Aztec Art

The Aztec civilization, with its center at Tenochtitlan, flourished in central Mexico during the Postclassic period. They were a conquering civilization with an ever-expanding empire and a central ruler. Their society revolved around war, agriculture, art and their polytheistic religion.

Their capital, Tenochtitlan, was in the Valley of Mexico on swamp land in Lake Texcoco and is now Mexico City. It was founded in 1325 or 1345. According to Aztec legend, Huitzilopochtli, their tribal god, led them to a place where an eagle was perched on a cactus with a serpent in its mouth. This, as had been told them by Huitzilopochtli, was to be their promised land. At the center of Tenochtitlan, the Great Temple was surrounded by palaces, warrior schools, shrines and a ball court. The temple-pyramid was dedicated to Tlaloc, god of rain,  and Huitzilopochtli, god of war and the Aztecs. A chac mool at the entrance to the shrine to Tlaloc held a container in which the hearts and blood of victims sacrificed to the gods of rain and agriculturewere placed(see the above links for examples of aztec art). Each ruler would add to the Great Temple to make it more impressive, honor the gods and commemorate his reign.

Religion was central to the Aztec life. They built enormous pyramid temples and religious centers to honor their many gods and goddesses. They worshipped goddesses of fertility because they considered childbearing important. Many gods were agricultural because of the agricultural emphasis in the society; three goddesses were associated with maize alone. Xipe Totec was the god of springtime and vegetation. The most ancient and revered gods were the creators of the universe and associated with time and the calendar. Quetzalcoatl, which means feathered serpent, was the god of nature, air and earth. Mictlantecuhtli was the god of the dead. He lived in the Mictlan, where he was joined by those who died a natural death after they passed through nine stages of the afterlife. Those who died in battle and women who died during childbirth joined the sun god in the sky, who it is said decapitated his sister (lunar goddess). The Aztecs mummified some of their dead, and the wealthy were buried in elaborate tombs with many household articles.

As with all ancient civilizations, Aztec life focused on the production and acquisition of food for survival. Life revolved around the agricultural cycle. They raised maize, vegetables, flowers, medicinal herbs, squash, beans, avocados, tomatoes, amaranth, and other plants using simple tools made of wood and stone, like axes, hoes and digging sticks. They performed elaborate ceremonies and sacrifices in order to ensure rain.

Aztec farmer developed an ingenious method of creating additional fertile land in their swampy environment. Their most productive crops were grown on chinampas, plots of built land in swampy lakes by layering water vegetation and mud to make a matting. Willow trees were then planted around the edge to make them more secure. Rich earth from bottom of the lake was used as fertilizer. They were rectangular in shape with narrow canals between them through which canoes could be paddled to allow the farmers to tend the crops.

The Aztecs hunted peccary, a pig-like animal, and deer with bows, arrows and spears made of chipped stone or obsidian. They captured rabbits and dogs with nets and even hunted and ate the white meat of the armadillo. Along the coast, they fished for shellfish, larger fish, and sea mammals, using hooks made from cactus thorns, shell and bone.

Every morning the women would rekindle the fire and grind maize on the metlatl, or grinding stone, which was usually made of basalt. Tortillas were made daily and consumed with every meal. They were maize pancakes that were formed and cooked over an open fire on a comal, a clay disk. Today they are still a staple of the Mesoamerican diet, just as they were in pre-Columbian times.  Chilies and tomatoes, used for making spices and sauces, were ground in a stone mortar and pestle. The mortar had three feet, and the pestle was club-shaped.

Many items were traded within the Aztec empire, and conquered people had to pay yearly tribute to the ruler. Tunics and shields were valuable and were often paid as tribute. Cacao beans and feathers were also paid as tribute. Attire denoted rank in Aztec society, and only nobles were allowed to adorn themselves with jewelry. Tunics were often made of animal pelts, especially jaguar fur. Warriors were highly honored in the society, and a jaguar helmet was a warrior’s insignia and his protection. Jaguar skins were valuable because the black spots symbolized the night sky to the Aztecs.  The market at Tlatelolco, Tenochtitlan’s sister city, was large, with a wide variety of items, and well-supervised and regulated. Barter was the primary means of exchange, though copper axes were sometimes used as money.

