source for scholars trying to understand Aztec rituals and history. They have survived, albeit in limited numbers, predominantly because they were maintained as legal documents in the colonial period. Others found their way into European collections. Only for about the last hundred years, scholars have been able to decipher them.

Painted Books (Codices) II - Only for about the last hundred years scholars have been able to decipher the pre-Conquest codices. The amount of information conveyed by these painted books and the quality of their pictorial content reveals the great skill of the tlacuiloque. Large numbers were nonetheless destroyed in the immediate post-conquest era. The Florentine Codex by Bernardino de Sahagún reflects the Spanish thirst for knowledge. Other Spaniards had copies of books made, and in the 1570s a large-scale geographic survey of Mexico was ordered by the Spanish government. As a result many maps, such as the Lienzo of Quetzpalan (cat. nr. 352), were produced in a traditional style and on cotton, a traditional material. Some of these lienzos show entries painted in the old pre-Hispanic iconography. The Spanish were also interested in tribute records, documents that recorded the amount of tax paid to the Aztec state by different communities. They used the information contained in the Codex Tepotzotlan (cat. nr. 350), the Codex Tepetlaoztoc, or the Humboldt Fragment (cat. nr. *54) to gather their own taxes. Along with artefacts and archaeological evidence, these books have provided invaluable information in helping us to understand the Aztecs.

Indp-Christian Art of the Colonial Perdiod - In the late summer of 1521, after the capture of the last independent Aztec ruler Cuauhtemoc, Tenochtitlan was surrendered to Hernán Cortés. The magnificent city was largely ruined and its population decimated after months of war. The remains were used as foundations for the Spanish colonial capital, Mexico-Tenochtitlan. The labour force necessary to build the new city and the craftsmen required to adorn it were drawn from the surviving indigenous population. The numerous canals of the city were filled in with monumental sculpture and over time the lake drained. Sculptures continue to be uncovered during modern building works. Since stone was a valuable building material much Aztec sculpture was recycled. The arrival of the Spanish religious orders, namely the Franciscans and Dominicans heralded what has been called the greatest mass conversion to Christianity, but numerous Aztecs died as victims of overwork and European diseases. The sixteenth-century cross from Tlaxcala (cat. nr. 322) displayed here is decorated with symbols of the Passion of Christ. Mural cycles were painted by local artists copying from European engravings. Thus the skills of Aztec artisans were maintained. Featherwork paintings such as the ”Mass of St Gregory“ a fine example of this type, capture this period of transition. The prized materials remain the same, as do the skills of the artist, but the iconography has changed. But before long the conquest began to make an impact: what would once have been a jaguar becomes a lion with a magnificent mane, and the double-headed eagle, emblem of the Habsburgs, the ruling Spanish dynasty, makes an appearance here as decoration on a tripod plate. The use of available techniques and materials combined with a new iconographic language ensured that Aztec skills remained alive in the sixteenth-century and, in essence, laid the foundations for the colonial period, a new era of Mexican history. After independence from Spain in 1822 Mexico again embraced its Pre-Hispanic heritage, and it is through the national collections and sites of Aztec Mexico that we are able to appreciate the culture of that great civilisation.

Aztecs is one of the greatest exhibitions of Aztec culture ever seen. 350 spectacular works trace the life and times of the Aztecs, an extraordinary people, who in the space of only 200 years (from 1325 to 1521) created one of the most impressive civilisations in the world.) AZTECS is one of the greatest exhibitions of Aztec culture ever seen. 350 spectacular works trace the life and times of the Aztecs, an extraordinary people, who in the space of only 200 years (from 1325 to 1521) created one of the most impressive civilisations in the world.)

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