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Mexicolore contributor Elodie Dupey Garcia

Colour and Culture Among the Aztecs (1)

We are hugely grateful to Dr. Élodie Dupey García, Researcher in the History of Religions at the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas at UNAM, Mexico City, for this most illuminating study of the meanings underlying the selection and uses of materials that coloured the pre-Columbian world...

Pic 1: Map of Mesoamerica, with principal cultures and archaeological sites. The highlighted zone corresponds to the cultural area of Central Mexico, where the Nahua and Aztec societies developed. Drawing by Jesús Quiroz González
Pic 1: Map of Mesoamerica, with principal cultures and archaeological sites. The highlighted zone corresponds to the cultural area of Central Mexico, where the Nahua and Aztec societies developed. Drawing by Jesús Quiroz González  (Click on image to enlarge)

1. Introduction
Aztec and Nahua cultures flourished in the Central Highlands of Mexico, mainly the Valley of Mexico and the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala, during the Mesoamerican Postclassic period and until the Spanish conquest (AD. 1200-1521 (pic 1). NOTE: During this period, the Valley of Mexico and the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala were populated by many ethnic groups that spoke different languages and whose social organization was more or less complex. However, as time passed, the existence of this mosaic tended to be eclipsed because Aztec culture, based in Tenochtitlan, was at its height at the time of the conquest, and therefore, it passed on to posterity. Thus, the name “Aztec” is commonly used—particularly in English—to refer to both the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan, as well as the other Nahua groups who lived in Central Mexico.

Pic 2: The Codex Fejérváry-Mayer exhibited in the gallery of the World Museum of Liverpool (currently Liverpool National Museum) in 2008
Pic 2: The Codex Fejérváry-Mayer exhibited in the gallery of the World Museum of Liverpool (currently Liverpool National Museum) in 2008 (Click on image to enlarge)

The preeminence of Aztec society at that time ensured that these cultures never fell into oblivion. Instead, they became the subject of an extensive literature that dealt with a wide range of topics. In addition to writing, the Spanish conquerors, administrators, and friars who discovered the New World sent to Spain all sorts of objects created by the indigenous peoples. This is how several painted manuscripts—which historians refer to as codices—were saved from the autos-da-fé of the colonial period and reached Europe, where they have been preserved to the present (pic 2).

Pic 3: Recreation of the island of Tenochtitlan by Tomás Filsinger. The view corresponds to the first time the Spanish conquistadors headed by Cortés observed Tenochtitlan from the Cerro de la Estrella (Star Hill) in 1519
Pic 3: Recreation of the island of Tenochtitlan by Tomás Filsinger. The view corresponds to the first time the Spanish conquistadors headed by Cortés observed Tenochtitlan from the Cerro de la Estrella (Star Hill) in 1519 (Click on image to enlarge)

Additionally, throughout the twentieth century, archaeologists have been exploring the vestiges of Nahua cities, especially at the very heart of the Aztec Empire, the metropolis of Tenochtitlan (pic 3). For all these reasons, Central Mexico, and Aztec culture specifically, offers researchers the greatest quantity and diversity of written and iconographic sources in Mesoamerica.

Pic 4: Remains of staircases and sculptures—without colors—found in the archeological site of Templo Mayor, in the center of Mexico City
Pic 4: Remains of staircases and sculptures—without colors—found in the archeological site of Templo Mayor, in the center of Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

This is what inspired me to write a history of color in Aztec society. The diversity, quality, and importance of documentary sources, archaeological remains, and cultural objects related with the Pre-Columbian societies of the Central Highlands of Mexico make these cultures, probably more than any other, ideal for a historical study of the ideas and practices regarding color in Mesoamerica.

Pic 5: Reconstruction of the painted buildings of the ceremonial center in Tenochtitlan, with the Templo Mayor in the center, by Ignacio Marquina
Pic 5: Reconstruction of the painted buildings of the ceremonial center in Tenochtitlan, with the Templo Mayor in the center, by Ignacio Marquina (Click on image to enlarge)

The abundance of both material, iconographic and textual information is valuable because it is possible to compare and cross check data from different sources—making it a unique case in Mesoamerican Studies. This is not to say the undertaking lacks complexity, for the use of these sources entails other sorts of problems directly related to the history of their creation and preservation.

2. Sources and methodology
If we approach the center of what was once the Aztec capital, we mostly see archeological structures of uniformly grey, bare stones (pic 4)...

