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The Wellcome Building, London

‘The Heart’ exhibition

From June to September 2007 The Wellcome Collection (part of the Wellcome Trust) put on an unusual exhibition, simply titled ‘The Heart’, which followed our anatomical knowledge of the heart, but which also considered its far-reaching cultural and symbolic significance. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Wellcome Collection is a ‘mix of galleries, events, and meeting, reading and eating places’
Wellcome Collection is a ‘mix of galleries, events, and meeting, reading and eating places’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Aware that the heart’s symbolic power was central to Aztec culture, the curators gave the Aztecs centre stage in the exhibition, and borrowed a few iconic Aztec objects from museums on both sides of the Atlantic, including the British Museum, the National Anthropology Museum of Mexico City, and the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin.

Aztec objects on display in ‘The Heart’
Aztec objects on display in ‘The Heart’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Thanks to the latter, visitors were treated to a close-up view of one of the very few surviving Aztec sacrificial knives where the original blade and wooden handle remain intact.

Aztec sacrificial knife and a famous image from the Codex Magliabecchano
Aztec sacrificial knife and a famous image from the Codex Magliabecchano (Click on image to enlarge)

The British Museum loaned its unique wooden-and-mosaic-handle and chalcedony-blade Aztec knife, along with a large stone offering vessel or ‘cuauhxicalli’, with its decorative bands of feathers and hearts and representation of ‘4-Movement’ (the fifth and present world era). The majority of captive warriors taken in battle by the Aztecs met their end in ritual heart-extraction sacrifice (‘tlacamictiliztli’ in Náhuatl), in which the victim would be held by four priests face up over a large stone. A fifth priest would open the chest cavity with an obsidian blade (tecpatl) and extract the heart, to be offered to the Sun (Tonatiuh) and then placed in a special offering vessel - the cuauhxicalli.

Greenstone ‘Heart of Copil’, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Greenstone ‘Heart of Copil’, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

From Mexico came the famous ‘Heart of Copil’ greenstone, a votive sculpture found near the Templo Mayor. According to Aztec myth, their capital city Tenochtitlan was founded on the buried heart of Copil (son of Malinalxochitl, an evil sorceress, enemy of the Mexica people and sister of Huitzilopochtli), from which grew a large prickly pear cactus with an eagle perched on top - the basis for the Mexican national emblem. Copil, killed by the Mexica on orders from Huitzilopochtli, was symbolically if not literally the first victim of Aztec human sacrifice - his heart was thrown into the middle of Lake Texcoco.

Aztec stone cuauhxicalli - stone offering vessel - from the British Museum
Aztec stone cuauhxicalli - stone offering vessel - from the British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

As the exhibition introduction says: ‘The heart, widely understood as the place where life begins and ends, has always featured as a potent symbol in our religions, myths and rituals... [and] ...we remain reluctant to let go of the notion - deeply rooted in everyday language and imagery - that the heart is the home of our emotions and of our true character.’

The founding of Tenochtitlan - illustration by Miguel Covarrubias from ‘The Aztecs: People of the Sun’ by Alfonso Caso
The founding of Tenochtitlan - illustration by Miguel Covarrubias from ‘The Aztecs: People of the Sun’ by Alfonso Caso (Click on image to enlarge)
The Wellcome Collection website

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