General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
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Replica of ‘Moctezuma’s crown’ in Mexico

Ultimate headgear

Moctezuma II’s famous headdress now resides in Vienna, Austria, and most Mexicans feel it deserves to be returned to its original home in Mexico. In the spectacular Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City is this magnificent replica. Experts aren’t entirely sure that it did belong to Moctezuma: the crown of the Aztec ruler (as you can see in the Codex Mendoza) was a turquoise diadem, not a feather headdress. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Moctezuma’s diadem, Codex Mendoza
Moctezuma’s diadem, Codex Mendoza

‘The great quetzal headdress was found in the 18th. century in a storage chest at Ambras Castle in the Tyrol... It is the most dramatic object in feathers that we have. The headdress is amost 46 inches high, made primarily of green quetzal and blue cotinga feathers with gold disks. Originally the piece also had 500 quetzal tail-feathers, taken from at least 250 birds; several quetzal feathers were removed and worn by the Archduke of Bavaria and his horse... By 1566, when the headdress was listed in an inventory of the castle, its Pre-Columbian origin had been lost and it was called “a moorish hat”.’ (Info from ‘Aztec Art’ by Esther Pasztory, p. 280)

Detail of a folding-screen painting on the clash of two worlds
Detail of a folding-screen painting on the clash of two worlds (Click on image to enlarge)

How it might have looked... This painting by Roberto Cueva del Río shows just how magnificent Moctezuma’s priceless headdress might have appeared on the eve of the Spanish Conquest: however, no-one knows for sure if this item really was part of the ‘costumes of the gods’ given to Cortés at the time of the Conquest; as Esther Pasztory writes ‘the origin and function of this unusual headdress remain a mystery...’

Stone of Tizoc, showing ruler with quetzal-feather crown
Stone of Tizoc, showing ruler with quetzal-feather crown (Click on image to enlarge)

Following on from Lisa’s question (below), there is evidence from before the Conquest of such headdresses being worn by other Aztec rulers as status symbols: on the famous Stone of Tizoc (now in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) the ruler can clearly be shown in battle dress wearing a humming-bird helmet with a great quetzal-feather crown. It’s always worth remembering that to the Aztecs nothing was more precious than the finest green feathers of the quetzal bird from the distant tropical rainforests of (now) Central America: exotic, expensive, the best...!

Picture sources:-
Photos of headdress and folding screen painting by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
Photo of Tizoc stone detail by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
Scan of Moctezuma’s diadem from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)

Watch a short video from smarthistory on this headdress, aimed at art history students
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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Well, it’s a bit like the Crown Jewels, isn’t it? Unique, expensive, hugely symbolic, kept in the Tower of London since 1303: there’s a hell of a lot of history behind them...!
Mexicolore replies: Most such splendid feather objects were ‘standards’ attached to a bamboo framework and worn on high-ranking army officers’ backs, rather than ‘crowns’ for emperors. But there is some evidence that feather headdresses WERE used as part of ‘royal or ritual regalia’ (Esther Pasztory); a bit like a peacock’s plumage, this sort of headdress, whether worn on the battlefield or at a major festival, was very much used to display the highest rank and wealth: its owner ‘dressed to impress’!
Mexicolore replies: We entirely agree, Esmeralda! We’ll try and get a Mexican with detailed knowledge of this to provide us all with more background information...