War was important and constant among the Aztecs because human sacrifices were believed to keep the sun moving. Weapons were made from naturally occurring substances; spears, knives and clubs were made from flint, wood and obsidian. Warriors were supposed to be noble and serve the gods, and rulers were expected to glorify themselves on the battlefield. The most prestigious warrior orders were those of the eagle and the jaguar. Members of these orders wore appropriate costumes made from either eagle feathers or jaguar pelts.

The Aztec had a hieroglyphic writing system to keep records, a counting system based on the number twenty and two calendars, one based on the sun and the sacred calendar, which was used to predict the future.  In each calendar, every day had a sign.  The solar calendar was 363 days long, with eighteen twenty-day months and five extra unlucky days. The calendar of omens was composed of 260 days and was divided into twenty thirteen-day months. Each day was good, bad or neutral. An Aztec “century” was fifty-two solar years long, at the end of which was a celebration in which the passing of the old century was marked by symbolically “binding the years.”

A third calendar related to the planet Venus. Five years in the rotation of Venus was equivalent to eight solar years. Time was kept on Venus using the sacred calendar for omens. A period of 104 years, two solar “centuries,” was the amount of time necessary for the sign of the solar year to correspond with that of the year on Venus. This period of time was called an “old age.”

The Aztec sun stone, which was found in the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan, has a diameter measuring 13.2 feet and it weighs 24 tons. The face of the sun or the lord of the earth is at the center. The calendar signified that the universe had passed through four creations and was currently in the fifth, which would be destroyed by earthquakes.

Music was linked to religion and was created by rattles, whistles, trumpets, drums, flutes, copper bells and shells. Flutes, ranging from simple and straight to multi-toned and intricate, were employed widely.  A horizontal drum, the huehuetl or tlapanhuehuetl, was played with the hands, and a vertical drum, the teponaztli, was played with rubber-tipped drumsticks.

Aztec art reflected their environment, religion and everyday life. Their region was inhabited by foxes, owls, jaguars, fish, birds, hummingbirds, deer, rabbit and duck, and they domesticated turkeys and dogs. These animals often were an inspiration for their art and decoration. Pottery was simple for everyday use, while it was elaborately decorated for the wealthy and for rituals. Ceramic pots were used to store liquids and foods and formed an essential part of every Aztec household. While most often plain and simply utilitarian, some had patterns carved into them or were painted.  The Aztecs often painted the inside of bowls and usually painted in two colors; they also cut figures into the sides of clay vessels.  Religious pottery, art and statuary was highly symbolic, while secular ceramic work was quite realistic and expressive. A back-strap loom, so named because of the strap that passes behind the weaver’s back to keep the warp taut, was used in ancient times and is still used widely today to create beautiful textiles.

–Lisa Graff

Bibliography

Baquedano, Elizabeth. Aztec, Inca and Maya (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

Soisson, Pierre and Janine. David Macrae, trans. Life of the Aztecs in Ancient Mexico (Editions Minerva ? Liber, 1987).

Day of the Dead

The theme of death has always been popular in Mexican art. “Dead” toys, art and crafts pervade Mexico during late October and early November surrounding the Day of the Dead (the Dia de los Muertos) celebration. This festival is a synthesis of Christian and Indian beliefs in which villagers await the return of their loved-one’s souls. On October 31, the angelitos, the souls of children who died, are believed to arrive, followed by the souls of the saints on November 1, All Saints’ Day, and the souls of adults on November 2, All Souls’ Day. Elaborate and brightly colored altars containing food and other offerings are made for the ancestral souls. Streets are vibrantly decorated.  Skeleton figures of terra-cotta, paper, candy, tin and other materials and various other representations of death are seen in every market during the Day of the Dead.

