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A brainchild of former Getty Museum Director Michael Brand and scheduled to commemorate the bicentennial of Mexican independence from Spain, The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire was the most ambitious exhibition undertaken by the Getty Villa since its reopening in 2006. A “museum and educational center dedicated to the study of the arts and cultures of ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria” (according to its website), the Getty’s Roman-style villa proved a provocative and unexpectedly resonant site for the presentation of Aztec culture.
One of the goals of the Spanish conquest (1519–21) was to loot this rich civilization of its gold for the benefit of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire; the other was to “save” the Aztecs. As curators John M. D. Pohl and Claire L. Lyons note in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, “Perceived as a civilization that existed outside the condition of salvation, the Aztecs were framed [by the Spanish] as historical equivalents to the ancient Romans prior to the advent of Christianity” (14). The Greco-Roman filter through which Renaissance Spain struggled to perceive the people and practices of Aztec society was, not surprisingly, a distorting lens that reveals more about sixteenth-century Europe than about the former’s belief system. The exhibition and its catalogue did not attempt to redress this situation, but a related publication from the Getty Research Institute on the so-called “Aztec Calendar Stone,” a monument too large to be included in the exhibition, summarizes scholarly attempts in this direction and constitutes a major contribution in its own right.
The Getty was able to gather extraordinarily important loans for The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire, including major stone sculptures from Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology and Templo Mayor Museum along with, from Florence’s Laurentian Library, Bernardino de Sahagún’s so-called “Florentine Codex,” produced with the help of native informants some fifty years after Hernán Cortés overran Tenochtitlan in 1521. On the occasion of its first return to the new world, Sahagún’s Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España provided a focal point for a fascinating opening gallery that introduced Spain’s conquest of Mexico. The codex begins with a visual array or “pantheon” of the chief Aztec deities, many of whom are identified with ancient Roman gods (the Aztec corn goddess Chicomecoatl, for example, is labeled “another Ceres”). In addition, classical literature was invoked to frame historical events. While Sahagún asserted “that the Aztecs surpassed the Greeks and Romans in material achievement, political and social organization, as well as in the arts and sciences” (as quoted in the catalogue, 18), he compared their destruction of Tula with the fall of Troy as related in Virgil’s Aeneid, the nationalist epic that legitimized the Julio-Claudian dynasty as descendants of the founders of Rome and Troy. The Spanish monarch at the time of the conquest, Charles V, also reigned as Holy Roman Emperor, and the Aztecs were accordingly portrayed as the Romans of the New World.
A second gallery and connecting hallway contained impressive sculptures of Aztec deities, as well as a wall-size chart intended to help the viewer unpack their numinous universe. Imperialistic deployment of religion and art to control conquered provinces was explored in a third and final gallery. For example, a large, basalt Eagle Cuauhxicalli (fig. 1) was paired with an almost equally large bronze Roman Eagle from the Getty’s collection (fig. 2). The point—that this “emperor of birds” is “associated with the loftiest ideals of spiritual and political power” (76)—was an indicator of the extent to which this innovative exhibition tended to behave as its own kind of reductive lens.
Both the Romans and the Spanish pursued empire for wealth and power, but one of the main motives for the Aztecs’ constant warfare with their neighbors was the capture of live prisoners to be sacrificed. “No fewer than eighteen principal feasts were celebrated every twenty days throughout the year. . . . In addition, a system of moveable feasts was coordinated with the principal market days and timed to the 260-day divinatory calendar.” Besides parades, music and dance, theater, and recitations of poetry, each of these festivals featured ritual combats and “extremely bloody rituals of human sacrifice” (63). Prisoner-sacrifice was not uncommon in the ancient world, of course; but the fundamentally religious condition of Aztec warfare was made pretty clear by objects like the Aztec eagle, whose obsessively intense aura registers very differently from that of the aggressive Roman eagle.
