Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico, The Central Mexican Plateau-Aztec Art

4. Aztec Art:

Reconstruction of the ceremonial center of Mexico-Tenochtitlan (top) and the Templo Mayor (bottom). This city-state was located on an island in Lake Texcoco (Valley of Mexico). Tenochtitlan was founded on June 20, 1325, and soon became the capital of the Aztec Empire during the XV century, until it was captured by Spanish Conquistadores in 1521. At its peak, Tenochtitlan was the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas. Today the ruins of Tenochtitlan are located in Mexico City’s downtown.

Tribe of humble and dark nomadic origins, the Aztec people included some ethnic groups of central Mexico who particularly spoke the Nahuatl language and who ruled large extensions of Mesoamerica between the XIV and the XV centuries. The word “Aztec” is used to refer to several ethnic groups that claim heritage from their mythic place of origin called Aztlan. In the Nahuatl language, “aztecatl” means “person from Aztlan”. These “people from Aztlan” included the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan (nowadays the location of Mexico City) from an island in Lake Texcoco, and its two principal allied city-states, the Acolhuas (also from Texcoco) and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan, who together with the Mexica formed the Aztec Triple Alliance that controlled what is known as the “Aztec Empire”. The modern use of the word “Aztec” was coined in 1810 by Alexander von Humboldt to refer  to all the people related to the Mexica state and the Triple Alliance.

Remains of the Templo Mayor (“Main Temple”) of Tenochtitlan, today downtown Mexico city. The Templo Mayor was one of the main temples of Tenochtitlan, its architectural style is representative of the late Postclassic period of Mesoamerica. The temple was dedicated to two gods, Huitzilopochtli (god of war) and Tlaloc (god of rain and agriculture) each of which had a shrine at the top of the pyramid with separate staircases. The temple was destroyed by the Spanish in 1521 and was replaced by a cathedral. Top left: remains of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City’s Zocalo (the city’s main square). Top right: the Altar of the toads of the Templo Mayor, the toads were symbols of water. Bottom: a snake in the platform of the Templo Mayor ruins.

The Aztecs settled definitively in 1325 in some islets of what it was the lake Texcoco in the valley of Mexico. With unlimited tenacity, they transformed these marshy islets into one of the most extraordinary cities of pre-Columbian America: Mexico-Tenochtitlan, a unique lacustrine city with ingenious “chinampas*” or floating islands, different networks of canals and roads, dykes and aqueducts, an unparalleled market (the ancient Tlatelolco’s market), and an imposing ceremonial center, whose main pyramid had a double temple (Templo Mayor, which occupied what is today the Historic Center of Mexico City) built following the style of those of the Chichimeca peoples: one dedicated to Tláloc and one to Huitzilopochtli.

The largest Aztec market of Tenochtitlan was located in the neighboring town of Tlatelolco, here is depicted in a reconstruction at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. In the background is the Templo Mayor.

Then, around 1428 by means of an alliance with two riverside towns (the Acolhuas and the Tepanecs mentioned before) known as the Aztec Triple Alliance, the Aztecs began to display their exceptional warrior abilities and their desire to triumph at all costs for they considered themselves as the “people of the Sun”, the people chosen by their tribal god Huitzilopochtli, god of the sun and war. Confident in their glorious destiny, in less than a century they dominated a considerable territory channeling all the wealth of the nearby country towards its beautiful capital. And endowed with an unusual capacity to assimilate foreign cultures, they adapted diverse expressions and artistic techniques into a fantastic artistic synthesis while at the same time they erased cultural boundaries so that, at the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, the fame of Mexico-Tenochtitlán had almost completely eclipsed the memory of other splendid past Mesoamerican cultures.

Top left: An Aztec Warrior’s teponaztli* or slit drum carved in wood, ca. 1500 AD. (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City). Top right: Aztec mask of Quetzalcoatl in turquoise mosaic, early XVI century (British Museum, London). Bottom left: Labret* (a type of plug inserted through a piercing below the lower lip) of a Serpent with articulated tongue, an Aztec gold ornament from the XIII to early XVI century (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Bottom right: the polished obsidian vessel delicately carved in the shape of a monkey from the Late Post-Classic (1325-1521 AD.) (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico).
Featherwork Aztec shield or Chimalli*, ca. 1520 AD, considered the masterpiece of pre-Columbian feather art (Museum of Ethnology, Vienna, Austria). The shield has a framework made of reed splints, wood and leather, covered with agave paper to which the mosaic, in feathers and sheet of gold, is glued. Feathers are attached to the edge of the shield with several tassels of feathers hanging from the lower edge. The feathers came from the Lovely Cotinga, Resplendent Quetzal, Roseate Spoonbill, Scarlet Macaw and the White-fronted Parrot. The shield has a diameter of 70 cm and displays an image of an animal with canine features (possibly the feathered coyote or Huehuecóyotl, among the Aztecs the coyote was one of the animals associated with war).

