Aztec art – Characteristics, Definition and Origin

The Aztecs were a tribe of the Nahuatl culture. They lived in the area known as Mesoamerica between the 12th and 16th centuries. The people of Nahuatl at some point began to call themselves Mexicas (pronounced meshicas) or Tenochcas (inhabitants of Tenochtitlan). The Aztec term means ‘from Aztlán’ which was the tribal name of the Aztecs. The use of the term “Aztec” was started by the German naturalist and geographer Alexander Von Humboldt in the 19th century. Humboldt used the term in reference to all the peoples related to the Mexicas. He did this to distinguish the Aztecs from today’s Mexicans. Since then its use has become widespread, although it is essentially incorrect.

The culture of the Mexicas has legends surrounding its origin. They believe that they left Aztlán mythical ‘place of the herons’ or ‘place of whiteness’ or ‘the origin’ (all translations from the Nahuatl language). They traveled for a long time waiting for a sign from Huitzilpochtli (God as a figure for the Nahuatl). Huitzilpochtli was said to have murdered his nephew Copil and thrown his heart into a lake.

Keywords : Aztec sculpture, Aztec culture

It was believed that the new city should be based in the heart of Copil. When they arrived at an island in a lake, they saw an eagle that was perched on a Nopal cactus full of its fruits (nochtli). Due to a mistranslation, Tesozomoc became popular to say that the eagle was devouring a snake, but in the original Aztec tales, the snake is not mentioned. Some say that it ate a bird, others indicate that it was only found in the cactus, and a third says that it ate something.

This vision fulfilled a prophecy saying that they found their new home there. The Aztecs built their city of Tenochtitlan on that site on Lake Texcoco. This construction was a large artificial island, which today is in the center of Mexico City. This mythical vision is represented in the coat of arms of Mexico.

The Aztecs founded the city of Tenochtitlan (today Mexico City) in 1325. As they expanded the city, they offered it along the lake, in exchange for construction materials. Eventually this island would be presented as one of the largest cities of this century, with some 230,000 inhabitants.

Origin of Aztec Art

When talking about the origin of Aztec art, we must emphasize that this town was a great sculptor since it developed and created sculptures of different dimensions, the only thing that did not change from them was the themes since they were all related to nature or nature. religion. Aztec art is, fundamentally, an art at the service of the State, a language used by society to transmit its vision of the world, reinforcing its own identity, compared to those of foreign cultures. It has a strong political-religious component, Aztec art is expressed through music and literature, but also through architecture and culture, making use of supports as varied as musical instruments, stone, ceramics, paper or pens. Aztec art is violent and mute, but it hints at an intellectual complexity and sensitivity that tell us about its enormous symbolic richness. Even so, Aztec art differs from other types of art by the essence that it expressed in its works of art.

The Aztec ruins indicate a dominance of greatness over the quality of the materials. Its architecture was less refined than that of the Mayan people. Aztec artists were very creative, using fabrics and feathers to make decorative or ritual artifacts. The materials that the Aztec people used the most were wood and stone, although many times they used paintings with different color tones or precious stones. If we talk about the Aztec art of goldsmithing, it should be noted that it had different influences among them the most used was to melt silver and gold, they also used precious stones to accompany the work of art. Finally, we can say that architecture and painting were linked together.

Obviously everything mentioned above has different influences such as some ornaments that were made with feathers that were a great influence in Central America. In addition, the Aztecs were settled in what is now southern Mexico, therefore there was a great influence on both art and culture.

Aztec architecture

As we have previously said, the most outstanding forms of art of this type of art were architecture among many. The Aztecs excelled at the construction of temples, pyramids, and other buildings. At this time artisans worked tirelessly to build and maintain temples and palaces. Small temples were built on top of tall pyramids built of earth and stone, with stairs leading to their portals, decorated with stone images of the gods, generally monstrous in shape, and reliefs with symbolic designs.

Although today a complete structure of the architecture cannot be observed in addition to not knowing exactly what was its organization of the space used in the ceremonial center or the relationship they had. For this simple reason of not being able to observe everything perfectly, you have a brief knowledge of Aztec architecture. However, there are several works of architectural arts that help us get a general idea of ​​what was once Aztec architecture, among them we can highlight: Templo Mayor, Metropolitan Cathedral, Plaza de las Tres Culturas, among others. Anyway, one of the things that we are clear about is that almost all architectural works the main theme was religion.

When the Aztecs settled on the island of Tenoch, on Lake Texcoco, and founded their capital Tenochtitlán, the sacred city of the Aztecs, founded in 1325, which is one of the best-planned urban centers of all ancient American civilizations, and evidences in its creators a great concern for the comfort of those who were to occupy it. Tenochtitlán means “place where cacti grow on rocks,” and was a village of cane huts. They decided to build a great pyramid in honor of Huitzilopochtli, their god of sun and war, the Temple of the Aztecs, which is one of the great treasures of humanity, although today only a few ruins remain. At first, it was not possible for them to build a pyramid worthy of this great god, since they lacked the necessary stones, so they built a temple of wood and straw. However, when they finally had access to the stone, they began the construction of the Templo Mayor.

