By Michele Leight
The Aztec Empire exhibition at The Solomon
R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which is on view from October
14, 2004 to February 13, 2005, brings the wonders of Mexico's
ancient civilization to life in the hallowed, sinuously curved
galleries of one of the most famously "modern" art museums
in the world, designed by the legendary architect Frank Lloyd
Wright. The huge show, which includes 435 objects, is a wonderful
cocktail of inspiration, imagination, technical audacity and an
affirmation of culture as a bond and a bridge between diverse
peoples and ideologies.
The show has many spectacular works such as
a fragment of an anthropomorphic brazier, shown above. The fired
clay and pigment fragment measures 18 by 22 by 9 centimeters and
was executed circa 1300 A.D., and is in the collection of the
Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Arte, UNAM, Mexico City. The
catalogue notes that "The passage of time was one of the
main concerns in Mesoamerican society; thus, many depictions of
its passage allude to different aspects of the Mesoamerican view
of the cosmos." "The original function of this object,"
the catalogue entry continued, "must have been to decorate
a brazier. The three faces depict three phases in which time and
humans are closely related. The central face is jovial and full
of vigor, referring to the time when individuals are during their
most productive years in a society. By way of contrast, the exterior
mask has closed eyes, alluding to the opposite phase, death. In
between is a period of no less importance, the state that arrives
with experience: old age."
The young have a special affinity for Mr. Wright's
architecture - as they do with building blocks and Lego - so parents
might find the kids more than willing to absorb this unique combination
of inspired modern building and ancient art - once they actually
On my second visit to the Aztec show, one sleepy
toddler awoke from a slumber in his stroller to the vista of suffused
light entering the museum from aloft. Amazed, the infant's mouth
formed a wordless "O" as he pointed upward with a tiny
forefinger to the famous Frank Lloyd Wright "spiders-web"
skylight, framed by the curved runway galleries that allowed his
mother easy access with the stroller to the exhibits. He smiled
as if to say, "Thanks Ma, this is cool."
Mama shared his enthusiasm and then directed
her son's now harnessed attention to a juicy carnelian "Grasshopper,"
circa 1500 A.D., from the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia, INAH,
Mexico City. It measures 19.5 by 16 by 47 centimers. Art and cultural
appreciation starts young, and this show has kid-friendly artifacts.
The juicy critter is carved from red volcanic rock called carnelian.
Wonderfully realistic, its legs are tucked under its body as if
it is ready to jump. The exhibition catalog includes details of
where it was found:
"This spectacular sculpture was discovered
at the end of the nineteenth century in the main reservoir and
canal system that the Aztecs built in Chapultepec, where a freshwater
spring fed into the canals that brought potable water to Mexico-Tenochtitlan.
The name 'Chapultepec' translates as 'hill of the grasshopper.'
...Grasshoppers also marked the period following the rainy season,
when they blanketed crop fields."
The show contains many benign and beautiful
artifacts connected to everyday life and domesticity. Pipes, jewelry,
combs, vessels, pitchers and the most covetable bowls and dishes
in coral and earth tones, including an Aztec "Solar Plate,"
31 centimeters in diameter, of fired clay, circa 1500 A.D., from
the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia, Mexico City. The catalog
is invaluable for more detailed information:
"This delicate plate...is profoundly symbolic
of the sun god, Tonatiuh: the 'midday star,' who, with the eagle,
(his guardian animal spirit, or nahual), is the scene's principal
motif. The figures depict the sun's daily voyage, as it glides
from east to west, bestowing light and warmth upon humanity. The
elements that complement the central motif reinforce the astronomical
and calendrical features of the geometric designs, which make
up the thirteen bands that coprise the celestial planes. The first
band uses twenty-nine circles to indicte the twenty-nine-day lunar
cycle. The third band contains the Xicalcoliuqui, the plane in
which the sun moves, here represented by twenty spirals that symbolize
the days of the ritual calendar. Finally, the fifth band is associated
with fire through the fifth circles that are equivalent to ten
times the value of the quincunx."