Emblem of Jupiter, king of the gods, the eagle was adopted as a symbol of authority throughout the Roman Empire (and, in double-headed form, the Holy Roman Empire). Like the Romans, for the Aztecs the eagle was a divine messenger. However, this Aztec eagle cuauhxicalli was not an emblem but a vessel within which hearts ripped from the chests of role-playing captives were burned as offerings to Tonatiuh to ensure that the sun would continue to reappear. Tonatiuh was not so much a god as an animating force. “Spirits or animating forces in the environment were perceived by the Aztecs as teotl. . . . Spanish sources often translate teotl as ‘god,’ but its actual meaning corresponds more closely with the Polynesian concept of mana, a numinous impersonal power diffused throughout the universe” (34). Unless I missed it, this important point was not made in the exhibition.
The known details of other ritual scripts are equally horrific, such as the practices surrounding Xipe Totec (fig. 3), the “Flayed God” associated with regeneration and thus with agriculture. The Aztecs believed that four great ages preceded the present age, each ending in catastrophe. The catastrophe scheduled to conclude the fifth age is earthquake, a destruction deferred thanks to a god who sacrificed himself by fire in order to continue warming the earth as the sun. Human sacrifice was the highest form of offering through which the Aztecs repaid their debt to the gods and thus kept things moving—primarily the sun, but other cyclical forces of renewal as well. Xipe Totec is an unmistakably numinous object—in Rudolph Otto’s sense of mysterium tremendum, i.e., the tendency to invoke fear and trembling, combined with mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate, and compel. Xipe Totec’s body may be covered with gouts of blood, but his closed eyes and open mouth signal an ecstatic state. Some depictions of Xipe Totec show him with a bursting eye. Simply put, for the Aztecs self-sacrifice was a way to achieve inner vision, enlightenment.
The exhibition was generally well-installed, as one expects at the Getty, but I was frustrated by the visual inaccessibility of a large Aztec sacrificial stone from the Philadelphia Museum’s Arensburg Collection. This squatly cylindrical piece was displayed horizontally, so high that I could barely make out the fact that the carving on its face seems to depict the six-lobed symbol for Ollin, “movement,” with the half-closed eye of the sun-disk at its center. Elsewhere in the exhibition a mirror was used to display an otherwise unvisible relief, but not here. Equally strange, the photograph of this same object in the catalogue (plate XXI) is of uncharacteristically poor quality. This catalogue image is identical to the image on the Philadelphia Museum’s website, where the piece is identified as, “Calendar Stone made in central Mexico, 1300–1500” (http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/51311.html?mulR=22811).
The lack of attention paid to this object in the exhibition and its catalogue is all the more puzzling in light of a parallel publication from the Getty Research Institute devoted to the monumental Aztec Calendar Stone in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. This illuminating, well-illustrated anthology includes a selection of twenty-one sources dating from 1581 to the present, a number of which appear here in English for the first time. That these studies frequently contradict one another is telling with regard to just how little is actually known about this object and the Aztec belief-system that produced it.
Commissioned by Motecuhzoma I a scant two decades before the Spanish invaded and buried it along with other Aztec monuments, what Mexicans call the Piedra del Sol was rediscovered in 1790. It has been the source of scholarly speculation and artistic adaptation ever since. The face at the center with its long tongue in the form of a flint knife has traditionally been identified as Tonatiuh. The complexity of the Aztec “pantheon”—more accurately, an array of morphing personifications of natural forces—has generated other identifications linking this image with the earth deity Tlaltecuhtli, who “swallows” the sun each night, or with some other hybrid sun-earth deity. The face is surrounded by a six-lobed Ollin, like the calendar stone in Philadelphia, and its cyclical day/night imagery would therefore seem to be connected with the half-closed eye at the center of that example. As Khristaan D. Villela, Matthew H. Robb, and Mary Ellen Miller point out in the introduction, however, these powerful objects pose more questions than answers. They give the last word to Claude Levi-Strauss, who admonished, “although we may constantly seek the true messages of these objects from the distant past, we must remind ourselves that these messages were not meant for us” (as quoted in the catalogue, 37).
Director Emeritus, University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
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