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What was Cuauhtémoc’s emblem?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Jose Martinez: I’m painting a miniature figure of Emperor Cuauhtemoc and I do not find what emblem his shield had. I know they were made of feathers but exactly what design it had I have not been able to find out. I would appreciate any idea of any source where I can find it. Thank you. (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The death of Cuauhtémoc, Codex Vaticanus A (Ríos), folio 89r
Pic 1: The death of Cuauhtémoc, Codex Vaticanus A (Ríos), folio 89r (Click on image to enlarge)

Being the famously brave warrior and leader that he was, there’s of course no doubt that Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, would have possessed a fine shield with a warrior’s emblem emblazoned on it, but... there’s no record of it! The obvious source for this information would have been the Codex Mendoza, but this document only ‘lists’ and illustrates the achievements of the Mexica rulers from Acamapichtli to Moctezuma II.

Pic 2: Cuauhtémoc as ruler of Tenochtitlan, Codex Vaticanus A, folio 87v
Pic 2: Cuauhtémoc as ruler of Tenochtitlan, Codex Vaticanus A, folio 87v (Click on image to enlarge)

What we do know is Cuauhtémoc’s name glyph - ‘The Eagle That Falls’ or ‘Descending Eagle’. This is clearly displayed, for example, in the Codex Vaticanus A (‘Codex Ríos’) in a few chaotic pages depicting the arrival of the Spanish, the defeat of the Mexica, and the early years of the Spanish occupation. Folio 87v shows, for the year 1522 (4-Rabbit) Cuauhtémoc as the new Tenochca ruler (pic 2), with the Spaniards in their temporary base at Coyoacán. One year later, in folio 89r, the Codex shows Cuauhtémoc hanging from a tree having been executed in Guatemala on the orders of Cortés (pic 1).

Pic 3: Cuauhtémoc in a 1980 series of Mexican stamps celebrating ‘Pre-Hispanic Figures’
Pic 3: Cuauhtémoc in a 1980 series of Mexican stamps celebrating ‘Pre-Hispanic Figures’ (Click on image to enlarge)

As the true ‘hero’ of the ill-fated story of the Aztec/Mexica resistance to the Spanish invaders, Cuauhtémoc has always been venerated in Mexican popular history: there’s a fine statue of him along one of Mexico City’s wide boulevards, and he is depicted - again with his name glyph - on Mexican stamps and in other commemorative places today (see pic 3). Son of the emperor Ahuítzotl and cousin of Motecuhzoma II, Cuauhtémoc, ill with smallpox but fighting to the last, was finally defeated by the Spaniards at Tlatelolco. He was held prisoner by Cortés for some time before being executed, hundreds of miles from his homeland, on the Conquistadors’ march to Honduras.

Pic 4: Replica Tripod Plate from Tlatelolco (original in the National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City)
Pic 4: Replica Tripod Plate from Tlatelolco (original in the National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City) (Click on image to enlarge)

His name ‘Falling Eagle’ symbolizes - somewhat fittingly - the setting sun. Some scholars - such as Professor Esther Pasztory in her classic work Aztec Art - have suggested that the highly unusual tripod ceramic plate from Tlatelolco (see pic 4), known to have been soon after 1519, may be an Aztec artist’s reaction to the traumatic events surrounding Cuauhtémoc’s brief reign. This cult object - a ceremonial plate moulded into six wavy parts resting on three legs in the shape of disks - suggests, in Pasztory’s words, that ‘...under the trauma of the conquest Aztec artists were led to create new types [of object] in an attempt to hold on to essential values. They were so successful that some of these works seem to us the most articulate invocations of the Aztec spirit and way of life.’

Pic 5: Drawing of the top of the Tlatelolco Tripod Plate, from ‘Aztec Art’ by Esther Pasztory, p. 299
Pic 5: Drawing of the top of the Tlatelolco Tripod Plate, from ‘Aztec Art’ by Esther Pasztory, p. 299 (Click on image to enlarge)

Clearly visible, carved in relief on the top of the dish, are an eagle intertwined with a jaguar - a clear reference to the elite Aztec warrior cults (see pic 5). As the Spanish were very sensitive and alert to ‘heathen idols’ on large monuments but less concerned with pottery motifs, the Aztecs may have transferred their elite imagery to pottery in the aftermath of the Conquest. The intertwined eagle and jaguar on this plate are, in Pasztory’s words, ‘a forceful expression of the need for unity among the Aztec warriors’.

Picture sources:-
• Codex images scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition (Graz, Austria, 1979) of the Codex Vaticanus A
• Pix 3 and 4: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Drawing of Tripod Plate scanned from Aztec Art by Esther Pasztory, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1983

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