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The giant stone Aztec statue of the earth goddess Coatlicue


No other piece of Mexica/Aztec art provokes more controversy, argument, discussion, wonder or awe than the gigantic stone monolith, now in Mexico’s Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Museum of Anthropology) in Mexico City, of the earth goddess Coatlicue (‘She of the Serpent Skirt’). Whether you think it monstrous or sublime, it certainly is a most striking piece of art... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Called everything from ‘the masterpiece of American sculpture’ and ‘the true spirit of art’ to the epitome of a monster, (re-)buried for its ugliness by the Spanish authorities after being unearthed along with the monumental Sunstone in 1790, poor Coatlicue has suffered from decades if not centuries of abuse - but also of praise. We have no intention here of going into the fascinating detail of the statue, but prefer simply to quote from what one commentator has described as ‘among the best [lines] ever written on the subject’ - namely, the work of Paul Westheim, in his 1950 classic Arte Antiguo de México (‘The Art of Ancient Mexico’)...

The head of Coatlicue, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
The head of Coatlicue, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

She, the earth goddess, mother of all that is created, determines the length of that intermezzo between two eternities that is called life, that brief moment given to the individual to walk in light. There is no conjuration to offset her acting; there are only periods of grace that can be wrung from her by force of adoration and constant sacrifices... In that great Aztec work nothing is analyzed. None of the many legendary and frightful actions of the divinity is related. There is no story; there is no action. In majestic calm, immobile, impassive - a fact and a certainty - the goddess stands before the spectator: a monument, a symbol, a concept.

Coatlicue, the side view
Coatlicue, the side view (Click on image to enlarge)

And all the plastic resources - decorative and symbolic at the same time - all the details, represented with clarity and precision, the serpentine jaws and bodies, the human hearts and the severed hands, the animal claws; everything has the one purpose of accentuating and dramatising the tremendous power of the earth goddess so that the spectator, i.e., the believer who devoutly approaches the image, re-creates it in his imagination.

Source: The Aztec Image in Western Thought by Benjamin Keen, Rutgers University Press, 1971, p. 521.

Photos by Ana Laura Linda/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 01st 2017

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