The Aztec civilization occupied much of what is now central Mexico during the 14th – 16th centuries. Artwork from this period carries several themes. Much of the artwork attributed to the Aztec civilization depicts or honors deities. These sacred pieces range from small, intricate metalwork to monumental stone carvings.
The aggressive warrior culture of the Aztec people is also clearly displayed in its artwork. As the empire grew, patterns moved from geometric to naturalistic. Animals and geographic features were incorporated into designs more frequently.
Much of the art produced was reserved for nobility and wealthy members of Aztec society. Artists were well regarded, and held privileged positions within society. Despite that, artwork was not signed but instead was considered the collective work of the Aztec people.
© Paul Sableman - Small Aztec Sculptures
Many things influenced the design and composition of Aztec art. Expanding trade spread Aztec influence and also brought new ideas and techniques to the empire. The geography of what is now Mexico is brought into art through the incorporation of local flora and fauna. Also, in many cases, art was used by the Aztecs as a form of propaganda.
The art of the Aztecs did not develop in isolation. It carries many themes that are present in other Mesoamerican art, such as that from the Olmec, Maya, and Toltec civilizations. However, much of what we know about Aztec civilization and culture has been learned from their art.
For example, the influence of religion is clearly visible in the art produced by the Aztecs. Statues of gods, some monumental in size, have been relatively well preserved. We know about Aztec religious practices because of information found in these sculptures.
The agricultural god, Xipe Totec, is found in many Aztec carvings and sculptures. Other female maize deities, generally depicted wearing elaborate headdresses, are also common. This signifies the cultural importance of agriculture and corn among the Aztec people.
© Jeff Stvan - Stone Mask - Head of Aztec God Xipe Totec
Local flora and fauna were common subjects of Aztec metalwork and small carvings. Many surviving pieces depict animals such as ducks, monkeys, snakes, and Jaguars. Coastal regions depicted fish and marine life in their artwork. These are all reflections of local animals that were familiar to the Aztec people.
Although many pieces of Aztec metalwork were melted down by later inhabitants, some still survive. These show a strong geographical influence in their intricate detail and remarkable craftsmanship.
Art has long been used for propaganda purposes, and the Aztec civilization was not an exception. The Aztec view was spread throughout conquered territories through art and architecture. Temples to Aztec gods were constructed to insert these gods in a position above local deities.
The Aztecs often claimed land previously sacred to local populations as another means of asserting dominance. Political gain and domination over conquered people had a large influence in Aztec art in this way.
Aztec Totem Statue
The variety of materials used in Aztec art is vast. You can see artwork from towering sculptures of stone to intricate turquoise carvings, all produced by local artists. These are some examples of artwork produced throughout the Aztec civilization.
These can be found throughout central Mexico. Stone sculptures often depict deities, with statues ranging in size from miniature to monumental.
Perhaps the most well-known stone sculpture is the massive Aztec Sun Stone. Carved in the fifteenth century, this stone disc weighs 25 tons and is 12 feet across. It is carved from a solid piece of basalt, formed from solidified lava.
The central disc of the Sun Stone is devoted to the sun god Tonatiuh. He is depicted with a sword-like tongue, holding a heart in each hand. Surrounding the central disc are 4 squares, each representing one of the previous eras of history.
The next ring is a solar calendar representing a 365-day year. This is surrounded by a sacred calendar of 260 days. Every 52 years these calendars would coincide, and the Aztecs would offer sacrifices to Tonatiuh with the New Fire Ceremony.
© Derek Bruff - Aztec Sun Stone
In a unique tradition, all household goods (including pottery) were destroyed in the New Fire Ceremony every 52 years. This allows historians to understand the development of pottery throughout the reign of the Aztec empire.
Pottery was artistic as well as utilitarian in Aztec society. Earrings and sculptures were commonly made form pottery. Occasionally masks were made form pottery, although other materials were more common. Aztec pottery frequently adorned temples of their gods.
Aztec pottery is most commonly known for its later stages. This style, called Aztec III black-on-orange, featured designs in orange and black, often on a white background. Early rigid and rectangular designs gave way to more graceful, curved patterns. These, in turn, became more naturalistic.
© Travis - Aztec Pot
Not all carving was done from stone. Metalwork was a popular form of art among the Aztec. Piercings, jewelry, and other small pieces have been found. These depict a wide variety of natural and sacred objects. Aztec metalwork shows great skill in both filigree and casting techniques.
Aztec featherwork was perhaps the most skilled of all their art forms. Feathers were woven into intricate and incredibly ornamental cloaks and headdresses. These specialized pieces were made by highly respected artisans called Amanteca.
Featherwork was reserved primarily for people of nobility or great wealth. Feathers were also attached to shields and capes of Aztec warriors. These were glued or sewn into figurative designs which identified the social status of the bearer.
Aztec featherwork survives primarily as depicted in other art forms. A limited number of pieces can be found in museums. Perhaps the most famous piece of Aztec feather work is the Penacho of Moctezuma II on display in Austria's Weltmuseum Wien. This resplendent piece of art is the only known surviving headdress of its kind.
© Danny Navarro - Detail of an Aztec Feathered Headdress
Aztec art is known to have shown realistic expression of characteristics such as age and expression. No matter the materials or subject matter, these common characteristics largely define Aztec art.