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Mexicolore contributor Claudia Brittenham

What lies underneath Aztec sculpture?

We are indebted to Claudia Brittenham, Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History, University of Chicago (USA) for this truly ‘revealing’ article on the secret carvings hidden beneath Mexica (Aztec) stone sculptures. Read this and you won’t look at these museum pieces in the same way again...!

Pic 1: Coatlicue sculpture, Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico
Pic 1: Coatlicue sculpture, Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Hidden underneath the massive sculpture called the Coatlicue in Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Antropología (picture 1) is a secret carving. Intricately carved on every surface from the top of her snaky heads to the claws on her feet, what is visible seems complete, awe-inspiring in its visual density and iconographic complexity. But if you could tip over this 9 foot tall, 2 ton sculpture, you would see that there is also a carving on the base, hidden from view (picture 2). In this, the Coatlicue is not unique: many Aztec sculptures were carved on their undersides with images which would be inaccessible when the sculpture was in place. The subjects of these hidden images are diverse and varied.

Pic 2: Cast of the underside of the Coatlicue sculpture, Museo Nacional de Antropología
Pic 2: Cast of the underside of the Coatlicue sculpture, Museo Nacional de Antropología (Click on image to enlarge)

One of the most frequent subjects is Tlaltecuhtli, the Earth Lord, an elusive but critically important member of the Aztec pantheon. According to 16th century sources, the Aztecs understood the earth as a ravening beast who cried out for blood, hungering to avenge the act of violence which tore it apart to create the earth and the sky. Yet the earth was also the source of human sustenance: in an attempt to placate the angry deity, the gods caused all the plants necessary for human survival to grow on the earth’s surface. The name, Tlaltecuhtli, or “earth lord,” consists of the word tlalli, or earth, and tecuhtli, a word which we translate as “lord”, but was actually a gender-neutral term for a noble in Nahuatl. Like many Aztec deities, Tlaltecuhtli seems to have had both male and female forms.

Pic 3: Circular stone with female Tlaltecuhtli carved underneath, side and underside views. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico
Pic 3: Circular stone with female Tlaltecuhtli carved underneath, side and underside views. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

It is the male aspect of Tlaltecuhtli which is carved on the bottom of the Coatlicue sculpture (picture 2). The deity is shown in frontal view, crouching with his elbows nearly touching his knees. The date 1 Rabbit, the year in which the earth was created, ornaments his headdress, and beneath it, we can make out encircled eyes, a fanged mouth, and prominent earspools, attributes which associate the deity with the rain god Tlaloc. A round, feathered shield with a quincunx at its center ornaments his belly, and a patterned loincloth hangs between his legs. He grasps two skulls in his clawed hands; four more skulls are lashed to his elbows and knees, and he wears a necklace of miniature skulls around his neck.

Pic 4: Feathered serpent with Tlaltecuhtli underneath, Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico.  Photograph of sculpture and of cast of its underside
Pic 4: Feathered serpent with Tlaltecuhtli underneath, Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico. Photograph of sculpture and of cast of its underside (Click on image to enlarge)

Tlaltecuhtli also appears on the undersides of sculpture in two interrelated female forms: one with a human head and the other with gaping, reptilian jaws (pictures 3 & 4). Both are shown from the back, in a crouching position which elsewhere in Aztec art is a pose of childbirth or generation. Like the male figures, they have skulls lashed to their limbs, but they also have monstrous fanged mouths at joints, hands, and feet. The human figures’ heads are almost severed from their bodies, flopping backwards onto their backs; the reptilian jaws are often split open nearly horizontal to reveal a flint knife for a tongue. Both kinds of figures have curly, disordered hair, sometimes teeming with crawling creatures like scorpions, spiders, and centipedes, used in sorcery and curing rituals.

Pic 5: Coiled serpent, British Museum © Trustees of the British Museum (L top and bottom); undersides of coiled serpents, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico (R)
Pic 5: Coiled serpent, British Museum © Trustees of the British Museum (L top and bottom); undersides of coiled serpents, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

But Tlaltecuhtli is not the only thing carved on the undersides of Aztec sculptures. If you could look underneath a sculpture of a coiled serpent, like this example in the British Museum (picture 5 left), you are likely to find the ridges of the serpent’s ventral scales, spiraling inwards. Here, dots of red pigment have been added to these hidden coils, ornamenting the rattlesnake’s belly. The rhythmic texture of this elaborate carving contrasts with the smooth surface of the gleaming coils above. And it is not alone: nearly a dozen such serpents are known. No two serpents’ coils are alike (picture 5 right); several workshops in Tenochtitlan seem to have made sculptures like these.