It is truly amazing how accurately the Aztecs
plotted out the solar system and the universe without so much
as a pair of binoculars - let alone the advanced telescopes that
scientists, astronomers, celestial mechanics and physicists use
One of the exhibition's smaller but very fascinating
objects is a gold and jade lip plug with the figure of a cox-cox
bird. The Mixtec object is dated circa 1200-1521 A.D., and is
4.3 centimeters long and 1.1 centimeter in diameter. It is in
the collection of the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, INAH. The
catalogue notes that it was used as a body ornament and was "passed
through the perforation of the lower lip so that the head of the
bird came out of the opening." "Such ornaments,"
it continued, "were known as tentetl (stone for the
lip) and in the period after contact with the Spanish, they were
called bezotes (lower lip rings). The gold setting is made
by melting, and the stone is a spectacular green color....The
perforation shown in the beak undoubtedly served for the placement
of feathers similar to those placed in nose ornaments. Probably
this bird represented the sun and was used by priests or lords
as an insignia of power."
Another extraordinary object is a "Warrior's
teponaztli," a double-tongued slit drum carved from a hollowed-out
piece of wood that the catalogue describes as "one of the
most interesting musical instruments in the pre-Hispanic tradition."
"Still used today," the catalogue continued, "it
is played by hitting its 'tongues' with rubber-covered sticks;
the hollow part acts as the drum's resonator." This teponaztli
is made of wood and shell and measures 14 by 15 by 60 centimeters
and is in the collection of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia,
INAH, in Mexico City. The Aztec drum is dated circa 1500 and depicts
a reclining human figure.
Another teponaztli is depicted in a stone sculpture
that is known as a Macuilxochitl teponaztli votice. This Aztec
sculpture is dated circa 1500 and measures 35 by 72 by 26 centimeters
and is in the collection of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia,
INAH, in Mexico City.
The catalogue provides the following commentary:
"A number of Aztec ritual ceremonies were
carried out using musical instruments to accompany songs and dances.
These included flutes made of clay, conch shell trumpets, and
horizontal drums (teponaztlis). The latter, made of hollowed-out
tree trunks fashioned into double-tongued slit drums, were played
with sticks made of deer antlers orother materials. This sculpture,
which was used for ritual purposes, depicts a teponaztli dedicated
to the patron god of music, Xochipilli-Machuilxochitl. The instrument
is supported by a ring of knotted fibers known as a yahual,
while the end of the drum are covered with jaguar skins, symbolic
of the god's rank. His nose and eyebrows are fashioned from a
flowering plant, while his eyes take the form of elongated palms.
His mouth is in the shape of a stylized butterfly, and he wears
the magnificent earspools characteristic of Xochipilli."
To set the current exhibition in the context
of global civilizations of the times, the Aztec Empire of the
13th to the 16th century was a counterpart of the European intellectual
movement in the sciences and the arts known as the Renaissance,
which reached its peak in the 15th century. As the show demonstrates,
the Aztecs drew on even older civilizations to reinforce their
stature, and the arts were considered every bit as important to
them as the sciences - which is always a sign of superior intelligence.
Millions of Mexicans live in the United States,
and at the exhibitions' press preview Jorge Hierro, Executive
Director of Institutional Relations for Banamex, one of the sponsors
of the show, thanked Thomas Krens, Director of the Solomon R.
Guggenheim Museum for "the opportunity to take the best of
Mexico to the rest of the world."
The Consul General of Mexico in New York, Arturo
Sarukan, described the show as "an opportunity to appreciate
the creations of people of other countries; he called it a "new
curatorial trend, a true challenge for the organizers and the
public," and one that offered Americans an alternative view
of Mexicans to "illegal immigrants and drug pushers."
Peter Jennings selected Felipe Solis of the
Museo Nacional de Anthropologia e Historia of Mexico and the exhibition's
guest curator, as "Person of the Week" on ABC's World
News Tonight on October 14th, 2004, and included commentary demonstrating
the curator's obvious love for his people, country and culture
that echoed in his impassioned comments at the press preview:
"The Aztec Empire represents a glorious epoch, characterized
by the legendary magnificence of its kings, its capital and its
deities. Open your eyes to know these people," he said.