Pic 6: Remains of mural painting and polychrome sculptures at the Templo Mayor
Pic 6: Remains of mural painting and polychrome sculptures at the Templo Mayor (Click on image to enlarge)

...but in their days, these buildings were painted with brilliant colors (pic 5). During the centuries after the conquest, these buildings as well as their polychrome decoration withstood difficult conditions of preservation and the vast majority of them lost their color. Today only some scarce and fragmentary examples of Aztec mural painting remain, as well as some polychrome sculptures (pic 6).

Pic 7: Massive stone sculpture of Tlaltecuhtli on display at the Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City, alongside a projected colour scheme
Pic 7: Massive stone sculpture of Tlaltecuhtli on display at the Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City, alongside a projected colour scheme (Click on image to enlarge)

Just as in the case of Greek civilization, it was only in the twentieth century that the polychrome world of the Aztecs was rediscovered, thanks to the observation and the analysis of pigments found on Aztec monumental sculpture. Since then, attempts have been made to mitigate the loss of the original polychromy with reconstructions of the colors, like those of the Sunstone or Aztec Calendar). Also, the discovery in 2006 of the largest stone carving ever excavated from the subsoil of Mexico City, a polychrome sculpture of the goddess Tlaltecuhtli, has led archaeologists and restorers of the Proyecto Templo Mayor to do their utmost to prevent the loss of this chromatic patrimony (pic 7). According to Leonardo López Luján, “the results of this care are now clearly visible, offering us a new series of sensations that we can no longer experience for the [monoliths known as the] Sun Stone, Coatlicue, and Coyolxauhqui.”

Pic 8: An example of the polychrome iconography of the Borgia Group codices: plate 56  of the Codex Borgia
Pic 8: An example of the polychrome iconography of the Borgia Group codices: plate 56 of the Codex Borgia (Click on image to enlarge)

Leaving the remarkable history of this monolith, it should be stated that neither the pictorial layers on Aztec sculpture or mural painting can serve as a starting point for indepth research on the uses and meanings of color. This is why I chose to base my iconographic study on a body of Pre-Columbian pictorial manuscripts that contain numerous, well-preserved polychrome images. In view of their iconographic similarities, these documents have been collectively referred to as the Borgia Group codices, named after the group’s most emblematic manuscript: the Codex Borgia (pic 8).
NOTE: The Codices Borgia, Fejérváry-Mayer, Laud, Cospi and Vaticanus B compose the Borgia Group. Currently, the Codices Borgia and Vaticanus B are kept at the Vatican Apostolic Library, the Codex Cospi at the Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna, the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer at the World Museum Liverpool, and the Codex Laud at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

In addition to the quality and abundance of their colors, these manuscripts invite chromatic study because recent scientific analyses have made it possible to identify the colorants used to illuminate two of them - the Codex Cospi and the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer - while the study of the other codices’ palettes are currently in process.

Pic 9: Studying the original Codex Fejérváry-Mayer up close, on display at the World Museum Liverpool, July 2015
Pic 9: Studying the original Codex Fejérváry-Mayer up close, on display at the World Museum Liverpool, July 2015 (Click on image to enlarge)

That said and even if this iconographic material seems ideal to explore the meanings of color in Aztec culture, its use raises a series of issues. In the first place, the exact provenance of these codices is unknown and is the subject of controversy in Mesoamerican studies, although strong arguments suggest the most outstanding members of the Borgia group had close ties to Nahua culture. On the other hand, reaching the meaning of colors in these codices is a delicate exercise, as a result of a) the complete absence of ancient texts discussing their contents, and b) the variety of colors employed for the same figure in these documents. To face the challenges posed by these images, my methodology has been both traditional and innovative. I joined the tradition of the study of codices based on historical texts and colonial annotated copies of these manuscripts, but I rejected the habitual Mesoamericanist focus that attempts to reduce the chromatic incongruency in codices to errors or fantasies on the part of the artists. Faced with the problem of chromatic variability, my strategy consisted of seeking reasons for their differences in the careful analysis of contexts in which each color or group of colors appeared.