Pic 6: Stone toad with carved paws and ‘chalchihuitl’ underneath. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico
Pic 6: Stone toad with carved paws and ‘chalchihuitl’ underneath. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

Other images of animals have hidden carvings as well. A pair of stone toads in the Museo Nacional de Antropología are only minimally carved on their visible surfaces, but hidden underneath, the padded paws of the toads’ curiously mammalian feet are extensively detailed (picture 6). At the center of the toad’s belly is a circular disk with four projecting circles at its edges, the glyph for chalchihuitl, or precious greenstone. It is not clear whether this glyph refers to the color of the toad’s body or signals some other phonetic information - the same glyph is commonly used in the place-name Chalco, for example. While the serpents’ coils or the frogs’ paws might suggest a desire to imitate nature in the round, the inclusion of hidden writing begins to suggest a more complicated universe of meanings.

Pic 7: Stone Ahuitzotl with coiled tail ending in hand underneath. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico.
Pic 7: Stone Ahuitzotl with coiled tail ending in hand underneath. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico. (Click on image to enlarge)

Hidden carvings can be playful and allusive. Here is a seated canine figure, again in the Museo Nacional de Antropología (picture 7). It looks remarkably like a dog, but it is seated on the circular coil of its own unnaturally long tail, which ends - on the underside - in a human hand! This is no ordinary canine but an ahuitzotl, a mythical predator which lurked in Mexico-Tenochtitlan’s many waterways. Ahuitzotl was also the name of the Mexica tlatoani who ruled between 1486 and 1502. So this sculpture can also be understood as a three-dimensional name glyph for the Aztec ruler.

Pic 8: Stone cactus with an image of Tenoch on the underside, Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico. Photograph of sculpture and of cast of its underside. Line drawing by David Recksieck, after Solís 2004: Figure 5
Pic 8: Stone cactus with an image of Tenoch on the underside, Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico. Photograph of sculpture and of cast of its underside. Line drawing by David Recksieck, after Solís 2004: Figure 5 (Click on image to enlarge)

Other sculptures with hidden carvings also have royal connections. Felipe Solís has presented a set of four sculptures, some of them now fragmentary, which are all carved on the bottom with the head and name-glyph of Tenoch, the largely mythical founder of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan (picture 8). These images are carved on the bottoms of stone organ cactuses, skeuomorphs or permanent renditions of a kind of vegetal boundary marker still used in Mexico City today. These stone cacti might have marked the boundary between the cities of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, which falls along a street still called the “Calle del Organo,” perhaps in memory of these very sculptures. They play on a rhetoric of “roots” that is equally powerful in Nahuatl as in English: under the sculpture is Tenoch, dynastic patriarch, who established the boundaries of Tenochtitlan, and lay at the root of the Mexica royal family tree - or perhaps cactus. Here the hidden carving adds unexpected delight to an already clever work, opening up a more richly-layered joke for the small audience in the know.

Pic 9: Greenstone Coyolxauhqui head with ‘atl-tlachinolli’ glyph underneath, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico. Photograph of sculpture and of cast of its underside
Pic 9: Greenstone Coyolxauhqui head with ‘atl-tlachinolli’ glyph underneath, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico. Photograph of sculpture and of cast of its underside (Click on image to enlarge)

But the programs could also be most serious. Underneath a massive greenstone head of the goddess Coyolxauhqui are carved two interlaced serpents, signifying blood, and intertwined with them, the glyphs for fire and water, atl tlachinolli, an expression in Nahuatl that meant “war” (picture 9) In a central episode of Aztec myth, Coyolxauhqui was defeated by her brother Huitzilopochtli, tutelary god of the Mexica; her attack and defeat were the mythical model for all human war. The carving underneath this greenstone sculpture shows that this is not just a bust of the goddess, but her severed head, and claims that all future war flows from this primal conflict—and will end in the same way for the enemies of the Mexica.