Ancient works of great originality and beauty
have always evoked paradigms in modern art and sculpture - and
vice versa. The textural qualities of some of the stone pieces
in the Aztec show evoke some of the sculptures at the retrospective
exhibition of Isamu Noguchi at the Whitney Museum of American
Art on exhibit at the same time, just as Noguchi's sculpture reminded
this reviewer of the ancient artworks from Mexico viewed barely
a week earlier at the Guggenheim - pounded, windblown and patinaed
by centuries of heat, wind, dust, burial and the plain old passage
Noguchi is the master of surface texture created
in modern times to simulate ancient effects, while the magnificent
sculptures of The Aztec's have earned their textures through longevity.
Try to see "The Aztecs" and "Isamu Noguchi"
in the same week and marvel as the years and civilizations fuse
and melt away in the ageless, universal language of great art.
Catalogue # 237, Xicahuaztli, is an impressive
Aztec stone sculpture that measures 110 by 26.5 by 15 centimeters
and is dated circa 1500. It is in the collection of the Museo
Arquelogico del Estado, "Dr. Roman Piña Chán,"
in Teotenango. The Aztecs believed that the sun was armed with
a fire serpent, according to the catalogue, "for its struggle
against the forces of darkness." "In its more beneficent
nature," the entry continued, "its rays fertilized and
accelerated the growth of vegetation. Thus, the appearance of
objects with frank phallic associations should not come as a surprise;
these can be understood as the sun's rays or penis. This sculpture
is the symbolic representation of that element; the upper section
depicts a great chalchihuitl (jade symbol of preciousness)
and the ray that consists of four superimposed triangular sections."
The Aztecs associated coyotes with sexuality
and appreciated its strength and cunning. They were also, according
to the catalogue, "objects of veneration...: people prayed
to the god Huehuecoyotl for health and long life." "Moreover,"
the catalogue continued, "the coyote was the emblem of an
important military order. These creatures were represented in
sculptures and reliefs in very diverse styles and poses. This
sculpture depicts a coyote sitting on its haunches, its abundant,
long fur covering its entire body in imitation of the rhythmic
placement of a quetzal's feathers. Coyotes were patrons of the
amanteca, the featherwork artisans of pre-Hispanic Mexico; this
connection explains why coyotes wre depicted with feathers."
The coyote is beautifully stylized in marked
contrast to some of the larger and more memorable sculptures in
Not as dramatic but strangely moving, is a
stunning Olmec anthropomorphic mask, circa 1100-600 B.C., in the
collection of the Museo del Templo Mayor. Carved from greenstone,
it came from a region within the present states of Guerrero, Oaxaca
and Puebla and is the oldest known object in the Templo Mayor.
Kids, however, might not find all the objects
in the show so charming as the Aztec culture can be awesomely
ferocious and terrifying.
Like several recent major exhibitions
at the Guggenheim, the show's installation has been specially
designed (see The City
Review article). For
his show, Enrique Norten of TEN Arquitectos + J. Meejin Yoon created
an undulating ribbon wall covered with dark gray wool felt along
the museum's ramps. According to the museum's press release, "As
it bends and peels to accommodate the various scales of the works
on view, the wall creates new spatial experiences along the ramps,"
adding that "By focusing on the experience of the perimeter
and periphery, as opposed to the center, the project accommodates
the curatorial themes of the exhibition, while at the same time
providing a smooth and non-uniform system for displaying an array
At the base of the rotunda
are three striking Aztec sculptures, circa 1500 A.D. Two of them
are Xiuhtecuhtli and Coatlicue, both large and imposing figures
that were donated in the 19th Century by Josefa Atecechea to the
Museo Nacional de Antropologia, INAH, in Mexico City. The former
is composed of stone, shell and obsidian and measures 112 by 38
by 31 centimeters. The catalogue provides the following commentary
on this work:
"The Aztec sculptural
tradition is known for its images of the culture's principal deities,
such as this spectacular devotional statue of the god Xiuhtecuhtli,
who is depicted as the sun personified as a vigorous youth. His
hands, which appear to be in motion, were used to hold standards.
Heis clothed in a maxtiatl (loincloth) tied around his hips. In
addition, he proudly wears a cloak as well as sandals; both are
adorned with rays representing sunlight. Shell and obsidian inlay
decorates Xiuhtecuhtli's eyes and mouth, giving the figure a realistic
appearance. The figure has several perforations in its head, in
which locks of human hair would have been placed."