Sugar paste, marzipan and bread dough are used to create edible skeletons that can be eaten or placed on the household altar. Children make their own coffin and skeleton toys out of paper, foil, chickpeas and other readily available materials, or buy ones made out of clay or cardboard. Statues and figurines depict skeletons involved in the tasks of everyday life, illustrating all of life’s virtues and vices, and many scenes juxtapose the skeleton head with religious symbols such as the cross. Early twentieth-century artist José ‡uadalupe Posada created engravings that have become representative of the Day of the Dead celebration, specifically his portrayal of Catrina.

During this three-day festival, ending November 2, death is “alternately mocked and romanticized by young and old alike.” Children play with skeleton toys and parades are held, but families also visit cemeteries, carrying flowers, incense burners, lit candles, food and drink to the graves of their dead loved ones. Bertram Wolfe described the Mexican attitude toward death as “mordant-reckless-festive-friendly-familiar,” an attitude that is certainly embodied in the well-loved and widely celebrated holiday of the Day of the Dead.

–Lisa Graff

Bibliography

Espejel, Carlos. Mexican Folk Crafts (Barcelona: Editorial Blume, 1978).

Oettinger, Marion, Jr. Folk Treasures of Mexico (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1990).

Maya Art and Pottery

The Maya civilization, a collection of city states with a common culture that were ruled by nobles, flourished in Central America from around 1000 B.C. to the Spanish conquest in 1697 and were especially dominant in the classic period. It was centered in the Yucatan peninsula, but Mayan territory extended over the modern Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche, Quintana, Roo, Tabasco, and part of the state of Chiapas, and parts of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. They left a wealth of information about their highly developed complex society in their hieroglyphic writing, art, pottery, and physical structures.

Religion was central to the Mayan life. They built enormous pyramid temples and religious centers to honor their many gods. These sites, with their massive stone structures and decorative Maya art carvings, display the advanced technology and artistry the Mayans possessed. The Temple of the Giant Jaguar in Tikal, located in the middle of the ceremonial center around which the city extended, has nine sloping terraces and is 161 feet high. Chichen Itza, at the center of the Yucatan peninsula, was an important commercial center that was greatly influenced by the earlier Toltec civilization and that also had a large religious complex. The pyramid-temple El Castillo, or the Pyramid of Kukulcan, is approximately 72 feet high.  Palanque is in the middle of a tropical jungle, and it also has a religious complex centered around a large pyramid. The Temple of the Inscriptions pyramid has hidden deep inside of it the funeral chamber of Pacal, who ruled for sixty-eight years before dying in 683 A.D.

In the Mayan religious system, self-sacrifice was vital and highly esteemed. They worshipped many gods, who were patrons of various tasks and natural processes, through sacrifice and effigy. Chac, god of rain, was sacrificed to by drowning children in wells.  Ixchel was the patroness of weaving.

As with all ancient civilizations, Mayan life focused on the production and acquisition of food for survival. Life revolved around the agricultural cycle. They raised maize, squash, beans, avocadoes, tomatoes and other plants using simple tools made of wood and stone, like axes, hoes and digging sticks. They also hunted peccary, which is like a pig, and deer with bows, arrows and spears made of chipped stone or obsidian and rabbits and dogs with nets. They fished for shellfish, larger fish, and sea mammals, using hooks made from cactus thorns, shell and bone.

Every morning the women would rekindle the fire and grind maize on the metlatl, or grinding stone, which was usually made of basalt. Tortillas were made daily and consumed with every meal. They were maize pancakes that were formed and cooked over an open fire on a comal, a clay disk. Today they are still a staple of the Mesoamerican diet, just as they were in pre-Columbian times.  Chilies and tomatoes, used for making spices and sauces, were ground in a stone mortar and pestle. The mortar had three feet, and the pestle was club-shaped.

They usually buried their dead in the ground or under the floors of their houses, though sometimes corpses were cremated, buried in caves or interred in urns. The rich were buried in elaborate tombs with many household articles, giving later archeologists much insight into their culture.

The Maya were quite well educated, with advanced writing and astronomical systems. They used a hieroglyphic writing system to keep written records. Four of their codices, collections of hieroglyphic symbols written on paper, cloth or animal skin?similar in function to a modern book, survive. They also developed a counting system based on the number twenty and a calendar.  Great observatories, such as El Caracol at Chichen Itza, were used to study the stars.

