Coatlicue | The Aztec Empire | Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa
Past exhibition

The Aztec Empire

03.19.2005 - 09.18.2005

The Renaissance, an intellectual movement in the sciences and the arts of 15th-century Europe, had its counterpart in ancient Mexico, where two powerful indigenous states flourished: the Aztec empire and its neighbor and traditional enemy, the Tarascan empire. In Aztec territory, the Aztecs interpreted their presence in the universe by means of an extraordinary anthropomorphic sculptural iconography; this occurred simultaneously with the expansion of a pan-Mesoamerican artistic style that led to understanding between the peoples that shared a common visual language.

Re-creating this period, The Aztec Empire features the largest number of art objects in an international exhibition made by the peoples coexisting in the final stage of Mesoamerican development, in what archaeologists call the Late Postclassic, lasting from the 13th to the 16th centuries of our era.

During this time, the most complex political entity was the Aztec empire. Its historic origins go back to a military coalition known as the Triple Alliance. Three emerging states formed this union: the Mexica-Aztecs, whose capital city was Mexico-Tenochtitlan, renowned in its time; the Acolhua with Tetzcoco as their main city, considered the cultural center par excellence and Tlacopan, which united the survivors of the ancient domain that once dominated the Valley of Mexico. The Aztecs shrewdly imposed their hierarchy on their allies and extended their dominion to the coasts of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. They acquired power and riches based on a strict system of tributes, so that on the arrival of the Spaniards in the early 16th century, their capital was considered the most significant and majestic city of its time. The dominant language among the allies was Nahuatl, which became the lingua franca for most of Mesoamerica and was used to name the geographical features of ancient Mexico, even replacing the terms of other ancestral languages. The other indigenous state was the Tarascan Empire, also known as Purepecha, whose main city was Tzintzuntzan. Toward the end of the Tarascan historical period, this city functioned as its political capital, imposing its military dominion on a broad area that included north-central and western Mexico. This people's language was Porhe or Tarasco, fundamentally different from Nahuatl and not linked to any other language of ancient Mexico.

The expansion of the Aztecs coincided with the flowering of an international artistic style linking peoples speaking different languages. This artistic language communicated histories, deities and rites whose ancestral myths and traditions coincided.

The exhibition is divided into ten themes distributed over eleven galleries showing the geographical environment of Mexico at the time, through the European conquest to provide a thorough representation of Aztec society from its development to the zenith of the empire and its decline. Frank Gehry's unique architecture at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has been transformed by the design of TEN Arquitectos for The Aztec Empire exhibition. A subtle, continuing glass showcase runs throughout the entire exhibition area, acting as a kind of mediator between the artworks, the spectator, and the building. This glass structure contracts and expands in response to the conditions of the museum, generating specific spaces and creating an intimate route that highlights the contrast between the differing degrees of transparency and the physical presence of the artworks.

The Mexican Natural Environment
The country's geographical features facilitated intensive agriculture in the south, in an area governed by alternate dry and rainy seasons. The indigenous bestiary dynamically reflects the environment in which Pre-Columbian cultures developed. The detail with which these animals were sculpted or modeled shows us their artistic style. This can be characterized as a naturalism that sometimes approaches hyperrealism, seldom equaled in the ancient art of the new world. The stunning images of rattlesnakes, jaguars, and eagles that typify Aztec art are important in terms of their religious function, their preponderance among the powerful, and their role in times of war.

Society: the Nobility and the Commoners
The society of Mexico-Tenochtitlan was made up of two segments: the nobility, called pipiltin, and the common people, the macehual class, an enormous social group that included artisans as well as farmers. Merchants or pochtecas included both those who made long tripsto trade luxury goods from faraway regions and the humble vendors of fruit and animals. The nobles, proud of their relationship with their governor, publicly displayed their valuable jade and gold jewelry, such as ear spools, necklaces and rings, as well as lip-plugs, which were military insignia indicating high rank. Commoners could only decorate themselves with objects of clay and use clothing made of henequen. Clay figurines and ceramic vessels made for everyday use give us a fascinating glimpse of daily life in the Aztec world.