The second figure, Coatlicue,
measures 115 by 40 by 35 centimeters and is composed of stone,
turquoise, shell, and pigment. The catalogue provides the following
commentary on this work:
"At the height of its
military might, expansion, and cultural influence, the Aztec empire
imposed its own tradition of sculpture in the regions near the
Valley of Mexico. This figure of the earth goddess, Coatlicue
comes from Coxcatian, a town in the Valley of Tehuacan (in the
south of the modern-day state of Puebla) whose sculpture was particularly
influenced by the Aztecs. Coatlicue's name means 'serpent skirt';
she was important because she was the mother of Huitzilopochtli,
the Aztecs' patron god. The glyph for the goddess's calendrical
name, derived from the 260-day ritual calendar, is carved on the
back of the sculpture's head....Mosaic inlay of turquoise and
shell is preserved on the figure's skull-like face. In addition,
traces of pigment remain on her sash and her skirt of intertwining
The third major Aztec sculpture
on the rotunda floor is a gigantic and fearsome stone serpent
head and which is dated circa 1250-1521 A.D. It measures 90 by
92 by 155 centimeters and is in the collection of the Museum Nacional
de Antropologia, INAH, Mexico City. This type of sculpture was
usually placed along the stairs of temples as "protection"
for the god. Shown bearing its fangs, this serpent is not easily
ignored or forgotten.
Even more impressive than the Xiuhtecuhtli and Coatlicue statues
is one of Mictlantecuhtl. The fired clay, stucco and pigment statues
measures 176 by 80 by 50 centimeters and is dated circa 1480 A.D.,
and is in the collection of the Museo del Templo Mayor, INAH,
Mexico City. The catalogue provides the following commentary on
this fabulous work:
"The god of the underworld,
Mictlantecuhtl, has been majestically rendered in this sculpture
made of clay in five anatomical segments. It represents the numen
in a threatening guise. He has claws, appears to be almost fleshless
and to have rotting scrabs, and has holes on his head, which were
probably used to hold curly hair. From his chest hangs a representation
of a liver, which was believed to house the ihiyotl, a
kind of soul associated with the underworld and the passions.
The god presided over Mictlan, the destination of those who died
from old age or common sickness. It was believed that Mictlantecuhtl
craved human blood, so it was given to him in offerings. This
sculpture was found next to a similar one in the building known
as the House of the Eagles, north of the Templo Mayor in Tenochtitian."
One of the highlights of the
exhibition is the Aztec Eagle Warrior statue of fired clay, stucco
and pigment. It measures 170 by 118 by 55 centimeters and is dated
1440-1469 A.D., and is in the collection of the Museo del Templo
Mayor, INAH, Mexico City. "This imposing sculpture,"
the catalogue remarked, "represents a standing man wearing
a helmet in the form of an eagle, from whose beak the warrior's
face emerges. His costume also includes stylized wings, its feathers
made of stucco, and the talons of a raptor. Executed by highly
skilled artisans, the work was assembled from five sections of
molded and modeled clay with an internal support. Although the
figure was previously thought to represent an eagle warrior, more
recent research suggests that it may have been a different evocation
of the sun following its trajectory across the sky. This extraordinary
sculpture is one of two found in the House of Eagles, an imposing,
neo-Toltec building in Tenochtitian in which Aztecs performed
penances, prayers, autosacrifices, and offerings."
One of the most striking and haunting sculptures
in the exhibition is "Xipe Totec," an Aztec fired clay
and pigment work that measures 97 by 43 by 20 centimeters. Dated
circa 1500, it is in the collection of the Museo Regional de Puebla,
INAH. "The planting ceremony was one of the most important
rituals conducted by the Aztecs, given their belief that out of
death germinated life, a cycle necessary for their survival,"
the catalogue observed, adding that "The ritual for the god
Xipe Totec consisted by flaying a warrior or female victim and
then dressing the priest performing the ceremony in the skin of
the sacrified. The priest woul wear the skin for several days,
until it began to harden and shrink, at which point it would come
apart and allow the priest's healthy body to emerge, symbolizing
the cycle of death and life."
