Aztec art speaks about one of the most amazing ancient civilizations. The Aztecs had their capital in Tenochtitlan, in central Mexico, during the Postclassic period. They were a war-loving Indian civilization with a principal ruler. War, agriculture, art and their polytheistic religion were the focal points of their life and society.
Just like most prehistoric civilizations, the Aztec people’s artistic expressions were a picture of their surroundings, religion and daily life. Animals that they saw around them — foxes, owls, jaguars, fish, birds, hummingbirds, deer, rabbit and duck, and domesticated turkeys and dogs — formed one of their main creative themes.
Pictograms were also a part of their artistic culture. Created by scribes, they also chronicled events. Natural colors were made out of vegetables, insects, shells, and minerals and oil to decorate these pictograms.
Drawing on pottery was another form of Aztec artistry. However, they did not use the potter’s wheel, rather they used their hands to form the clay shapes or carved them. Though the pottery used by the commoners was generally simple and utilitarian, those used by the rich and the powerful and for rituals were ornately decorated. Most households used simple ceramic pots as utensils to store food, but there were a few special pieces with designs carved or painted on them. The Aztecs often painted the inside of bowls in two colors or craved out figures on the sides of clay pots.
Indian art on the pottery used for sacred purposes were vastly emblematic while those used for civil purposes were an expression of reality around. An ancient textile weaving artifact that the Aztecs used and one, which survives until today, is the back-strap loom. It was named so since its strap goes over the weaver’s back to keep the weave firm.
Other than pottery paintings, the Aztecs were also great sculptors. They created beautiful figures out of limestone since it was abundant in central Mexico. They also used basalt. Most of their sculpture is associated with religion.
We find figures of the Goddess Cihuateoti and the Aztec corn goddess. However, the central religious figure of their art was Goddess Coatlique, as she occurred in various serpent-like forms. However, their most famous sculpture is the large circular Calendar Stone called the Aztec sun stone, which signifies their universe.
Artistic artifacts, both religious and general, were also an amazing aspect of these people. Masks made of jade are some of their most striking handiworks. Handicraft merchants sold these artifacts at local markets.
The art of clothing was another example of their daily art. The women often designed lively clothes for the higher class and adorned them with beads, flowers and precious metals. Vibrant head adornments made out of feathers of tropical birds were also very popular. Feathers also decorated their clothing. They also adorned themselves with ornate tattoos.
Plenty of gold formed an essential part of their adornment and art on gold was widespread. In fact, history records that it was the lure of this beautiful gold that made Hernan Cortez think of his invasion of the Aztecs.
Among the performing arts, song and poetry were a part of their tradition and culture. There were shows and competitions as a part of Aztec festivals. They also performed a dramatic feat enacted by players, musicians and acrobats.
Poetry was the indulgence of an Aztec warrior when he was not battling foes. These amazing verses survive with the name of authors, such as Netzahualcoyotl, Tlatoani of Texcoco, and Cuacuatzin, Lord of Tepechpan.
Their music was related to religion. Musical instruments like rattles, whistles, trumpets, drums, flutes, copper bells and shells were the medium to make melody.
All these and much more made the Aztecs some highly creative people. Much of Aztec art remains alive in Mexican culture today.
Joseph Paige © 2006