Aztec painting

Aztec paintings were made on temple walls, textiles, or ceramic vessels, using strong and vivid colors, and artists depicted scenes from everyday life, battles, rituals, and images of important figures of the empire. Painting in the Aztec town appears linked to architecture. Color plays a fundamental role, it is a flat color, without shades or shades and, possibly with symbolic connotations, creating paintings without depth, without respecting proportionality.

Aztec painting was represented with a peculiar paper that was developed with a tree bark. This type of painting was represented by people who called themselves “elite artists” or also called “Tlacuilos”. These artists had different painting traditions. An example of this was the roads which had footprints represented. All the paintings were made with different and diverse inks that tried to achieve a beautiful and vivid polychromy. The pictorial works are today rich sources of information on the history of civilization.

Feather art

Feather art was one of the most outstanding, original, and unique types of art created by the Aztecs. The feathers are classified depending on the quality, color and dimensions that it has. Nowadays we can observe this type of art in many museums in Europe and America, since shields and headdresses are preserved in them. The most appreciated feathers were quetzal (green), tlauquecholli (red) and xiuhtototl (turquoise blue). With these feathers they made tapestries and decorated blankets, ritual masks, shields or warrior costumes.

An example of Aztec feathered art is the Moctezuma plume, a work by the Amacacas or Mexican artists who specialize in creating feathered objects. It is 116 cm high and 175 cm in diameter, the center of the plume is made with blue feathers and half moon moons in gold with precious stones. There follows a pink zone of tlauquechol feathers and another zone of brown cuckoo feathers, from which a row of green quetzal feathers, some up to 55 cm. long. Another area of ​​quetzal feathers follows. In total it has more than 400 quetzal feathers. It is located in the Vienna History Museum in Austria.

Aztec sculpture

The Aztecs had a very expressive and well-finished sculpture, with great significant realism. The Aztec sculptors mainly use basalt, gold, stones, ceramics, and wood to make their sculptures, and sometimes decorated the sculptures with colored paint or precious stone inlays. The themes used for his works were those represented by images of women and men and made to see the ideals of beauty that existed at that time. The larger sculptures used to represent gods and kings and the smaller sculptures used them for representations of animals and common objects. They also represented sacred figures, Aztec gods, masks, and calendars. The most famous Aztec sculpture is the Sun Stone erroneously known as the Aztec Calendar, having in the center the image of the sun god, showing Aztec days of the week and Aztec versions of world history, plus myths and prophecies. The Aztecs were skilled craftsmen. They dyed cotton, made ceramics and very diverse decorations in gold and silver. As luxury items, they sculpted many fine jewelry carved from jade. In addition, you could also see various sculptures carved and represented in volcanic rocks, since it was one of the most outstanding materials for Aztec sculpture.

Aztec stone sculpture is the culmination of a long Mesoamerican tradition in stone carving, from common volcanic rock to prized semi-precious stones such as jade, on objects and monuments of all kinds. The tradition began with the Olmec peoples of the Gulf Coast in the second millennium BC. Literally thousands of Aztec sculptures, ranging from intimately scaled, personal works to permanent public monuments up to ten feet tall, were completely carved in round or relief. Many continue to exist despite the massive destruction of the Spanish, who they consider to be pagan idols.

The brightest sculptors in the Aztec Empire carve impressive images of the gods, often oversized, for display in temples and public spaces in the sacred compound of Tenochtitlan. The sculpture served to communicate the concepts of the Aztec religion and were part of complex rituals. Even several monuments were elevated to the divine kingdom and ceremonies were performed with the incorporation of religious symbols. The subjects portrayed were various, but the images of gods and goddesses were the most numerous.

The sculptors followed basic conventions to portray Deity figures: usually shown in frontal view and strictly symmetrical. Female figures are often shown on their knees, with their hands resting on them. While male figures are often seated with their knees bent and their arms crossed over them. With timeless faces, half-open mouths and inlaid eyes to give them a realistic look, they lack individuality. With a serious expression, they portray the Aztec ideals of feminine beauty and masculine strength. Attributes are carefully represented, often including animal features such as fangs and claws with specific clothing for each deity, with headdresses, pecs, and facial ornaments. These were recognizable by worshipers.

Aztec goldsmith

The Aztecs were masters in the foundry, combining gold and silver, they made jewelry such as necklaces, earrings, pectorals, etc. They also made figures and containers. Above all, they made pieces of jewelry, although some containers and figures have also been found together. The metals were combined with precious stones like jade, amethyst and turquoise.

Aztec music

Aztec music has very particular and structural characteristics that depended above all on the language of the artists and the region. Obviously, pre-Cortesian music was very complex, in addition to the fact that the musical scale did not exist at that time, so it was based on the tones that people developed in their speech.


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