How to Read an Aztec Sculpture

The Monitor invites you to sit in on a series of conversations with curators at major art museums on choice objects in their collections

This Aztec Coronation Stone, says Richard Townsend of The Art Institute of Chicago, makes sense only when "you understand how to read it."

Fortunately, Dr. Townsend, curator of the Department of African and Amerindian Art since 1981, can read Aztec sculpture like a book.

"Reading" is the right word. The mature Aztec style, exemplified by this "strongly defined, crisply graphic" piece, is essentially hieroglyphic.

"One of the old traditions the Aztecs draw upon," Townsend explains, "is of pictorial manuscripts that recorded history or ritual events, or were used for making prognoses - divinatory, calendrical manuscripts somewhat like the I Ching in Chinese tradition. The Aztecs translated imagery, borrowed from the manuscripts, into stone commemorative monu- ments." In doing this, they came up with a sculptural style that was new in the long tradition of Mesoamerican art to which they were heirs.

"They carved relief images all over three-dimensional forms - such as a cylinder or a truncated cone or, in this case, a three-dimensional rectangle. The monument's message is given by the stone's basic shape as well as the imagery of the relief." Originally, the sculpture would have been brightly colored, like the manuscript pages. "It's as if they are wrapping the stone in a page."

Townsend continues: "The Coronation Stone refers to the year and date Emperor Motecuhzoma II acceded to power. It shows him as the inheritor of the world," indicating "that his rule was destined from the beginning of time.

"The face of the monument has signs referring to the series of five ages or eras - of creations and destructions - of the earth since its initial creation. Each age, called a 'sun' in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, was imperfect according to Mesoamerican mythology and had ended in a catastrophe, only to re-emerge in new form."

Beginning in the lower right corner and moving counterclockwise, "the first hieroglyphs represent the first 'sun,' which ended in a plague of jaguars. The second era, represented by the mask of the wind god, ended in hurricanes. The third ended in a rain of fire, represented by the mask of the rain god. And at the lower left is the female deity of ground water - lakes and rivers - signifying the fourth era, which ended in a great flood.

"And then in the very center is an X-shaped cartouche with an eye in the middle. It refers to the movement of the earth - and thus to the present era, predicted to end in earthquakes.

"So that sequence of hieroglyphs recounts mythic history.

"There are two other dates, bringing it into present, Aztec historical time. One is the square cartouche below with 11 dots meaning '11 reed' - corresponding to AD 1503. Then at the top there is the day sign 'one alligator,' which corresponds to June 15, probably when Motecuhzoma II was finally confirmed in office."

Townsend then explains the imagery repeated on the four sides of the stone, which represent the four quarters of the world. "Much stylized is a squatting figure with its arms up and its masked, open-jawed head turned toward the sky. It represents the female earth deity: the earth as not only the giver but also the fearsome taker of life, embodying the cycle of birth, death, and regeneration.

"Bracketing this figure are characters for fire and water that signify the Nahuatl words 'atl' and 'tlachinolli,' metaphorically 'flood' and 'conflagration,' meaning war. The earth is invested with the idea of war and conquest, in keeping with the Aztec imperial design.

"On the reverse face of the monument is the sign 'one rabbit,' which is the first day of creation. That sign would have been face down against the earth and would never have been seen. But everyone knew it was there.

"The sculpture would have been located in the precincts of the great pyramid of the Aztec capital Tenochtitln to mark the king's accession." Townsend does not minimize the "definitely samurai" character of Aztec culture.

"The great, defining monuments of Aztec art, such as the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitln, were designed as terrifying things," Townsend says. Public ceremonies were choreographed to be "as intimidating as possible, to create a nation inured to bloodshed."

IF this seems paralleled in our time by the public rites and exhortations of Nazism, the similarity nevertheless has limits.

The Aztecs deified heroes and worshiped nature; the pyramids were essentially "man-made mountains, part of an entire sacred geography with which their homelands were organized. Their sacrifices were based on ancient myths that the gods formed mankind by offerings of their own blood.

"Sacrifices were seen as a kind of reciprocity and an obligation to fertilize - with drops of royal blood as well as the hearts of their enemies - the home mountain, the home earth."

The Aztec world view is symbolized by this Coronation Stone. But Townsend has no doubt that it is more than a mere cultural artifact. It is also an aesthetic object of fine calligraphic clarity.

"The Aztecs," he says, "were very conscious of aesthetics. Their dances and rituals and speeches were immensely theatrical, highly rehearsed, and performed with precision. The clear, crisp carving of this stone is in keeping with their powerful imperial tradition."

* Last in a series. Previous articles on the Art Institute ran June 2, 9, 16, and 23. Articles on the Tate Gallery, London, ran April 7, 14, 21, 28, and May 5. Articles on the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, ran Feb. 10, 24, March 3, 10, and 17. All of these 'tours' are posted on the Monitor's electronic edition at: www.csmonitor.com Click on the 'our place: arts and music' icon. The Curators' Tours series now concludes for the summer. It will resume in the fall.

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