Ever since my childhood exposure to the Aztecs
at The Museum of Mankind at its old headquarters at Burlington
House in London, I have been a huge fan of Aztec creativity, so
in my case Mr. Solis was preaching to the converted. The show
at the Guggenheim is biased towards the most pleasing aspects
of Aztec civilization and it is noticeable that there are far
fewer sacrificial daggers and references to human sacrifice in
the Guggenheim exhibit than there were at Burlington House; gory
as it seemed back then in the tender teenage years, the daggers
got and maintained my attention for life, so my only criticism
of this show would be the down-playing of the ritual violence
that was ever-present in the lives of this particular ruling elite.
The young, who are wise and fooled by nothing,
are fascinated by the less tolerant human tendencies in any given
culture, and it would not have hurt this show to include more
of that aspect of the Aztec ruling class.
As the young know from playground politics
and the history books they are required to read throughout their
schooling, all cultures have a violent artery, or less than perfect
underbelly - not the least of which being the British who used
hanging, drawing and quartering well into the 18th century to
punish wrong doers and to entertain the crowds who flocked to
these barbaric rituals as we might now go to the theatre or rock
concerts - this was a good three hundred years after the Aztec
empire. I studied the Tudors in depth - and therefore mentally
endured many beheadings and gruesome executions - so I have no
illusions. To my knowledge the Aztecs never beheaded a queen in
It was only recently that the electric chair
was put aside as being an unnecessarily barbaric means of ending
a convict's life - but art, in the form of Andy Warhol's lurid
silkscreen images, reminded us of the barbarism inherent in our
own civilization, as did those gruesome, jade handled daggers
at The Museum of Mankind. They instantly connected my childhood
sensibilities with the relentless obsession of all civilizations
with death, ritual and punishment. So before anyone gets on their
high horse about human sacrifice - which the Aztecs practiced
to appease the gods, not as a punishment - check the history books.
One can only hope that the end came fast for
the poor victims, because thousands were ritually sacrificed over
the years at Aztec rites and ceremonies. In fact Aztec armies
sometimes went out to conquer other peoples specifically to obtain
more prisoners for sacrificial offerings. There are numerous ritual
vessels at the show that were used to contain the extracted hearts.
One thing is certain: human life was cheap back then and the eye-contact
required to end the life another human seems so much more violent
now than a speedy bullet. Ultimately the Aztecs were confronted
with their nemesis - the conquistadors - with their sophisticated
steel arms and armor, their horses and their smallpox.
When shows like "The Aztec Empire"
are set in a modern environment, both the old and the new become
magnified - and somehow more beautiful. It is a fitting juxtaposition
as diverse cultures cross over and seek dialogue with one another
as part of globalization, a concept that Mr. Krens has very actively
pursued in his expansion of Guggenheim museums.
Art often seeks to foster tolerance and understanding
between peoples and nations and modern architecture accentuates
the ancient magnificence and feats of engineering of early and
inspired patrons of art like the Aztecs.
The Aztec civilization spanned 3000 years in
its entirety, and the most memorable pieces of this exhibition
were created at different phases of the Empire's rule. The capital
city of the Aztecs was Mexico Tenochtitlan, a stunning and sophisticated
feat of urban planning. This metropolis was conceived as the axis
mundi, or the epicenter of their sacred universe. The city was
made up of four original neighborhoods in which the entire tribe
was accommodated when it was founded. The central quadrangular
space housed the most important ritual building, the first among
them being the Templo Mayor, dedicated to the worship of Huitzilopochtil,
the patron god of war, and Tlaloc, the god of rain.
Whenever an Aztec governor ascended to the
throne the architectural complex was expanded. By the end of the
15th century the monumentality and greatness of the Templo Mayor
had spread throughout Mesoamerica. Elegant figures modeled in
clay, like "The Eagle Warrior," decorated the complex,
and fortunately for us the Aztec devotion to their deities lead
them to deposit hundreds of offerings - which have been recovered
by archaeologists and exhibited in museums.
"The Eagle Warrior" soars above the
viewer in a dramatically darkened gallery off the main curved
exhibit runway. He is both inspiring and intimidating - a reminder
of a time when men were men and the only way to prove it was by
physical strength and prowess - and victory in battle, once again
reflecting the Greek and Roman adulation for warriors.