Attire denoted rank in Mayan society, as only the wealthy were able to afford elaborate costumes. Only nobles were allowed to adorn themselves with jewelry. Tunics were often made of animal pelts, especially jaguar fur. Jaguar skins were valuable because the black spots symbolized the night sky. A jaguar helmet was a warrior’s insignia and his protection.

Music was linked to religion and was created by rattles, whistles, trumpets, drums, flutes, copper bells and shells. Flutes, ranging from simple and straight to multi-toned and intricate, were employed widely.

Mayan art reflected their environment, religion and everyday life. Their region was inhabited by foxes, owls, jaguars, fish, birds, hummingbirds, deer, rabbit and duck, and they domesticated turkeys and dogs. These animals often were an inspiration for their art and decoration. Pottery was simple for everyday use, while it was elaborately decorated for the wealthy and for rituals. Ceramic pots were used to store liquids and foods and formed an essential part of every Mayan household. While most often plain and simply utilitarian, some had patterns carved into them or were painted.  A back-strap loom, so named because of the strap that passes behind the weaver’s back to keep the warp taut, was used in ancient times and is still used widely today to create beautiful textiles.

–Lisa Graff

Bibliography

Baquedano, Elizabeth. Aztec, Inca and Maya (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

Chichen Itza (Mexico City: Panorama Editorial, 1987).

Molas and Molitas

Molas are the brightly colored applique panels made only in the San Blas region of Panama by the Kuna Indians.  Despite their limited provenance, these dazzling textiles have interested collectors and inspired artists all over the world.

The Kuna women observe the world around them and stitch into the molas a wide variety of applique designs – from natural flora and fauna to manmade products of the modern age.  Other contemporary artists of all persuasions observe molas and then adapt mola design in their own ways, from paper collage and stencil patterns to wearable art and home decorating items.

The Kuna Indians live on 50 or so of the more than 365 San Blas islands off the east coast of Panama.  Some also live on a narrow mainland strip and in small towns across the South American border in Columbia.  These combined mainland and island areas of Panama comprise the Comarca de Kuna Yala, or Kuna territory, and this is where the world’s molas are made.

Bibliography

Mathews, Kate. Molas – Patterns, Techniques, Projects for Colorful Applique (North Carolina: Lark Books, 1998).

Olmec Art and the Olmec Head

Though little is known about the Olmec culture, they were the dominant Mesoamerican culture in Preclassic period, which lasted from 1200-200 B.C. The Olmecs reached their height from 700-400 B.C., and they lived along the Gulf of Mexico, in the modern Mexican states of Tabasco and Veracruz. Much more is known about their cultural descendants, the Aztecs and Maya, who inherited platform mounds, city layout, plazas, ball courts, hieroglyphic writing, art and many other cultural institutions from the Olmecs.

The Olmecs wrote in hieroglyphics and devised an early calendar. Their cities were built around great temples. In their religious system, the jaguar was the sacred animal, both loved and feared by the inhabitants. The jaguar cult was associated with the rain god and fertility. La Venta, one of the Olmec’s main cities, was built in a swampy area of modern Tabasco. Nearly eighteen thousand lived nearby. Its ceremonial center contained a large temple pyramid. It was destroyed around 400 B.C.

Most known about them through their art, which was naturalistic and symbolic. It inspired by mythology and religion. One religious belief was that a woman and a jaguar together produced a race with the characteristics of both, and masks were made reflecting this belief. The lips of these masks were often down-turned and snarling in feline fashion. They also made jade figurines, massive stone sculptures and other stone and Olmec art objects. Small pieces have “baby face” characteristics and chubby bodies, suggestive of infants or eunuchs. The famous “Olmec head” was produced many times in different sizes. They may be portraits of rulers or chiefs or the heads of ball-game players. They appear to be wearing a helmet and have African or Asian features. One, made of basalt, is nine feet tall and weighs forty tons.

–Lisa Graff

Bibliography

Baquedano, Elizabeth. Aztec, Inca and Maya (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

Fairfield, Sheila. Peoples and Nations of the Americas (London: Young Library Ltd, 1987).