Peoples and Societies in the Aztec World
Sculptures and figurines of people of a remarkable esthetic quality were an identifying characteristic of artistic creation of the Mesoamerican Late Postclassic period. Images of men and women express ideals of both age and beauty. The young adult stage was considered to be a person's prime, guaranteeing strength in times of war, and also the period of greatest sexual activity. The noteworthy development achieved by sculpture workshops in the main indigenous capitals left extraordinary figures sculpted in volcanic rock, the preferred material in the Aztec world. The exhibition features the image of the macehual, an idealized conception of the common man, and the sublime nude woman popularly known as the "Venus de Texcoco."

Legendary Cultures: the Aztecs' Ancestors
It is impossible to understand the art and culture of the Aztec empire independently from the development of Mesoamerican culture in general: The peoples who preceded them created forms and symbols that would be evoked, reused, and adapted through the height of the Aztec civilization. The Aztecs considered themselves heirs of these ancestral cultures, beginning with the Olmecs, who flourished between 1200 and 600 bC and were sculptors of exquisite jade masks and figures. As the prevalent culture from 100 to 650 aD, the people of Teotihuacan covered the façades of their temples with images of the jaguar and modeled ceramics decorated with delicate stucco and polychrome designs. Later, the Toltecs developed an historic and artistic model that governed Aztec ideology for many years.

A Sacred Vision of the Universe
The Mesoamerican peoples shared a collective vision of their sacred universe, which they imagined to have been created by Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, sons of the god and goddess couple that lived in Omeyocan, the highest level of heaven. Following divine dictates, they took the body of Cipactli, an ancestral beast with a spiny body that walked on the universal waters, and divided it into two parts. With one part, they created the celestial realms inhabited by the astral deities, and with the other part they made the earth and the underworld. In this vertical vision of the universe, humans, animals, and plants occupied the central region, called Tlaticpac.

The horizontal vision of the universe was projected as a quadrangular space made up of four directions identified by the related cardinal directions that intersected in the center, believed to be the location of the Aztec Templo Mayor, at which point the axis mundi emerged. To support heaven and earth, the pre-Hispanic peoples imagined four sacred trees or plants to serve their purpose; the Aztecs thought this was done by five Atlantes attired as warriors, who evoked the role of Atlas in Greek mythology. This section of the exhibition includes all the objects that recreate the sun cults that were so important in the Aztec world. The emergence of the sacred universe occurred in parallel to the creation of the five suns, so that Ollin Tonatiuh, the Fifth Sun, corresponds to the age and dominion of the Aztecs, which is why they worshipped this triumphant warrior in the heavenly battles as their guiding deity.

Religion: Gods and Rituals
The religious universe in the Aztec empire was highly complex. In the upper ranks of their gods was Huitzilopochtli, the patron god who guided them to the site of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. He was imagined as a solar warrior. Tezcatlipoca was the ancestral divinity of nocturnal war and patron of virility. Quetzalcoatl was the ancient civilizing deity and patron of the wind. Earth was deified through various attributes: it was the final destination of humans, the origin of life and the sphere in which food was created, manifested as Coatlicue or Chicomecoatl.

All Mesoamerican peoples based their economy on the intensive cultivation of maize, chili, squash, and beans: Thus Tlaloc and his companion Chalchiuhtlicue, the gods of rain and water respectively, played a crucial role in indigenous religion. Meanwhile, Xochipilli and Xipe Totec, deities that patronized the renewal of nature with the arrival of the rains, were linked with human maturity, the art of silverwork and war.

Just as Mesoamerican religion is characterized by its complexity, there was a great variety of rites and ceremonies, differentiated in accordance with the worship of each deity. One such rite was the extraction of the heart in which the sacrificial knife was used. Related sacred objects were the techcatl, the altar table where this practice was carried out, and the cuauhxicalli, a receptacle that contained the human hearts and their blood, the sacred food for the gods.

The Templo Mayor
The Aztecs founded their city in 1325, building it on some small, muddy islands in lake Tetzcoco. From the start of its construction, its symbolic pattern indicated the concept of the sacred axis mundi. The ceremonial area or Templo Mayor would be placed in the center of the city and therefore at the very center of the universe. This ritual architectural complex was expanded whenever an Aztec governor ascended to the throne, so that by the end of the 15th century the fame of its monumentality and greatness had spread throughout Mesoamerica. In the Templo Mayor, worship was rendered primarily to Huitzilopochtli, the patron of war, and Tlaloc, the god of rain. Featured in the exhibition is the figure of Coyolxauhqui, the moon goddess that symbolized the peoples defeated by the Aztecs.

