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Red paint on Aztec stone sculptures

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Frank Lekstutis: I lead groups of young students on tours at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. We admire the Aztec sculpture of a man holding a cocoa pod. It is painted red. What is the composition of the red paint used on Aztec sculptures. I hope it is cochineal, the kids would love to hear about paint made from squished bugs! (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The original stone sculpture of a man holding a cacao pod, Brooklyn Museum of Art
Pic 1: The original stone sculpture of a man holding a cacao pod, Brooklyn Museum of Art (Click on image to enlarge)

We envy you being able to pop in to view this famous piece! It has already come to London twice on exhibition. Sadly, you may be disappointed by our answer! Whilst cochineal was a common colourant for use in codex-painting and cloth dyeing, studies have shown that much more common for painting stone sculptures red were mineral pigments such as HEMATITE - derived from the Greek word for blood - found universally in sediments and volcanic rocks.
The discovery, on October 2nd. 2006, of the largest Aztec stone monolith yet found, the giant Tlaltecuhtli statue, has since rendered valuable evidence concerning Mexica sources and uses of colour. Analysis of the statue has shown red colouring made of crystallised hematite that had been finely ground to prepare the pigment.

Pic 2: Tláhuitl, Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 2: Tláhuitl, Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

16th century documents, such as the Florentine Codex, the Codex Mendoza and the works of Francisco Hernández, go into considerable detail regarding the preparation of colour dyes by the Mexica/Aztecs. Sahagún, compiler of the Florentine Codex, describes (Book XI) two minerals used for preparing red paint, one of which, tláhuitl (pic 2) he compares to vermillion, familiar to European painters of the time. His informants wrote:-
’Its name comes from nowhere. It is a rock... it is ruddy. It is mined. It is necessary, required, useful. It is a medium for beautifying, for reddening. I redden something. I make something red. I anoint something with ochre’. Hernández noted that it was naturally more yellow in colour, but turned red on being burnt, and that it was used by the Aztecs to decorate walls and floors.

Pic 3: Traces of red paint are clearly visible on this Aztec jaguar warrior statue
Pic 3: Traces of red paint are clearly visible on this Aztec jaguar warrior statue (Click on image to enlarge)

Without being able to specify exactly where this red ochre came from, we know that there were several hematite mines in the area around Tenochtitlan, such as those of the Sierra Patlachique in the valley of Teotihuacan. It’s very likely that the Mexica would have bought supplies of this and other pigments at the huge market at Tlatelolco.

Info from:-
Florentine Codex, Book XI - Earthly Things, trans by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J.O. Anderson, School of American Research & University of Utah, 1963
Tlaltecuhtli by Leonardo López Luján, INAH, Mexico City, 2010
Picture sources:-
• Pix 1 & 3: photos by Ian Mursell (photographed in the British Museum during the Moctezuma exhibition)
• Image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994.

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