Pic 10: A folio of the Florentine Codex which describes the preparation of dyes and pigments with cochineal. The page is structured in two columns—one written in Nahuatl (on the right) and another in Spanish (left)—with inserted illustrations
Pic 10: A folio of the Florentine Codex which describes the preparation of dyes and pigments with cochineal. The page is structured in two columns—one written in Nahuatl (on the right) and another in Spanish (left)—with inserted illustrations (Click on image to enlarge)

As for the documents from the colonial period, although they are ideal complements to Pre-Columbian iconographic materials, they must be used with prudence and submitted to rigorous historiographic review. Therefore, I decided to place greater emphasis on texts written in Nahuatl (pic 10), or in their absence, in Spanish but stemming from the collaboration of missionaries and members of the Aztec elite, for these sources seem to guarantee more reliable access to indigenous categories, even though they were created at the time of the “colonization of the imaginary” (Serge Gruzinski). Another dimension of my method consisted of comparing the diverse body of sources to examine each subject from various perspectives. In other words, I tried to cross-check accounts, as recommended by color historian Michel Pastoureau (Blue. The History of a Color, 2011), who defends the need to multiply approaches and to cross the traditional borders separating disciplines in order to reinstate the reality of color in each culture and to appreciate it in all of its complexity.

Pic 11: Natural colour dyes in use in pre-Hispanic Mexico: detail of mural by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City
Pic 11: Natural colour dyes in use in pre-Hispanic Mexico: detail of mural by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Far from being the fruit of isolated reflection, the methodology promoted by Pastoureau is the legacy of researchers who have defended the eminently cultural character of the relations of humankind with color. Although the discussion on this matter continues to the present, I joined the ranks of researchers who think that human beings selectively appropriate the information transmitted by their senses to then process them according to different modalities in each culture. This is why my research arose from the task of exploring the singularity of relations that the Aztec had established with regard to color. In this perspective, I extracted data from the sources available to study the Mesoamerican past in order to identify and to analyze some of the ideas and practices the Aztecs created concerning color, as well as the semantic values assigned to colors in this Pre-Columbian culture.

Pic 12: Reconstruction of the colours of the Coyolxauhqui monolith on display at the Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City, 2010
Pic 12: Reconstruction of the colours of the Coyolxauhqui monolith on display at the Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City, 2010 (Click on image to enlarge)

The major finding of my research was to understand that the Aztecs did not conceive of color in the abstract. Rather they thought of color in terms of its material basis. And this intimate relationship between color and its material manifestation largely determined the uses and meanings of colors in this culture, especially in corporal decoration. To exemplify it, I will present a case study that shows the importance of the materiality of color in the body ornamentation of Aztec gods. Specifically, I will focus on the differences between rubber and soot-based ink, two substances employed to blacken the bodies of gods and men in Aztec society, in which greater insight into meaning can be gleaned from an understanding of the material properties and the symbolic value of these products.

Pic 13: The attire of some Aztec goddesses depicted and described in Nahuatl in a colonial manuscript. Bernardino de Sahagún, ‘Primeros Memoriales’, folio 264r
Pic 13: The attire of some Aztec goddesses depicted and described in Nahuatl in a colonial manuscript. Bernardino de Sahagún, ‘Primeros Memoriales’, folio 264r (Click on image to enlarge)

3. The materiality of color: the example of two black body paintings
The Aztecs conceived of their gods as anthropomorphic beings adorned with polychrome body paint as well as complex insignia that made it possible to differentiate them. These deities are known from the remains of polychrome architectural, sculptural and ceramic production I mentioned before, and above all from the body of Pre-Columbian and colonial manuscripts related to the Aztec cultural tradition, that contain numerous representations in color of the members of the pantheon. In addition, the colonial records refer to the wide array of materials of mineral, plant, and animal origin used to adorn the bodies of Aztec deities (pic 13).

Pic 14: The god Tlaloc and his representative during the festival of Etzalcualiztli.  Sources: Codex Borbonicus, plate 23 (detail). Bernardino de Sahagún, ‘Primeros Memoriales’ folio 261v (detail). Codex Magliabechiano, folio 34r (detai
Pic 14: The god Tlaloc and his representative during the festival of Etzalcualiztli. Sources: Codex Borbonicus, plate 23 (detail). Bernardino de Sahagún, ‘Primeros Memoriales’ folio 261v (detail). Codex Magliabechiano, folio 34r (detai (Click on image to enlarge)

3.1. Rubber

Among these materials, a substance regularly mentioned is rubber, which the Aztecs called olli and obtained from the latex of the Castilla elastica tree. Some of the Aztec gods exhibited a light application of rubber on their faces, while others were completely covered with it. This was the case of earth and rain deities, whose prototype was known as Tlaloc, but also as Ollo, “He who Has Rubber” (pic 14).

