John Pohl, THE CODICES John Pohl's


Aztec monumental sculpture continues to fascinate people today, sun gods all bristling with claws and fangs, undulating rattle snakes bursting forth from the necks of decapitated goddesses. What was all of this frightening imagery about? It is clear that the monoliths were set in and around Tenochtitlán’s Great Temple to lend context and meaning to the religious architecture and to the gods celebrated there.

Image - Coyolxauhqui disk Contrasting with its subtlety is the extremely graphic imagery. The portrayal of death is a common theme. The sculpted disk of Coyolxauhqui is a good case in point. It portrays the goddess lying on her side and stripped of her clothing. In Mesoamerica, nudity was symbolic of the public humiliation of the defeated. Upon closer inspection one can see that the goddess’ limbs and head have been torn from her body, the gaping wounds symbolized by scalloped rips to the flesh and protruding limb bones. The body is bound with undulating serpents and monstrous masks adorn her elbows, knees, and sandals. This was a goddess who was no less fearsome in death than in life. Click on Image for more detail.

According to a legend recorded by the Colonial Spanish friar and ethnographer Bernardino de Sahagún, there once lived an old woman named Coatlicue, or Lady Serpent Skirt, together with her daughter, Coyolxauhqui, and her four hundred sons at Coatepec (Snake Mountain). One day as Coatlicue was attending to her chores she gathered up a mysterious ball of feathers and placed them in the sash of her belt. Miraculously, she found herself with child. But when her daughter Coyolxauhqui saw what had happened she was enraged and shreiked to her siblings “My brothers she has dishonored us! Who is the cause of what is in her womb? We must kill this wicked one who is with child!”

When Coatlicue heard what her children were plotting she was frightened. But the child who was in her womb called to her saying: “Have no fear mother for I know what to do.” The 400 sons went forth. Each wielded his weapon and Coyolxauhqui led them. At last they scaled the heights of Coatepec. At this point there are many variations to the story but it appears that when Coyolxauhqui and her four hundred brothers reached the summit of Coatepec they immediately slew their mother, Coatlicue. When they cut off her head the blood spurt forth from her neck in the form of two gigantic serpents. And then Huitzilopochtli was born in full array with his shield and spear thrower. At once he pierced Coyolxauhqui with a spear and then he struck off her head. Her body twisted and turned as it fell to the ground below the Snake Mountain. Then Huitzilopochtli took on the four hundred brothers in equal measure and slew each of them in kind.

Image - Florentine Codex illustrating Huitzilopochtli An illustration from the 16th century Florentine Codex shows Huitzilopochtli standing at the summit of Coatepec killing Coyolxauhqui and her 400 brothers. Click on Image for more detail.
Image - The mother goddess, Coatlicue Art historians think about Aztec monuments, not simply as isolated pieces of statuary, but more as parts of a puzzle that tell a dramatic story. Consisting of three tons of rock and towering over eight feet high, the image of the mother goddess, Coatlicue, is nothing less than frightening to contemporary sensibilities. Partly concealing her bare breasts is a necklace of human hands and hearts with a human skull pendant. The gaping wound where her head had been, spurts blood in the form of two gigantic serpent heads. This was obviously a woman of dread. Click on Image for more detail.
Image - Stone of Tizoc The relationship between the patron god, Huitzilopochtli and the huey tlatoani, or emperor, is revealed in a monolith called the Stone of Tizoc, thought to be a cuauhxicalli, a round platform upon which high ranking war captives were ritually executed. In each of the panels surrounding the sides we see the emperor Tizoc taking captives from different kingdoms. You can see his name glyph, a tiny human leg spotted with ash meaning “Ash Leg.” But most important is his ritual dress. He’s wearing the hummingbird headdress of Huitzilopochtli: proof that the Aztec emperor presented himself as the incarnation of the Aztec patron god while sponsoring the ritual combats that demonstrated the prowess of his army and the riches of the conquered lands he would distribute to his people during feasts carried out throughout the year. Click on Image for more detail.
Image - Calendar Stone All Aztec sculpture was once painted in lavish colors. Like the Stone of Tizoc, the so-called Calendar Stone is believed to represent a cuauhxicalli. Warfare, sacrifice, and the promotion of agricultural fertility were inextricably linked in religious ideology. Aztec songs and stories described four great ages of the past each destroyed by some catastrophe wrought by vengeful gods. The fifth and present world only came into being through the self-sacrifice of a hero who was transformed into the sun. But the sun refused to move across the sky without a gift from humankind to equal his own. War was thereby waged to feed the sun his holy food and therefore perpetuate life on earth. The central image of this tour-de-force in basalt is a representation of the fifth “sun” signified by the calendrical sign Nahui Ollin meaning Four Earthquake. Click on Image for more detail.

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