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Professor Davíd Carrasco

Was it true that the Aztecs believed that by wearing masks they took on extra powers? asked Loseley Fields Primary School. Read what Professor Davíd Carrasco had to say.

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Richard Diehl, Mexicolore contributor

The Deep Roots of Aztec Sculpture

We are sincerely grateful to Professor Richard Diehl, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL (USA), for this absorbing study. He has kindly written specially for us an introductory version of a much longer article on this subject that he wrote some years ago.

Pic 1: Head of a feathered serpent, Mexica, basalt, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. This striking head once ornamented Moctezuma II’s palace.
Pic 1: Head of a feathered serpent, Mexica, basalt, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. This striking head once ornamented Moctezuma II’s palace. (Click on image to enlarge)

Large stone sculptures were perhaps the Aztecs’ greatest artistic achievement. While many experts envision the Aztecs as fierce warriors whose main interest was capturing enemy soldiers to sacrifice to their blood-thirsty gods, hundreds of finely carved monuments reveal they also had a fine aesthetic sense, one equal to that of any known civilization in Old or New Worlds.

Pic 2: Aztec stone quarry, Florentine Codex Book 10, plate 40
Pic 2: Aztec stone quarry, Florentine Codex Book 10, plate 40 (Click on image to enlarge)

We must remember that Aztec artisans and sculptors were heirs to a stone carving tradition that extended back 2,000 years through the Toltec, Teotihuacan, and Maya civilizations to the very remote Olmecs of 1,500-400 BCE. In fact, many Aztec sculptural forms and concepts were surprisingly similar to those first invented by the Olmecs, despite the vast gulf in time and space separating the two civilizations. Both cultures excelled in carving human heads, three-dimensional human figures, and animals. These similarities are especially puzzling because they were not found in intervening cultures. How did Aztec sculptors managed to duplicate the work of their distant ancestors? That question remains to be resolved by future archaeologists.

Pic 3: Tlaloc monolith outside the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 3: Tlaloc monolith outside the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The Sculptors’ Art and Craft
Archaeologists have not yet identified Aztec stone quarries and sculptors workshops, so we are lamentably ignorant of how they actually created their masterpieces. All we have is a brief mention of stone carvers by Bernardino de Sahagun, the great Franciscan chronicler of 16th century Aztec life, and a drawing of Aztec stone workers in a quarry executed in a heavily Europeanized style (Pic 2). It is safe to say they used stone tools made from materials harder than the stones they carved, because the copper, gold and bronze metals available to them were far too soft to even scratch the hard andesite, diorite, and basalt they shaped as though they were kneading clay. Studies of unfinished sculptures such as the famous “Tlaloc” monolith from the earlier Teotihuacan period (Pic 3) that now stands in front of Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology could provide welcome insights into the process but none have yet been identified.

Pic 4: Olmec colossal heads: La Venta Monument 1 (L), San Lorenzo Monument 5, Anthropology Museum, Xalapa, Veracruz (R)
Pic 4: Olmec colossal heads: La Venta Monument 1 (L), San Lorenzo Monument 5, Anthropology Museum, Xalapa, Veracruz (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Colossal Heads and Human Sculptures
Both the Aztecs and their remote Olmec ancestors excelled in carving three-dimensional statues of humans and deities in human form meant to be seen from every side as well as human heads on a much larger-than-life scale. Eighteen Olmec “Colossal Heads” are known from four archaeological sites in southwest Mexico. Carved in the centuries between 1,200 and 900 BC, they are thought to represent living or recently deceased rulers at cities such as San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes. Each seems to be a portrait characterized by individual facial features and headdresses. A smudge of painted stucco on one suggests they may have been richly painted but if so, the surfaces have disappeared over the centuries.

Pic 5: Coyolxauhqui head, National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City
Pic 5: Coyolxauhqui head, National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec sculptors did not create many over-sized heads and these depicted deities rather than living people. The famous head of Coyolxahqui, the Aztec Moon Goddess, is an outstanding example. Her closed eyes suggest a death-portrait depicting the aftermath of a decapitation. Coyolxauhqui’s death and the circumstances surrounding it were the theme of a major Aztec myth-cycle that explained the birth of her brother Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec patron-god of war and conquest.

Pic 6: Coyolxauhqui stone, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 6: Coyolxauhqui stone, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

According to the myth, Coyolxahqui and her brothers became enraged when they learned their mother was pregnant. They began to attack her when Huitzilopochtli sprang from her womb as a heavily armed, fully formed adult. He quickly defeated his opponents, dismembering his arrogant sister and sending her head into the sky to become the Moon Goddess. She is also the subject of at least one other well-known Aztec sculpture, a round stone showing the pieces of her corpse that Mexican archaeologists uncovered at the base of the Templo Mayor, the largest pyramid temple in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (Pic 6). The original locale of the sculpture showing her head is unknown but must have been nearby.