The art that was found in Mexico-Tenochtitlán on the eve of the Spanish conquest reflects the high degree of refinement that the Aztecs had achieved in the curse of a few generations: delicate wood or bone carvings, fine inlaids using turquoise, shell and other materials, elaborate jewels in gold and silver, iridescent mosaics of feathers with harmoniously combined colors (a typically indigenous technique that only survived for a brief time after the conquest…). And if many of these objects were elaborated by towns ruled by the Aztec Empire, an art specifically dominated and mastered by the Aztecs was the sculpture in stone both for its plastic strength and spirit.

Not satisfied with repeating the traditional themes of the traditional artistic repertoire then existing in the Mexican plateau, the Aztec artists undertook the task of “re-discovering” the world around them and thus created sculptural forms appropriate to their peculiar vision of the universe as mystical-warriors. In addition, their pride and manly temper led them instinctively to choose the hardest stones to work with.

Examples of Aztec sculpture. Left: Sculpture of a Seated Man, ca. 1500 AD.-Postclassic period (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas). Right: Larger than life ceramic statue of an Eagle Warrior (Cuāuhtli) found in the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan (Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico city).
Examples of Aztec sculpture. Left: ceramic statue of Xipe Totec, the flayed-skin god, ca. 900 to 1200 AD. (Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art). Right: Statue of the god Xochipilli seated upon a temple-like base, the whole statue is covered with carvings representing sacred and psychoactive organisms including mushrooms (Psilocybe aztecorum), tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), Ololiúqui (Turbina corymbosa), sinicuichi (Heimia salicifolia), possibly cacahuaxochitl (Quararibea funebris), and one unidentified flower (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City).

Some of the creations of the Aztec statuary stand out for their vigor and the economy of their forms. Such is the case of numerous male statues, whether they be a simple plebeian, the masterful head of the “Eagle Warrior” (called “cuāuhtli*“), a priest of the skinned god Xipe Tótec – covered with the skin of a sacrificial – or some deity as Xochipilli (the “prince of flowers”), god of joy, music and dance. But one of the favorite subjects of the Aztec sculptors was the portrayal of animals (toads, snakes, monkeys, felines…). And for the first time in the history of Mesoamerican art, mythological animals like the “feathered coyote” (“Huehuecóyotl“), the “Xiuhcoatl” or the “fire serpent”, or the millenary “feathered serpent” seem to come to life.

Ocelotl-Cuauhxicalli, or Aztec jaguar shaped cuauhxicalli, in stone (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City).
Examples of Aztec stone sculptures. Left: Aztec Stone Coyote God Huehuecóyotl (feathered coyote), a large volcanic stone statue ca. 1250-1520 AD. Center: Aztec sculpture of Xiuhcoatl (or fire serpent) from Texcoco (British Museum, London). Right: Representation of Xiuhcoatl (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City).
Different Aztec representations of a coiled Feathered Serpent (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico city).

It is undoubtedly that was in the “official” monumental sculpture where Aztec artists reached their greatest artistic expressions. Aware of their role as “people of the Sun” they transformed a commemorative monument as was the “stone of Tizoc” (which tells the story of a king’s victories) in an event that transcended the historical events per se by involving gods and planets in the story telling. And they made of the “stone of the Sun” (or Aztec calendar stone) not only a colossal and superb stone relief but a true compendium of their deep cosmological beliefs. Finally, the great representation of Coatlicue shows us the goddess of the earth, the mother earth, as the deity who gives us sustenance but that later can also devour us, a fecundating and destructive element at the same time. Coatlicue concentrated an infinity of symbols and gathered them under a monstrous appearance. However, there’s no cruelty in her nor goodness: it’s only the manifestation of a crude reality.

