Aztec Art and Culture detailed analysis

In the Aztec Nation, a distant sound is heard. It sounds like a deep drum being hit with a heavy instrument. You hear it again and strain your eyes in the direction of the sound. All around you is a dense jungle. Snakes slither between your legs. In front of you is a dense stand of ferns. You part them and look down into a wide-open valley. The valley gets so wide and it is so green that it takes your breath away. You are staring at a huge city with glittering buildings shining in the spring sunlight. You can see and hear children playing in the wide-open fields in front of the shining buildings. Lamas and chickens are being bought and sold. You see bags of gold jewelry being bought and sold. Beyond the market place, you can watch a religious ceremony. You hear the scream of a person being sacrificed to one of the gods. Beyond the city, there are roads made of stone and canals full of pedestrians and canoes. Who are these people and what are they doing here you wonder? The above paragraph describes what an early explorer in Mexico might have seen between 1400 and 1500 AD.


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The Aztec nation is one of the largest and most advanced Indian nations to ever exist on earth. Just about every part of the Aztec life was advanced to such a state at that time of the world that the Indians were living better than many European nations. The Aztec nation is unique in its history, economy, environment, and way of life than any other nation at that time.


The Aztec Indians, who are known for their domination of southern and central Mexico, ruled between the 14th and 16th centuries. They built a great empire and developed very modernized ways of doing things.


The Aztecs had unique architectural skills and waterway systems. The Indians also had very developed social classes and government systems. To begin with, the Aztecs were very skilled in the art of architecture and waterway systems. An example of the monumental architecture within the Aztec society is the great pyramid of Tenochtitlan. Montezuma I, who was the ruler of the Aztecs in 1466, created it. The pyramid was not finished until the rule of Montezuma II, around 1508.


Aztec cities and towns also had working drinking water and waste treatment systems. An intricate plumbing system using clay pipes ran down from the mountains around Mexico valley to all of the towns and cities in the valley. As the water ran into each town or city it was dispersed to 10 or 12 places around town where it flowed into a pool for drinking water or was pumped into public baths and toilets. Only nobles had working drinking and bathing systems with running water in their homes. The sewage system worked much like today, having human wastes carried to a collection pool where solids were collected. Liquids then ran off into a series of terraces, which filtered the water. Solid wastes were allowed to sit in a collection pool for about six months and then were brought to the lake gardens to be used as fertilizer. At the bottom of the social order were slaves and serfs, or the Tlacotli, who worked the private lands of the nobility.


Next came the Macehualtin, ‘the fortunate’, as they were called, because they were free of heavy responsibilities, so the slaves were the main use. They were the merchants, shopkeepers, and artisans that made up the bulk of the population. The Macehualtin belonged to localized kin groups known as calpulli or ‘big houses,’ each of which had its own land, clan leader, and temple. Their high status was obvious by the inclusion of more elaborate and ornamental objects with walls frequently adorned with frescos. Monumental Architecture of public and private buildings was one of the best indicators of the size and importance of a site. The size of the structure had a direct correlation to the power held by the leader, in his ability to conduct peasants to construct the building.


Temples and plazas were the main objects of monumental construction and often rivaled the pyramids of Egypt in quality and size. Temples were often like pyramid structures. They were built facing east over the cremated remains of a priest or ruler. With each ascending ruler the temple was made larger by building over the previous, thus the layering effect, so often uncovered. Different styles of decoration and construction were used by each culture during different periods. In contrast to earlier Mesoamerican pyramids, with a single temple built on top and a single stairway up to the side, the pyramids built by the Early Aztec peoples had twin temples and double stairways. There are several complexes of Esperanza’s architecture at Kaminaljuyu. These are stepped temple platforms with the typical Teotihuacan talud-tablero motif. The step temples were large structures that were made by the Aztecs for their own well-being. Some were used for worship, while others were used for sacrifice!


  1. Characteristics of their Public buildings are portions of very thin squares of limestone veneer over cement and rubble core. The exuberant use of stone mosaics on upper facades, emphasizes the usual monster-masks with long, hook-shaped snouts, as well as frets and lattice-like designs of crisscrossed elements.