Meyer, Michael C. and William L. Sherman. The Course of Mexican History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

Pre Columbian Art and Pottery

Throughout Mexico and Latin America, art and crafts are still created in the tradition of the pre Columbian cultures, using the same materials and methods. Many pre Columbian objects were plain and simple, being only intended for practical purposes, but the pre Columbian artisans also created intricate pieces for use in trade, for paying tribute and to serve religious functions. In the same way, modern inhabitants of Latin America, especially in tribal villages which have largely avoided mechanization and modernization, allowing the traditional techniques to be preserved, still make common art and elaborate, decorative ones by hand using natural materials.

Pre Columbian potters created many plain, functional pottery for common use, but they also formed elaborate and intricate art for religious use that required great skill to produce. The pre Columbian cultures buried pottery with their dead to accompany them into the afterlife, thereby demonstrating the predominance of pottery in their culture and their skill at creating it to modern archeologists. Many modern communities still use pre Columbian techniques to make beautiful pottery, especially for utilitarian pieces. Clay is still gathered from local areas, and pieces are formed either exclusively by hand or by using a wooden wheel that is turned by the potter.  In pre Columbian times, kilns were not used; pieces of pottery were fired in an open fire or a pit in the ground. Potters did not use any type of glaze, but they did burnish the surface of their pots with stones.  The creation of blackware is still practiced in Latin America. When the oxygen is removed during the firing process, the iron in the clay oxidizes, turning the pot black or dark gray.  Though many modern potters use a kiln, pre-Columbian potters achieved this effect without the use of a kiln. Pots were decorated with gods, animals, plants, everyday scenes and geometric designs.

Weaving was essential to the ancient cultures, just as it is today. In small villages, ancient methods still survive, and women spend large amounts of time creating textiles and clothing on hand-made looms. A back-strap loom, so named because of the strap that passes behind the weaver’s back to keep the warp taut, was used in ancient times and is still used widely today to create beautiful textiles.

Though few pre Columbian examples of basketry, weaving and other uses of natural reeds have survived because of the fragility of the fiber, many Latin American tribes continue this traditional form of art in much the same way as the ancient cultures.  The art of Peruvian pre Columbian cultures depicts reed boats, and modern Peruvian fishermen still make and utilize reed boats. In Ecuador, totora reeds are woven into large mats using simple methods that have been employed for thousands of years. The ancient peoples used their woven creations for everyday use and for trading, and modern Latin Americans use the skills that have been handed down for generations to create useful items that are also beautiful in appearance.  Reeds are often hand-dyed using aniline and other natural dyes before they are woven into a basket, a bag, a hat or one of the many other shapes created by these fine craftsmen and women, producing vibrant yet functional pieces.

Music was central to the Pre Columbian cultures as a form of religious expression. It was highly developed, including a system of perfect harmony before the West developed anything similar. Because the instruments were for a religious purpose, they were often elaborately decorated with pictures of gods, whether by painting or carving.  They were also decorated with natural subjects, especially the animals to which the peoples were accustomed, and many smaller instruments were formed into animal shapes.

Drums, whistles, ocarinas, trumpets, bells, rattles and single, double, triple and even quadruple flutes were made from wood, clay, reeds, bone or shells. Peruvians, because of their skill in metallurgy, made trumpets of gold, silver and copper, though few have survived being melted down for their valuable metal. In the Aztec culture, a horizontal drum, the huehuetl or tlapanhuehuetl, was played with the hands, and a vertical drum, the teponaztli, was played with rubber-tipped drumsticks. Rain sticks were used in many cultures to plead with the rain god to send rain by simulating the sound of rain.  Panpipes were popular in the Andean region, though some have also been found in Veracruz, Mexico.

–Lisa Graff

Bibliography:

Davies, Lucy and Mo Fini. Arts and Crafts of South America (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994).

Marti, Samuel. Music before Columbus (Mexico City: Gunhild Nilsson, Ediciones Euroamericanas Klaus Thiele, 1978).