Pic 10: Front and underside of a quartz diorite fire serpent (‘xiuhcóatl’), Dumbarton Oaks, Washington. The underside bears Motecuhzoma II’s name glyph and the date 2 Reed, corresponding to 1507, the year of a New Fire Ceremony
Pic 10: Front and underside of a quartz diorite fire serpent (‘xiuhcóatl’), Dumbarton Oaks, Washington. The underside bears Motecuhzoma II’s name glyph and the date 2 Reed, corresponding to 1507, the year of a New Fire Ceremony (Click on image to enlarge)

What is clear from these examples is that Aztec hidden carvings are neither automatic nor random; on the contrary, these invisible images are coherent parts of three-dimensional programs. Top and bottom are never reversible or interchangeable: the carving on the underside of a sculpture belongs, logically and conceptually, on the bottom, where its concealment simultaneously makes programmatic sense and amplifies the symbolic power of the entire program. Carvings on the underside of Aztec sculpture are inseparable from what lies above them. But what is so intriguing about the Aztec works is that the converse is not true. The visible surfaces of the object are complete in and of themselves, meaningful and satisfying, leaving no clue to an uninitiated viewer that something is hidden underneath.

Why make an image no one could see? There is no easy answer, but it is important to remember that artists and patrons, present at the moment of the sculpture’s creation, knew about the carving, and that at least some of the smaller sculptures were small enough to lift and look underneath. Equally importantly, the intended audience may have been divine and not human. These works highlight the ways that art might circulate outside the realm of the visual, spoken or whispered about, perhaps exaggerated or misreported in the heat of conversation. Indeed, the visual details, particularly in the case of the rather illegibly carved Tenoch heads underneath the organ cactuses, might well have mattered less than the sheer existence of the conceit.

Pic 11: Aztec stone slabs were re-used by the Spanish; this piece - probably the base of a church column - bears images of Tlaltecuhtli (earth deity). Nahua labourers made sure the images remained concealed, in contact with the earth itself...
Pic 11: Aztec stone slabs were re-used by the Spanish; this piece - probably the base of a church column - bears images of Tlaltecuhtli (earth deity). Nahua labourers made sure the images remained concealed, in contact with the earth itself... (Click on image to enlarge)

In other cases, though, the underside was richly detailed, perhaps even more elaborate than the visible surface. It represented considerable artistic labor - and the wealth to command it - destined to be concealed. Like an offering in a dedicatory cache, it moved wealth from the earthly realm of the visible to the unseen realm of the gods, while simultaneously demonstrating the piety and magnificence of the patron who could perform such an extravagant gesture. But unlike the caches, which disappeared into the body of a structure, what mattered about the sculptures was that this material and rhetorical wealth was hidden in plain sight. The gods - and elites who knew of the invisible carvings - had access to a reality that others could not know existed.

For more information:-
• Alcina Franch, José, 1989: “La faz oculta de la cultura mexica.” Boletín del Museo Chileno de Arte Precolumbino 3:9-23
• Boone, Elizabeth Hill 1999: “The “Coatlicues” at the Templo Mayor.” Ancient Mesoamerica 10:189-206
• Henderson, Lucia 2007: Producer of the Living, Eater of the Dead: Revealing Tlaltecuhtli, the Two-Faced Aztec Earth. B.A.R. International Series 1649. Oxford: Archaeopress
• López Luján, Leonardo 2010: Tlaltecuhtli. México: Instituto Nacional de Antropolgía e Historia
• Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo 1997: “Tlaltecuhtli, Señor de la Tierra.” Estudios de cultura náhuatl 27:15-40
• Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo, and Leonardo López Luján 2012: Escultura Monumental Mexica. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica
• Nicholson, Henry B. 1967: “A Fragment of an Aztec Relief Carving of the Earth Monster.” Journal de la Société des Américanistes 56(1):81-94
• Solís Olguín, Felipe 2004: “La imagen de Tenoch en los monumentos conmemorativos de la capital azteca.” In Acercarse y mirar: homenaje a Beatriz de la Fuente, edited by María Teresa Uriarte and Leticia Staines Cicero, 357-375. México: Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
• Solís Olguín, Felipe, and Ernesto González Licón 1989: “Tlaltecuhtli, el Señor de la Tierra.” Antropolgía: Boletín Oficial del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. Nueva época 25:26-30

Picture sources:-
• Pix 1, 10 & 11: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore (pic 10 from the British Museum Moctezuma exhibition, London 2010, pic 11 from the Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City)
• Pix 2, 3 (left), 4 (bottom), 5 (right), 6 (bottom), 7 (right), 8 (left and top right), & 9 (bottom): photos from Mexicolore archives
• Pix 3 (right), 4 (top), 6 (top), 7 (left), & 9 (top): photos by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pic 5 (left x2): British Museum Am1849,0629.1, © Trustees of the British Museum
• Pic 8 (bottom right): line drawing by David Recksieck, courtesy of Claudia Brittenham.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Nov 24th 2013

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