Pic 7: Olmec seated person (La Venta Monument 77), Los Angeles County Museum of Arts (L); Xochipilli statute, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (R)
Pic 7: Olmec seated person (La Venta Monument 77), Los Angeles County Museum of Arts (L); Xochipilli statute, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Three-Dimensional Sculptures
Three-dimensional stone sculptures are extraordinarily difficult to carve so their rarity in any ancient Native American cultures is no surprise. Thus their presence in quantity in both Olmec and Aztec cultures, with virtually no examples in the intervening centuries, is quite striking. Monument 77, better known as “The Scribe”, from the Olmec city of La Venta, is a true Olmec masterpiece of carving in the round and the same may be said of the much later Aztec personification of Xochipilli, the Aztec patron deity of dance, song, flowers, and games. While the seated Olmec man appears to depict a local lord or ruler, Xochipilli as clearly identified as a supernatural by his accoutrements. Both men display relaxed but vigilant poses that show the sculptors had the rare ability to capture human emotions in a striking manner. Both men appear to radiate power and self-confidence and seem ready to carry out their respective duties to the people they serve.

Pic 8: Illustration of Olmec jaguar figure from San Lorenzo Monument 7, by Felipe Dávalos
Pic 8: Illustration of Olmec jaguar figure from San Lorenzo Monument 7, by Felipe Dávalos (Click on image to enlarge)

The Natural World
Olmec and Aztec sculptors were as skilled at depicting the animals and plants in their environments as they were of creating human images. Of course, these objects all had supernatural elements in their conception, even when they appeared wholly naturalistic. An Olmec jaguar sculpture was as much a reference to the divine realm as to the night-stalker in the nearby jungle, just as Aztec sculptures of the same animal signaled the feared Tezcatlipoca, God of Sorcerers, Evil and the Underworld.

Pic 9: Olmec jaguar sculpture, El Azuzul Monument 7 (L); Aztec ‘cuauhxicalli’ sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (R)
Pic 9: Olmec jaguar sculpture, El Azuzul Monument 7 (L); Aztec ‘cuauhxicalli’ sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Jaguars (Felis onca) and other felines were a favorite subject for both Olmec and Aztec sculptors. Both created naturalistic as well as stylized depictions with equal facility. Olmec sculptors seem to have had a real fixation on this feared predator, creating many examples in different poses and with varying attributes. Some are shown crouching in completely naturalistic stances while others appear seated in human-like postures that they never assume in real life. As seen in San Lorenzo Monument 7, body proportions and volumes can be very life-like but even the most realistic display some stylized features like the exaggerated teeth of Monument 7 from El Azuzul near San Lorenzo. The ferocious visage of this jaguar is echoed in the much later Aztec Cuauhxicalli, a recipient for the hearts of humans sacrificed to the ever-demanding Aztec deities.

Pic 10: Aztec stone box with maize, squash, man with cacao pod; National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 10: Aztec stone box with maize, squash, man with cacao pod; National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Olmec sculptors paid scant attention to the plant world around them, at least as reflected in their works. In contrast, Aztec artisans devoted considerable effort to accurate depictions of plants, including the staple maize, as well as squash and the other domesticated species that underlay the subsistence base of their very dense population: even cacao (chocolate).

Concluding Remarks
The stone sculptor’s art is unforgiving to those who make mistakes. Once a piece of raw material is removed, it can never be replaced. The artisans who created the masterpieces shown here must have learned their skills through many years of apprenticeship, practice, and must have made many unknown mistakes. We can marvel at their accomplishments and only vaguely understand the agony that preceded the ecstasy, to paraphrase the title of Irving Stone’s classic novel about the life of Michelangelo. Nevertheless, their successes speak to us over the intervening stretches of time and geography in the universal voice of human achievement.

Further Reading
• Diehl, Richard A. 2004 The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization. Thames and Hudson, Ltd.
The Aztec Empire: Catalogue of the Exhibition, Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2004

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1, 3, 6, 7, 10 (bottom and R): Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: 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
• Pix 4 (L), 9 (R): from Wikipedia
• Pix 4 (R), 7 (L), 8, 9 (L): Photos by/illustration courtesy of Richard Diehl
• Pix 5, 10 (top): Photos by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 30th 2012

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Mexicolore replies: Not for nothing were/are the Olmec called ‘The Mother Culture of Mesoamerica’: the influence of art and religion from great Olmec sites such as San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes on the rest of Mesoamerica was huge, though scholars are uncertain whether this cultural diffusion (spread) was the result of trade, common religious beliefs, or imperial domination.
As for Teotihuacán, in the words of Manuel Aguilar-Moreno ‘Goods from this great city traveled as far away as modern New Mexico to the north and modern El Salvador to the south, and their beliefs in the Feather Serpent (Quetzalcóatl) and goggle-eyed Tlaloc continued up to the arrival of Cortés...’