The Aztecs, who referred to themselves as the Mexica, extended throughout much of central Mexico and existed from the 14th century until the 16th century when they were conquered by Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortés. However, to understand the Aztec Empire, it is first important to understand their connections to the other Mesoamerican people that came before them and the influences that these people had on the Aztec civilization. One of the main connections between the Aztec and the other societies of Mesoamerica can best be seen in art.
The Aztec Empire is famous for many of its features including the amazing art and artistic objects that the Aztec people created. At its core, Aztec art was heavily influenced by the religious and cultural practices of the Aztec people. With that said, the Aztec religion and culture were based on earlier Mesoamerican civilizations, and thus Aztec art shared many similarities with the rest of Mesoamerica.
For instance, the Aztec considered themselves to be the successors to the earlier Toltec. In fact, the Aztec admired the Toltec for many different aspects, including: art, architecture, craftsmanship and culture. Some historians have questioned whether or not the Aztec people were the descendants of the earlier Toltec society, but this suggestion has also been made about other earlier Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Teotihuacan. Regardless, the Toltec language was Nahuatl, which was the same as the Aztec. As well, the Nahuatl word for Toltec, in the Aztec society, came to mean ‘artisan’ in reference to their view that the Toltec were the height of culture, art and design in Mesoamerica.
Aztec art is seen in many of the objects and structures that the Aztec people used on a daily basis. For example, Aztec clothing, pottery, jewelry, temples, and weapons contained artistic styles. More specifically, the Aztec were known to use bright colors and vivid imagery to convey their culture and religion on these objects. Common materials used to create these objects included: feathers (especially from the quetzal bird), shells, gold, silver, glass beads, and other gemstones.
As stated above, Aztec religion and gods were central to Aztec art. As such, much of the surviving Aztec art is based on different Aztec gods. For instance, the ‘Tlaloc Vessel’ is a ceramic pot that was discovered in the ruins of the Templo Mayor (Aztec Temple) in Tenochtitlan. Historians believe that the pot dates from around 1470. It shows a depiction of the Aztec god Tlaloc. Tlaloc was an important god in Aztec religion. In Nahuatl, the Aztec language, Tlaloc translates to ‘earth’ and modern historians interpret the name as meaning ‘he who is made of earth’. The Aztecs considered him to be the god of rain, earthly fertility and water. He was a popular god throughout the Aztec Empire and widely recognized as a ‘giver of life’. The ‘Tlaloc Vessel’ is significant in Aztec art because it shows the craftsmanship of the Aztec people, as well as their use of bright colors.
Symbolism was another important aspect of Aztec art. For instance, the natural world featured prominently in different pieces of Aztec art. Several common examples include: jaguars, frogs or toads, eagles, shells, serpents and more. More specifically, in the ruins of the Templo Mayor, a pair of frog statues was discovered which historians have referred to as the ‘Frog Altar’. The sculptures are said to have been created for the god Tlaloc and are meant to represent water, for which Tlaloc was related. As stated above, the serpent was another important symbol in Aztec art. This is best seen in different representations of the god Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl, whose name means ‘feathered serpent’, was another main god of the Aztec and played a significant role in Aztec history. For instance, he was considered the god of wind and wisdom or learning. Quetzalcoatl was an important god throughout Mesoamerican history and societies and was not just related to the Aztecs. For example, there is evidence of the celebration of Quetzalcoatl by the Teotihuacan people near the 1st century AD. Furthermore, a ‘feathered serpent’ was an important figure of many different Mesoamerican cultures in the centuries that followed. These other cultures referred to him in other names, but the imagery of a feathered serpent was always constant.
Some of the most beautiful Aztec art that remains today are the different mosaics. These are often created with many small pieces of stone, shells or glass and generally depict different Aztec gods or important figures. The ‘Mosaic Skull of Tezcatlipoca’ from the British Museum is one of the best examples of this. Tezcatlipoca was a significant god in Aztec religion. His name is translated as ‘smoking mirror’ in the Nahuatl language of the Aztec and he is often associated with several different concepts, including: the night sky, night winds, hurricanes, the north, jaguars, obsidian, and war. In Aztec tradition Tezcatlipoca was considered to be an opposite and rival to Quetzalcoatl. The ‘Mosaic Skull of Tezcatlipoca’ was made from an actual human skull and had the back portion removed to allow it to be worn as a mask. For example, it had deer-skin straps to allow it to be worn, along with a jaw that was hinged so it could be moved. The surface of the skull was decorated in several different types of materials, including: blue turquoise and black lignite. Iron pyrite and white shells were used for the eyes while the nose was covered in a red oyster shell. The skull was likely worn in ceremonies honoring the god Tezcatlipoca. Overall, the skull showed the Aztecs artistic skill and the importance of gods in Aztec daily life.
Another important factor in Aztec art was the different surviving Aztec codices. These are books containing Aztec writing that were created before, during and after the arrival of Europeans during the Age of exploration. The codices are important to our modern understanding of the Aztec because they are some of the best first-hand accounts of Aztec history. The codices were not books in the same sense, as we understand them to be today. Instead, they were more like long, folded sheets that were made out of deer skin. As well, the Aztec had no known written language, and instead displayed their ideas in glyphs or pictures. This means that the Aztec wrote using images that represented the different words or themes of which they wished to express. Most of the surviving Aztec codices are from the timeframe around European colonization of central Mexico, with very few remaining from before the arrival of European explorers. For example, the Florentine Codex is one of the best examples of an Aztec codex. It was created by Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún from about 1545 until 1590. Sahagún worked with different Nahua men from the region to research and organize his findings in the Florentine Codex. In all, the work ended up filling twelve books totaling over 2400 pages. As well it included over 2000 pictograms drawn by Mesoamerican artists that depict the history and life of the Aztec people. While, Sahagún titled his work ‘The Universal History of the Things of New Spain’, it is more commonly known today as the Florentine Codex due to it currently being located in Florence, Italy. These surviving codices display the Aztec artistic representation of different aspects of their life, such as: cultural traditions, religious traditions, gods, ceremonies, historical events and more.