The large, circular disk has an eight-pointed sun carved on the top, which was used for sacrificial battles. A warrior captured in battle was tied to the stone, and armed with a feather lined club. Aztec warriors, armed with obsidian lined clubs, fought the tied warrior and naturally defeated him. The Matlatzincas are shown as despised barbarians, while Tizoc and his warriors are represented as noble Toltec warriors. The Stone of Tizoc artfully mixes sun worship, mythology and Aztec power.
Another massive stone disk, the carvings on the Sun Stone, also known as the Calendar Stone, show the four consecutive worlds of the Aztecs, each one created by the gods only to end in destruction. This basalt stone, 12 feet in diameter and three feet thick, was discovered near the cathedral in Mexico City in the 18th century.
At the center is the sun god Tonatiuh. Around Tonatiuh are the four other suns which met destruction as the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca fought for control. After the destruction of a sun and the epoch it represents, the gods had to recreate the world and humans until finally the fifth sun held. At either side of the center, jaguar heads and paws hold hearts, representing earth.
Fire serpents are at the bottom of the stone, as their bodies snake around the edge. The Sun Stone carving is probably the most recognized artwork of the Aztec world. The Aztecs created a rich variety of art works from massive stone sculptures to miniature, exquisitely carved gemstone insects. They made stylized hand crafted pottery, fine gold and silver jewelry and breathtaking feather work garments. The Aztecs were as intimately involved with art as they were with their religion and the two were tightly interwoven.
Our knowledge of the Aztec culture mostly comes from their pictogram codices and their art. Aztec craftsmen worked images of their gods into much of their artwork. Of gold and silver jewelry, much of it was lost to the conquering Spanish who melted it down for currency. Textiles too, are destroyed by time, and pottery is fragile.
Energetic stone carvings, however, remain to show us the great artistry of the Aztecs. While much of the Aztec population worked in agriculture to keep the empire fed and others were involved in the great trading networks, many others devoted themselves to producing the artworks that noble Aztecs loved.
Thus, samples of artistic creativity in precious metal jewelry, decorated with jade, obsidian, turquoise, greenstone and coral still exist, mainly in smaller pieces such as earrings or labrets for lips. Pottery from Tenochtitlan and surrounding areas still reveal the fine abstract symbolism of the Aztecs.
Feather workers made colorful tilmas for the emperor and nobles, and produced ceremonial costumes for the highest warrior castes, creating intricately decorated shields and headdresses. Many Aztec families and even villages were devoted to providing artwork for Aztec nobles. Every art had its own calpulli or guild.
The nobles in the calpulli provided the raw materials and the artists created the finished works—the magnificent stone carvings, jewelry, elaborate ritual costumes for the great religious ceremonies and feather shirts, cloaks and headdresses. The Aztec emperors received art works as tribute or the artists sold them in the great marketplace at Tlatelolco.
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The walls of the great Tenochtitlan Templo Mayor are covered with carvings of Aztec symbolism. Stone carvers created sculptures of the Aztec gods to be used in the monthly religious ceremonies. Very common was the chacmool, a reclining figure which received the extracted hearts and blood of sacrificial victims. Aztecs in the rural regions carved the agricultural gods in both stone and wood, especially Xipe Totec, the god of spring and vegetation. Other carvers worked in miniature, creating tiny shells, insects and plants out of jade, pearl, onyx and obsidian.
Artists created mosaic masks used in religious ceremonies with pieces of turquoise, shell and coral. These masks are highly representative of the Aztec devotion to their gods. Although much Aztec was destroyed during the Spanish conquest, many fine samples of each distinct art form remains to outline for viewers the great talent and technique of Aztec artists.
Check the Aztec Resource Page on Aztec art for links to further information.
Aztec symbols were a component of material culture in which the ancient society expressed understanding of the corporeal and immaterial world. The members of that culture absorb the symbols and their meanings as they grow up. They see the symbols all around them, on the walls of their temples, in jewelry, in weaving and in their language and religion. The Aztecs also used symbols to express perceptions and experiences of reality. The Aztecs, like the other Mesoamerican cultures surrounding them, loved symbols of their gods, animals and common items around them.
Each day in the ritual day calendar, for example, is represented by a number and a symbol. The tonalppohualli or sacred calendar, consists of two interlocking cycles, one of 13 days, represented by a number called a coefficient and one of 20 days represented by a day glyph or symbol.
The day symbols include animals such as crocodiles, dogs or jaguars; abstract subjects such as death and motion; and natural things that the Aztecs saw around them every day like houses, reeds, water and rain. See the Ancient Scripts section on Aztecs to see good, colorful example of the day glyphs. All Mesoamerican cultures used body paint, especially warriors going into battle. Different ranks of warriors wore specific colors and used those same colors in painting their bodies. The most prestigious warrior society, the Shorn Ones, shaved their heads and painted half their head blue and half yellow.
Other warriors striped their faces with black and other colors. Aztecs also decorated their bodies permanently in the form of piercing and tattoos, although there is not as much evidence for Aztec tattooing as for the cultures around them. The Aztecs centered their lives on their religion. For that reason, many statues and carvings exist of the Aztec gods, as hideous as they may be to modern eyes.
Symbols of the sun, the eagle, the feathered serpent and cactus were used in the Aztec writing system, in dates and time and in titles and names. The magnificent Sun or Calendar Stone contains both the day solar calendar and the sacred day tonalpohualli, all of which are represented by the rich symbolism of the Aztec culture. Most Aztec symbols had layers of meaning. A butterfly symbol, for instance, represented transformation while frogs symbolized joy.
The day signs and coefficients corresponded to one of the Aztec gods, which means the day calendar could be used for divination. An order of the Aztec priesthood were diviners. When a child was born, they were called to find a name for the baby based on the day of the birth and the god corresponding to that day. Today, because of the growing interest in body art, more people are learning about Aztec symbols and designs. Codex painter was an honored and necessary profession in the Aztec world. They were highly trained in the calmecacs, the advanced schools of the noble class.
Some calmecacs invited commoner children to train as scribes if they were highly talented, but most scribes were nobles. After the Spanish conquest, codex painters worked with the priests recording the details of Aztec life. These codices are the richest source of information we have about the Aztecs. The Aztec Empire, as with many empires, required a great deal of paperwork: keeping track of taxes and tribute paid, recording the events of the year both great and small, genealogies of the ruling class, divinations and prophecies, temple business, lawsuits and court proceedings and property lists with maps, ownership, borders, rivers and fields noted.
Merchants needed scribes to keep accounts of all their trades and profits. All of this official work required the scribes of the Aztecs—the codex painters.
Pictography combines pictograms and ideograms—graphic symbols or pictures that represent an idea, much like cuneiform or hieroglyphic or Japanese or Chinese characters. To understand pictography, one must either understand the cultural conventions or the graphic symbol must resemble a physical object. For instance, the idea of death in Aztec pictography was conveyed by a drawing of a corpse wrapped in a bundle for burial; night was conveyed by a black sky and a closed eye, and the idea of walking by a footprint trail.
The codices were made of Aztec paper, deer skin or maguey cloth. Strips of these materials up to 13 yards by 7 inches high were cut, and the ends pasted onto thin pieces of wood as the cover. The strip was folded like a concertina or a map.