Left: Colossal statue of Coatlicue carved in andesite, the statue is 2.7 mt tall (8.9 ft) (National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City). The statue was discovered in the main plaza of Mexico City on 13 August 1790, the Sun Stone was found nearby on 17 December. Right: the Stone of Tizoc in basalt, ca. 1480’s (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico). The stone is a large, round artifact thought to have been a Cuauhxicalli. The stone was rediscovered on 17 December 1791 while construction work was being done in downtown Mexico City. The monolith measures 0.88 meters deep by 2.67 meters wide; it depicts Tezcatlipoca, a major Aztec god, holding the patron gods of other places by their hair. The stars are represented at the top rim while triangular points at the bottom edge represent the earth. On the top side of the stone, there is a sun dial with eight triangular rays representing the cardinal directions. The warriors carved in the stone hold the hair of their enemies’ gods representing submission and defeat.
The Sun Stone (sometimes erroneously called Aztec calendar stone), from the late Post-Classic period, is possibly the most famous work of the Aztec sculpture. The stone is 3,6 mt (11.75 ft) in diameter and ca. 1 mt (3.22 ft) thick, with a weight of near 24 tons. The sculpted figures on the stone’s surface represent the central components of the Mexica cosmogony. In the center of the disk is the face of the solar god, Tonatiuh. He holds a human heart in each of his clawed hands, and his tongue is represented by a stone sacrificial knife (or Tecpatl*). The four squares surrounding the central figure represent the four previous suns or eras each era finalized with the destruction of the world and humanity, which in turn were recreated in the next era. The top right square represents 4 Jaguar, the day on which the first era ended, after having lasted 676 years, due to the appearance of monsters that devoured all of humanity. The top left square shows 4 Wind, the date on which, after 364 years, hurricane winds destroyed the earth, and humans were turned into monkeys. The bottom left square shows 4 Rain, this era lasted 312 years, before being destroyed by a rain of fire, which transformed humanity into turkeys. The bottom right square represents 4 Water, an era that lasted 676 years and ended when the world was flooded and all the humans were turned into fish.


The Double-headed serpent mosaic, ca. XV-XVI centuries, one of the treasures of the British Museum (London). This artifact was possibly worn or displayed during religious ceremonies. The mosaic is made of pieces of turquoise, crab shell and conch shell, while the body of the sculpture was carved in wood and was hollowed out to make the sculpture lighter.


Chīmalli: (from the Nahuatl, meaning “shield”). The traditional defensive armament of the indigenous tribes of Mexico. These shields varied in design and purpose.



Chinampas: A type of Mesoamerican agriculture which used small, rectangular areas of fertile arable land to grow crops on the shallow lake beds in the Valley of Mexico. Chinampas were created by the freshwater shoreline of the Northern portion of the central lake system of Mexico by the Nahua peoples, commonly called the Aztecs. Chinampas thus were artificial islands that were created by building up extensions of soil into bodies of water.

Cuāuhtli: (from the Nahuatl). Also known as Eagle warriors or Eagle knights. They were a special class of infantry soldier in the Aztec army, one of the two leading military orders in Aztec society. These military orders, along with the jaguar warriors (or ocēlōtl), were made up of the bravest soldiers of noble birth and those who had taken the greatest number of prisoners in battle. Of all of the Aztec warriors, they were the most feared. The eagles were soldiers of the Sun, for the eagle was the symbol of the Sun.


Labret: A form of body piercing involving any type of adornment that is attached to the lip (labrum in Latin).



Tecpatl: In the Aztec culture, Tecpatl was a flint or obsidian knife with a lanceolate figure and double-edged blade, with elongated ends. It can be represented with the top half red, reminiscent of the color of blood, in representations of human sacrifice and the rest white, indicating the color of the flint blade. The Tecpatl knife was traditionally used for human sacrifice by the Aztecs, but it also was the short-range weapon of the jaguar warriors.


Teponaztli: A type of slit drum used in central Mexico by the Aztecs and related cultures. Teponaztli were made of hollow hardwood logs. Like most slit drums, teponaztlis have two slits on their topside, cut into the shape of an “H”. The resultant strips are then struck with rubber-head wood mallets, or with deer antlers. Since the tongues are of different lengths, or carved into different thicknesses, the teponaztli produces 2 different pitches. Teponaztli were usually decorated with relief carvings of various deities or with abstract designs, and were even carved into the shapes of creatures or humans.

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