The Templo Mayor was decorated with elegant figures modeled in clay such as the eagle warrior and Mictlatecuhtli. The Aztecs, as a sign of devotion, deposited hundreds of offerings, which have been carefully recovered by archaeologists over the past 100 years. A highlight here is the Offering of the Red God, shown here in Europe for the first time.

Peoples and Cultures Subjugated by the Aztecs: the Central Region of Mexico
One major feature of the central Mexican meseta was a series of lakes surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, a region that was home to a number of peoples, some of which had settled there long before the Aztecs. Amongst these peoples were the Tetzcocanos and Tepaneca of Tlacopan, allies of Mexico-Tenochtitlan who occupied the eastern and western sides of the lake area. In the southern region of the meseta lived the Xochimilca and Tlahuica, who shared the common language of Nahuatl as well as sculptural forms and ceramic traditions. The Matlatzinca, who spoke another language, settled in the Toluca valleys in the northern part of the central region and to the east were the Cholula and Tlaxcala, who created polychrome ceramics in great demand in the empire.

The Tarascan Empire
The Tarascans organized an imperial-style state in the lake region of Michoacan in western Mexico. They based their power on their masterly rendering of copper and bronze, which they used to make arms and tools, imposing their military dominion on the region. By checking the expansion of the Aztec empire, they became its most important enemy. Tarascan works in the exhibition feature both archaeological and artistic objects, including sculpture, ceramics and jewelry. This select set of works reveals the Tarascans' markedly different way of life.

Peoples and Cultures Subjugated by the Aztecs: Mixtecs, Totonaca, and Huaxteca
The Aztecs commanded the victorious armies of the Triple Alliance that conquered one by one the Mixtec states located in some very difficult terrain. The Mixtecs gained renown for their delicate work in turquoise mosaic and valuable gold work, creating the extraordinary polychrome ceramics that shared a similar symbolic language to the pictorial tradition of the deerskin-bound native codices.

The troops of the Aztec empire also conquered the Totonaca and the Huaxteca, both peoples noted for their delicate ornaments in shell and conch. The Huaxteca in particular, carved noteworthy sculptures in sandstone, such as the Life-death figure (apotheosis), one of the masterworks of pre-Hispanic art.

The Twilight of the Empires: the Spanish Conquest of Mexico
The sea voyages made in the late 15th and early 16th centuries by Europeans in search of the Indies brought about an encounter between two continents and very diverse cultures. In 1519 Hernán Cortés and his men disembarked on the coast of Mexico. From there they began the conquest of the Aztec empire, taking Tenochtitlan on 13 August 1521. Their Catholicism, which in Spain had helped to defeat Islam, prevented them from understanding and appreciating the religion and lifestyle of the indigenous societies they found. The conquest was marked by the destruction of those majestic cities.

Gold, the main reason behind the conquest, led them to melt down the majority of the Aztec and Tarascan treasures. Only a few pieces of jewelry remain to represent their great work. Most of what survived was feather art or the pictorial tradition of the codices, one small reminder of the glory and fame of ancient Mexico.

The emerging Spanish empire imported a new economic system, the Catholic religion and a new culture that, during the first century of European domination, produced new art forms noted for the syncretism of indigenous and Spanish styles.

In the exhibition the story of the conquest is narrated by its protagonists, authors of the old chronicles also present in the lively images that once decorated conch paintings and screens.

Although there was never quite as much gold as the conquistadores had hoped, the discovery and exploitation of the silver mines meant that much of America's natural riches were taken to Spain and Europe. Vestiges of this opulence still survive in Spain, in churches, convents, and private collections boasting superb works in silver, mostly linked to the Catholic religion.

Felipe Solís
Exhibition curator
Director of the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City

Exhibition organized in collaboration with the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (CONACULTA) and the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), Mexico.


The Aztec Empire
Coatlicue, Aztec, ca. 1500
Stone, turquoise, and pigments
115 x 40 x 35 cm
Museo Nacional de Antropología, INAH, Mexico City 10-8534