The Aztec’s religious buildings were like the great pyramids of Egypt, with the exception of stairways being cut off at the top.  They often had banisters shaped like giant serpents, which led to the summit, where the shrine stood. The great square featured a skull rack, a row of pointed stakes on which were impaled the heads of the thousands of people sacrificed there. Within the square stood the priest’s houses and the ball court. A game resembling basketball was played there. The large rubber ball could be hit only with the knee or hip. The object of the game was to drive the ball through a ring set vertically into each side of the wall. Causeways and bridges were built to connect the city to the mainland. Aqueducts were constructed, and canals were dug throughout the city for easy transportation of goods and people.


Hieroglyphs represented history, geography, and tribute. Most of the hieroglyphs represented names of towns and persons by using pictographic writing that was recorded on paper or animal hides. These writings were called codices, and they still exist today.


The style of art is referred to as the “Mixteca-Puebla style.” The art that they did reflect their religious beliefs, and everyday life. There were collaborations by many carvers for projects of kings, which were mainly large temples, and pyramids. The use of music and dance was mainly reserved for religious rituals and ceremonies. Drums were the main instruments mentioned in written works, and in drawings. Some other instruments were trumpets on conch shells, pottery flutes and whistles, and rattles.


In Aztec culture, art and religion were not easily separated. Art was used to telling others the concepts of religion. In Tenochtitlan, huge stone sculptures of the gods were created and placed in the temples and public plazas of the city. The symbols of each god were always showing so worshipers could recognize them. Although most arts were religious in nature, some sculptures had no religious meaning. Aztecs also portrayed many different animals and people. The sculptors only used simple wood and stone tools, bird bones, fiber cords, and water and sand to carve the hard volcanic stone. The artists were some of the finest in all of the Americas. Unfortunately, little Aztec art has been preserved. Since most of the art was religion-oriented it was destroyed, along with almost everything else, when the Catholic Spaniards took over in 1521. One Art form that is discussed between the Aztec was the art of Worship.


When Mother Goddess was created, a strong and powerful empire developed, that was shaped and divided into classes. The religion was based on a complex pantheon that combined the Aztec deities with more ancient ones that had long been worshiped in Central Mexico. According to the Aztec belief, the gods created the current universe at the ancient city of Teotihuacan. The culture and purpose of the people focused on the worship and honor of their gods forever. They would show honor and worship by sacrifice. Many of the Aztecs would sacrifice many of their own people once or twice a day. Many of their sacrifices were portrayed in their art. We are aware of the religion and the beliefs of the Aztec people because of their art. The gods were represented in statues and paintings that were narratives to teach their people and show respect to the gods. The Mother Goddess was a broad-shouldered figure with clawed hands and feet with a skirt of twisted snakes. A pair of serpents, symbols of gushing blood, rose from her neck to form her head. Their eyes were her eyes; their fangs, her tusks. The writhing serpents of her skirt also formed her body. Around her stump of a neck hung a necklace of sacrificial offerings- hands, heart, and a dangling skull. Despite the complexity of the surfaces, the sculpture’s simple, bold, and blocky forms create a single visual whole. This dramatic impact was also heightened by the color. This portraiture is very symbolic and idealized. This is what they thought the mother god that guided them should look like. For the Aztec people, it was their gods, and how they represented them in a dramatic and powerful way that taught their people.


Art was also used in war. Artisans would paint spears, masks, and shields with images of fierce animals and gods of war and strength. Skulls were also a very popular form of Aztec art. The skulls would be made of stone, gold, or crystal. This fascination with skulls is even carried over to modern-day Mexico where El Dia De Los Muertos or The Day of the Dead is celebrated.


All the “Aztec” tribes were just a part of the vast culture of Mesoamerica the Spaniards destroyed. Culturally and technologically, the Tarascans of Michoacan were more advanced than the Mexica; we do not hear of them because smallpox decimated them before Europeans reached them.  Others, such as, the Zapotecs, the Mixtecs, and the Huaxtecs, all contributed greatly to what we think of as “Aztec” culture.


This culture had an old history in the Americas, too. It stretched back to the Olmecs of the Gulf Coast, to the great city of Teotihuacan (the pyramids north of Mexico City, commonly called “Aztec”, but actually ancient by the time the tribes from Aztlan arrived), to the Toltecs of Tula. A rich and full culture was plundered and destroyed by Spaniards that were interested mainly in gold. Many of the Aztec’s monumental structures remain, like the Great Pyramid at Cholula, the largest man-made structure on the planet. Their history remains too, with many valuable lessons for us still.


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