Pic 15: The goddess Teteo Innan, or Toci, with her lips painted black with rubber. Bernardino de Sahagún, ‘Primeros Memoriales’ folio 263r (detail)
Pic 15: The goddess Teteo Innan, or Toci, with her lips painted black with rubber. Bernardino de Sahagún, ‘Primeros Memoriales’ folio 263r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Deities exhibiting smaller marks of rubber include the flayed god Xipe Totec, the fire gods Ixcozauhqui and Chantico, the water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, as well as Toci, “Our Grandmother”, and a group of mother goddesses. All of them had rubber smeared on a part of the face, especially the lips (pic 15).

Pic 16: Priests of the water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, with marks of rubber on their faces.  Durán, Diego, ‘Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de la Tierra Firme’ folio 143r (detail)
Pic 16: Priests of the water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue, with marks of rubber on their faces. Durán, Diego, ‘Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de la Tierra Firme’ folio 143r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Descriptions of Aztec festivals confirm the ties that rubber had with these divinities. Rubber was used copiously in the rituals dedicated to water, rain, and earth gods, to paint, model, or splatter their representatives, their priests, their offerings, and the implements required in their worship (pic 16).

Pic 17: Chicomecoatl, the goddess of harvest, with her cheeks painted with two parallel bars of rubber. Tonalamatl Aubin, plate 7 (detail)
Pic 17: Chicomecoatl, the goddess of harvest, with her cheeks painted with two parallel bars of rubber. Tonalamatl Aubin, plate 7 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Rubber was also used in the preparations for the festival honoring the flayed god Xipe Totec, during a parade that displayed the captives destined for the “gladiatorial sacrifice”, who were conceived of as human representatives of ripe maize ears. Likewise, rubber was employed in the rites that involved the bundles of ripe corn whose grains were preserved for sowing: the paper in which they were wrapped was splattered with rubber. This ritual practice reveals that Chicomecoatl, the goddess of the harvest, belonged to the group of deities adorned with rubber, since these bundles of corn were her vegetal image. The iconography also supports this proposal: In the codices, Chicomecoatl displays cheeks painted with the same parallel black bars that denote the presence of rubber on maize (pic 17).

Pic 18: Representation of a rubber ball in the middle of a ballgame field. Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, plate 29 (detail)
Pic 18: Representation of a rubber ball in the middle of a ballgame field. Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, plate 29 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

In light of the coincidence between the ornamental and religious practices involving rubber, it is worth reflecting on the attributes held in common by the gods who shared this plant-based coating. It is also instructive to delve into the physical features and properties of rubber that may have influenced the meanings the Aztecs assigned to this substance. Concerning these characteristics, colonial sources provide vast information, because rubber was a product that sparked the curiosity of the Spaniards as the material used to make the ball for the ritual ballgame (pic 18).

Pic 19: Extracting latex from a rubber tree today
Pic 19: Extracting latex from a rubber tree today (Click on image to enlarge)

By describing this “game,” the chroniclers always record the properties of rubber, fascinated by its ability to bounce. They are also interested in the metamorphosis that transformed the material when it is collected: the bark of the rubber tree is scored to extract latex, which oozes out as a milky substance that coagulates when it come in contact with air and, according to the Franciscan friar Motolinía, becomes as black as pitch (pic 19). Torquemada, another friar, notes that it is impermeable and formes crusts when it thickens.

Pic 20: Infants who had died at an early age feeding from the sap of a tree. Codex Vaticanus A, folio 3v (detail) and split tree spewing blood. Codex Borgia, plate 19 (detail)
Pic 20: Infants who had died at an early age feeding from the sap of a tree. Codex Vaticanus A, folio 3v (detail) and split tree spewing blood. Codex Borgia, plate 19 (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Among these characteristics of rubber, it is difficult to distinguish which of them were significant in Pre-Columbian times from which were recorded by the Spaniards interested in exploiting New World riches. Fortunately, our sources also include testimonies about rubber, whose origin is undoubtedly of indigenous origin: the fundamental analogy between the sap or latex of plants and nutritious or fertilizing liquids like milk, semen, and blood. This analogy is evident in codices, where we observe that the sap of trees can possess the virtues of mother’s milk and feed infants who died at an early age (pic 20l), or appears as blood seeping from cut trunks (pic 20r). This analogy is also verified in an episode from Quiché Maya mythology, in which the heroine uses a rubber-like sap to produce a substitute for her heart. Nowadays, several modern Mesoamerican languages—including Yucatec, Otomi, and Lacandon—illustrate the continuity of this idea, as they use the same word for mother’s milk, semen, blood, sap, and latex.

For picture sources, follow link below to Part 2...

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 11th 2015

emoticon Q. How did the Aztecs make their gods’ faces look even blacker?
A. Rubber bit more on...

Read Part Two...

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