Images of gods and warriors remain the most
outstanding and memorable at this show, mirroring the Greek and
Roman pre-occupation with their "power elite" in art
and sculpture. Without great soldiers and warriors, the great
empires would never have been secure enough from invasion to prosper
and leave their mark upon world civilization through their artisans.
As with other empires, Aztec society was strictly divided into
the nobility and commoners - the former were allowed to accumulate
and display wealth, live in palatial buildings, practice polygamy,
hold public office, receive tributary payment - and remain exempt
from manual labor.
In contrast, the Aztec commoners, who represented
the bulk of the population, were responsible for all heavy labor,
lived in simple huts, dressed in rough clothing, were required
to be monogamous, and were prohibited on pain of death from accumulating
or exhibiting wealth. However, there was some leniency for artisans
and merchants: while still classified as commoners, they were
exempted from farm work, but in exchange they had to pay as tribute
the objects they produced with their own hands or those they brought
from other territories.
Perhaps this explains the consistently high
standard of craftsmanship of Aztec artifacts. Farm work in those
days was tough: toiling all day in the burning sun with oxen and
plough or digging with primitive instruments in hard, baked earth
was far less attractive than making artworks - but one had to
have the talent to qualify.
The Aztec religious universe was complex and
in many ways mirrored the ancient Greeks and Romans: the dominant
god was Huitzilopochtli, who guided them to the site of Mexico-Tenochtitlan,
the place from which in their own eyes and imaginations they would
dominate the universe. He was the solar warrior above all warriors
- akin to the Greek god Apollo.
Quetzalcoatl features prominently in this show
as he did at the Museum of Mankind all those years ago; he is
the god of civilization (not as prominent as the god of war),
and patron of the wind. His more venerated brother was Tezcatlipoca,
ancestral divinity of nocturnal war and patron of virility. It
is interesting that day and night warfare each had a deity - this
was before night-vision and other technological aids, so it might
backfire on the community to tire out the 'day' warrior god by
making him work overtime.
Mother Earth's attributes were also deified:
Coatlicue embodied the origin of life; Tlaltecuhtli embodied the
final destination of man - and Chicomicoatl was responsible for
the creation of food, perhaps the toughest of all miracles to
perform in the arid landscape of Mexico in the days before irrigation
Then as now, food was the cornerstone of survival;
all Mesoamerican peoples based their economy on the intensive
cultivation of maize, chili, squash and beans, therefore Tlaloc
and his companion Chalchiuhtlicue, the gods of rain and water
respectively, played a crucial role in indigenous religion. There
were a great variety of rites and ceremonies, differentiated in
accordance with the worship of each deity, the one already discussed
being the well-known extraction of the heart in which the sacrificial
knife was used. Related sacred objects were the altar table where
this practice was carried out and the receptacle that contained
the human hearts and their blood, the sacred food.
Besides human sacrifices, the Aztecs are probably
best known for their writing and calendars, impressive even today
for their ingenuity and brilliance. Glyphs, or pictographs, were
used to record history, geographic environments and mythic tales;
the surfaces on which these were rendered included stone, ceramics,
textiles as well as books known as codices, mainly drawn on argave-fibre
paper and deerskin.
The numbering system for calendars was based
on groups of 20, with a method of circles or dots that each had
the value of one. There were two parallel calendars in Mesoamerica:
one was a solar, agricultural calendar of 360 working days, to
which were added five unlucky days called nemontemi.
As might be expected, the Aztecs were not content
to sit quietly and enjoy their own success: they aspired to conquer,
and they did. From the time when the Aztecs first founded their
capital city, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the religious ideology that
would inspire them was evident, and they began military conquests
of various neighboring peoples. Based on religious and economic
militarism, their territorial expansion allowed them to constitute
a powerful empire.
There were many high-points and victories over
territories and neighboring peoples during the Aztecs' reign,
but the Tarascans, who are represented on the sixth floor of the
exhibition, maintained their military and political hold in Western
Mexico and established a line of fortifications to mark their
border. The consolidation of their empire occurred in 1370. They
settled in ancient villages and conquered an extensive territory
that included the present day state of Michoacan and bordering
areas, their boundaries stretching into the Pacific.
Tzintzuntzan became the center of their empire,
and was the capitol later known to the Spanish conquistadors.
