By the end of the fifteenth century, Aztec military and economic power extends from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf Coast in the east, and from the Basin of Mexico south to coastal Guatemala. The empire, ruled from the capital Tenochtitlan, leaves the conquered city-states free to rule themselves, but requires regular, heavy tribute payments and occasional military support for Aztec wars. The influx of tribute and trade goods from environmentally diverse regions into Tenochtitlan provides a wide range of agricultural staples and utilitarian and luxury goods, to be consumed by rapidly growing urban populations. Full-time artists create impressive sculptures in stone for use in state and religious ceremonies or for ostentatious display by the elite city classes. In the west, the powerful Tarascan kingdom successfully resists conquest by the Aztecs. In the Mixteca region to the south, dozens of small kingdoms flourish despite tributary subservience to the Aztecs. Some city-states within the boundaries of the empire remain autonomous, among them Tlaxcala east of the Basin. It becomes an essential ally to the Spaniards in the conquest of the Aztec empire in 1521.
Spaniards, under Hernán Cortés (1485–1547), sail from Cuba and land in present-day Veracruz in 1519. Eventually they penetrate most Mesoamerican regions. Missionaries of mendicant orders follow to convert the populations to the Catholic faith. Growing numbers of Spaniards, lured by the promise of wealth, settle throughout Mesoamerica. The Viceroyalty of New Spain, established in 1535, will stretch from Mexico to the Isthmus of Panama. Native populations decline dramatically as a result of disease, displacement, and overwork, and the imposition of colonial rule leads to the collapse of native civilizations. Rich silver mines in northern Mexico and fertile lands in the south provide wealth and prosperity for the Viceroyalty and the Spanish crown. Art production consists predominantly of religious works commissioned for convents and churches. An eclectic style evolves in art and architecture in which motifs, forms, and technologies from Spain and Europe, introduced by itinerant artists and portable works of art, mix with native symbol systems and techniques.
Tenochtitlan joins forces with two smaller cities, Tlacopan on the west and Texcoco on the east side of Lake Texcoco, to form the Triple Alliance; together they defeat powerful Azcapotzalco and the Aztec empire begins. The Mexica of Tenochtitlan soon become the dominant force of the Alliance.
The Main Temple of Tenochtitlan is enlarged for the third time. A date-glyph “4 Reed,” located at the rear of the pyramid of the Temple of Huitzilopochtli, marks this construction phase. Aztec military expansion throughout the Basin of Mexico progresses rapidly and building activity in Tenochtitlan increases.
Cempoala is the largest settlement on the central Gulf Coast, with a population of about 20,000. The ceremonial architecture of this region resembles that of the central Mexican highlands, including temples, altars, and shrines; step-fret crenelations often appear on surrounding walls. Miniature temples up to five feet high form elite tombs.
Under the ruler Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina (Montezuma I, r. 1440–69), Aztec imperial domination spreads beyond the Basin. The Aztecs control extensive land, labor, and valuable resources. Several hundred northern city-states are conquered and subject to heavy tribute payments.
Tzintzuntzan in western Mexico thrives, receiving large quantities of tributary goods from communities throughout the Tarascan empire. Five keyhole-shaped pyramid platforms, called yácatas in the Tarascan language, make up the ceremonial heart of the city. They are faced with dressed basalt and often covered with petroglyphs. The yácatas are dedicated to the Tarascan sun god Curicaueri, a deity similar to the Aztec patron god Huitzilopochtli.
In Tenochtitlan, further construction takes place at the Main Temple in the year “1 Rabbit” (1454 A.D.). The pyramid is embellished with large-scale incense braziers and serpent heads. Cists are built on all four sides to receive thousands of offerings to honor the gods Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli.
The Aztec empire continues to grow. At Castillo de Teayo, in the Huastec region of the northern Gulf Coast, an Aztec-style stepped pyramid with a stone temple at its summit is constructed. Numerous freestanding sculptures, carved in local sandstone, represent Aztec deities and standard bearers.
Tenochtitlan conquers the small island city of Tlatelolco located to its north in Lake Texcoco. The two cities merge, becoming the most densely populated urban center in Mesoamerica. It covers an area of approximately five square miles.
The expanding Tarascan and Aztec empires confront each other in battle, the Tarascans killing or wounding more than 20,000 Aztecs. A frontier of empty land guarded by fortresses on each side is established between the two empires.
A superbly sculpted monument, depicting the dismembered body of Coyolxauhqui, sister of the Aztec tribal and war god Huitzilopochtli, is placed at the foot of the stairway leading to his sanctuary at the Main Temple.
During the brief reign of Tizoc, a massive stone monument, known as the Tizoc Stone, is carved. Thirty conventionalized, stiff figures depict victorious Aztec warriors in ritual attire grasping by the hair the leaders of conquered towns. The captives are identified by place-name glyphs.
Aggressive expansion takes place under the rulership of Ahuitzotl (r. 1486–1502) when his armies subdue the peoples of the mountainous lands of Guerrero and Oaxaca, substantially extending the tribute domain.
A greenstone plaque with the date “8 Reed” commemorates the completion of an enlargement of the main sanctuary in Tenochtitlan in 1487. Large numbers of prisoners of war are taken to the imperial capital for ritual sacrifice.
The total number of inhabitants in the island city of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco may have reached 200,000 or more. The bulk of the urban population are workers, including craft specialists such as potters, goldsmiths, lapidaries, featherworkers, and stonemasons. They produce ceremonial art and luxury goods of the finest quality for use by Aztec nobles in temples and palaces. The most important commercial center of central Mexico is the great market of Tlatelolco.
Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (Montezuma II, r. 1502–20) is crowned king in Tenochtitlan. Like his predecessors, he fails to conquer the Tarascans in the west and the Tlaxcalans to the east of the Valley of Mexico.
Spaniards sailing from Cuba journey along the jungle coast of Tabasco, where they encounter local chiefs wearing colorful cotton capes, brilliant feather ornaments, and gold jewelry. They barter European glass beads for gold and supplies.
Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) and about 500 soldiers land near the modern town of Cempoala. They are met by Motecuhzoma II’s emissaries, who offer exotic gifts including elaborate costumes, feather fans and headdresses, and jewelry of shell, turquoise, jade, and gold, hoping to prevent the strangers from continuing to the imperial city. Cortés is also given a young woman named Malintzin or Malinche. Speaking both Nahuatl, the language of central Mexico, and Chontal Maya, spoken on the coast, she becomes his translator, confidante, and consort. On August 16, Cortés and his small army set off for Tenochtitlan.
Motecuhzoma II is taken prisoner in Tenochtitlan by Cortés and killed, but the Spaniards are forced to retreat.
The Spaniards ally themselves with the Tlaxcalans, long-time enemies of the Aztecs, and lay siege to island Tenochtitlan. After 93 days of siege, the population is decimated by starvation, disease, lack of fresh water, and the massacre of thousands. On August 13, Cuauhtemoc (1495?–1525), the last ruler of the Aztecs, is taken captive, the city completely leveled, and the Aztec empire falls to the Spanish conquerors.
Catholic churches and monasteries, as well as mansions for the new Spanish rulers, rise on the ruins of Aztec temples and shrines in Tenochtitlan. The architecture shows a mixture of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance styles.
The first twelve Franciscan friars arrive. They begin converting the indigenous population to the Catholic faith. Dominicans follow in 1526, the Augustinians in 1533, and the Jesuits in 1572.
The Spaniards destroy most indigenous painted manuscripts and documents, especially those of a ritual nature.
Spanish institutions impose controls over the Indian population. The encomienda, granted by the crown to deserving Spaniards, entitles them to the labor and goods produced by the native group entrusted to them. Most encommenderos exploit the Indians and even enslave them.
Spanish plants and animals and a wide range of new materials and technologies are introduced. Metal tools and other implements replace stone tools.
Legendary apparition of the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe to the christianized Mexican Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac north of Mexico City, the site of a former temple of the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin.
The Viceroyalty of New Spain is established consisting of present-day Mexico, Central America, Florida, and parts of the Southwest United States. Tenochtitlan, renamed Ciudad de México, is the capital of the Viceroyalty, and Antonio de Mendoza (1490–1552) is appointed the first viceroy.
The Colegio Imperial de Santa Cruz is founded in Tlatelolco and run by Franciscan friars, The students, sons of the native nobility, are instructed in European customs, Latin grammar, theology, liturgy, music, and other subjects. After four years of training, they return to their home communities to assist in religious and civil administration.
Spanish artists arrive to work in New Spain, among them the painter Rodrigo de Cifuentes and the sculptor Juan de Entrambas Aguas.
Silver mines are discovered in northern Mexico. Mining towns are founded near the mines: Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Pachuca, and Guanajuato.
The first school of painting is established at the Convento Grande de San Francisco in Mexico City by the friar Pedro de Gante (1486–1572). The friars, many of whom are trained artists, use engravings, woodcuts, and other images brought from Spain, to teach painting to the Indians.
The populations of New Spain change rapidly. Imported diseases such as smallpox, measles, typhoid, and yellow fever, in addition to forced labor in the mines and on agricultural plantations, lead to a dramatic decline in the native populations. There is a growing influx of Spaniards and Africans. Mixed marriages occur.
Mission churches and monasteries for the conversion of the Indians to the Catholic faith are built all over Mexico. A simple basilica plan is used, consisting of a nave, two aisles, and a flat timber roof. They have considerable capacity and a fortresslike appearance.
The Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico opens in Mexico City.
New towns, laid out in ordered grid plans, are founded. A central town square, called a plaza, is flanked by a parish church or cathedral, and the principal government buildings.
Guild ordinances are established for the arts restricting the activities of Indian artists.
The encomienda system is abolished in central Mexico largely due to the tireless efforts of the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas (1474–1566).
Work begins on the cathedral of Mexico City.
Native dress incorporates new materials (silk thread and imported dyes) and styles (tailored shirts, jackets, and trousers), but many Indian elements, particularly in women’s clothing (the wrapped skirt and untailored blouse, called huipil), are retained to the present day.
The Tribunal of the Inquisition is established. Indians are excluded from its jurisdiction.
Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590) and Diego Durán (1536–1588?) among other friars, enlist Indian scribes and informants to help compile extensive accounts explaining Aztec myths, religious ceremonies, history, and customs. Many illustrations accompany the texts.
Relief sculpture, the most highly developed art form in Aztec Mexico, is applied to church portals, pulpits, arches, columns, and atrial crosses based on engravings brought from Spain.
Most of the land in the colony is in the hands of Spaniards and criollos (Spaniards born in the Americas).
About 900 churches and monasteries exist. The Spaniards have control over most of present-day Mexico.
“Mexico, 1400–1600 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=08®ion=canm (October 2004)