Like the Aztecs, the Tarascans were distinguished by their capacity
for war. They were the only indigenous people able to prevent
the Aztec empire from expanding into their territory.
All great civilizations come to an end, and
the sun began to set on the Aztec empire when the boots of Cortes
and a band of ragged European adventurers touched ground on the
coast of Mexico in 1519. They brought with them four-legged creatures
that could out run the fastest human amd which had never before
been seen by indigenous peoples: horses. Once they were loaded
up on horses in full armor, including steel helmets with plumes
which were impervious to clubbing - the chief weapon of The Aztecs
- bearing somewhat unpredictable muskets but more importantly
steel swords, and formidable spears and lances, they were the
ultimate fighting machine - like the tanks of today. No match
for the men on the ground. But as we shall see, it was in fact
not the weapons but the conquistadors' germs that decimated the
indigenous populations, including The Aztecs.
The Spanish conquistadors were only interested
in gold and had little interest or respect for the gorgeous Aztec
treasures and artifacts wrought in the precious metal, which they
melted down as soon as they found it. Only a few precious examples
of gold jewelry survive today as a reminder of the glory of ancient
Mexico - including some pieces at this show.
Sadly, the religious fanaticism of the conquering
armies barred any appreciation - or will to understand - the indigenous
societies way of life. They systematically destroyed the majestic
Mesoamerican cities and used the ruins to construct what would
become colonial cities.
The end came on August 13, 1521 with the bloody
taking of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the crowning glory and the capitol
city of Aztec civilization by the conquistadors, and the defeat
of Motecuhzoma II. The Tarascan governor, Tangaxoan II, was assassinated
by the Spanish conquistador Beltran Nuno de Guzman in 1530, but
the Tarascans did not put up any great resistance, believing that
the European armies were fulfilling the prophecies of the gods.
However, here is how Jared Diamond, winner
of the Pulitzer Prize winning "Guns, Germs and Steel: The
Fates of Human Societies" sees the real demise of this great
"The importance of lethal microbes in
human history is well illustrated by Europeans' conquest and depopulation
of the New World. Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian
germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords. Those
germs undermined Indian resistance by killing most Indians and
their leaders and by sapping the survivors' morale. For instance,
in 1519 Cortes landed on the coast of Mexico with 600 Spaniards,
to conquer the fiercely militaristic Aztec Empire with a population
of many millions. That Cortes reached the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan,
escaped with the loss of "only" two-thirds of his force,
and managed to fight his way back to the coast demonstrates both
Spanish military advantages and the initial naivete of the Aztecs.
But when Cortes's next onslaught came, the Aztecs were no longer
naïve and fought street by street with the utmost tenacity.
What gave the Spaniards a decisive advantage was smallpox, which
reached Mexico in 1520 with one infected slave from Spanish Cuba.
The resulting epidemic proceeded to kill nearly half of the Aztecs,
including Emperor Cuitlahuac. Aztec survivors were demoralized
by the mysterious illness that killed Indians and spared Spaniards
- they were resistant having already been exposed to smallpox
in Europe, as if advertising the Spaniards' invincibility. By
1618, Mexico's initial population of about 20 million had plummeted
to about 1.6 million."
One of the artifacts I loved the most at the
Aztec show had all elements of a great Rufino Tamayo - chalky,
suffused earth tones and pigments, fine drawing and heroic subject
matter. It is the stucco and pigment "Fragment of a mural
painting," Teotihuacan, circa 100-600 A.D. from the Museo
de Antropologia, Mexico City.
The mural is one of few surviving paintings,
recovered from recent archaeological excavations, revealing the
mythical and religious philosophy of the people, and of course
their fervently warlike natures. It features a 'jaguar warrior,'
once a vibrant red, a color associated with strength and war,
now faded like the empire, with his face emerging from the feline
jaws of his jaguar-shaped helmet. It is astonishing how many cultures,
separated by centuries and continents, have spawned similar feline
helmets for their warriors - the English, Germans, Romans, Etruscans
to name a few - to inspire and strengthen their resolve and prowess
in battle. Splendidly attired in the padded,
noble garb of Teotihuacan - no steel armor here to halt his fluid
movements - the jaguar warrior holds in one hand a square shield
decorated with feathers, and in the other the bleeding-conch used
to sound the call to war.
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