This exquisitely carved stone panel, one of a pair given to the museum by the Hudson River School painter Frederic Church in 1893, depicts an eagle biting into a cactus fruit, a symbolic representation of the sun devouring a human heart. The two panels are nearly identical in size and imagery and may originally have formed part of a larger composition on the façade of a temple or other sacred building (see MMA 93.27.2).
The Eagle Panels are among the finest examples of Mesoamerican stone relief sculpture, highly sophisticated in both composition and technique. In each, the curve of the bird’s back, from its head through its tail feathers, forms an arc that determines the entire composition and nearly fills the frame. The artist has placed glyph-like scrolls, shells, pierced circles (chalchihuitl), and what appears to be a bundle of reeds or a stylized ear of maize in the remaining spaces. A narrow, raised band once framed the image, and the remaining fragments can be seen on either side. The ends of the tail feathers and the bottom right corner of the panel have broken off. Traces of paint remain on the background and inner carved surfaces, and intervening layers of plaster were discovered during conservation, indicating that the panels had been repainted multiple times, a testament to their importance. The sculptor employed a highly refined carving technique to create a multi-leveled composition, and to maximize the effect of light and shadow. Each row of feathers, from the eagle’s tail through its neck, is rendered in a slightly higher level of relief, and each of the primary (flight) feathers is cut at an angle, so that they appear to overlap, suggesting even greater depth. The outer edges of the scrolls similarly bevel back, creating deep shadows.
When he purchased the panels, Frederick Church, an early trustee of the museum, was told that they had been found by a farmer plowing his field in northern Veracruz, near the city of Tampico, a region dominated by the Huastecs at the time of the conquest. However, the panels are unlike any known examples of stone carving from the area. Instead, they reflect a cosmopolitan blend of artistic traditions found in several regions of Mesoamerica. Most similar are the stone relief panels which adorn the outer walls of sacred structures at both Tula in central Mexico, El Cerrito, Queretaro, and Chichén Itzá on the Yucatan Peninsula, although these are much cruder in execution, and simpler in design. Both these regions had contact with Veracruz via trade routes across both land and sea, making it possible that the iconography of the panels, or the panels themselves, may have originated elsewhere in Mesoamerica.
According to Aztec mythology, eagles, soaring high into the sky, are symbols of the sun crossing the heavens. The sun itself needs strength to survive the dangerous nightly journey through the darkness of the underworld, and then to rise again each morning, allowing life on earth to continue. It is the obligation of human beings, through sacrificial offerings, to provide nourishment for the journey. Sacrifice, of the ruler or priest’s own blood, or of the blood, hearts, and lives of victims, was practiced throughout Mesoamerica, and frequently depicted in sculpture, painting, and codices.
In describing the Aztec practice of human heart sacrifice, the early Spanish chronicler, Friar Bernardino de Sahagún, wrote that the sacrificed heart was called cuauhnochtli (precious eagle cactus fruit). After pulling it from the chest of the victim the priest placed the heart into a cuauhxicalli (eagle vessel). These cuauhxicalli could vary in form, size, and material, and a number have been identified. The Codex Borbonicus, written shortly before or after the Spanish conquest, depicts cuauhxicalli decorated with rows of eagle feathers, stylized hearts, and chalchihuitl, symbols of preciousness also seen on the panels, thus indicating both the nature of their use and the worth of their contents. There are three nearly identical greenstone examples in the collections of the Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., the Weltmuseum Wien (Vienna), and the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin. The Aztec symbol of the Fifth Sun, our present era, is carved into the inner surface of each. The placement of the sacrificial heart within would directly feed the sun and guarantee its return from the underworld symbolized by the image of the earth deity Tlaltecuhtli carved on the bottom of the vessel. A cuauhxicalli in the Museo del Templo Mayor in Mexico City is in the shape of an over-life-sized stone sculpture of an eagle with a deep, bowl-like depression in its back. Its form most directly reflects its ritual purpose and meaning when, during the ritual, the heart is placed into the depression, into the body of the eagle. The seemingly naturalistic image of a cactus fruit being eaten by the eagle seen on the panels may be read as a visual metaphor for the placement of the sacrificial heart into the eagle vessel, to be consumed by the sun.
Eagles loom large in myth and imagery throughout ancient Mesoamerica, particularly for the Aztecs, representing worldly and spiritual power as well as the sun. Aztec eagle warriors were considered the bravest and most elite, and both the eagle and cactus are central to the Aztec mythic history of the founding of their capital city, Tenochtitlan. In this, the story of their transformation from a band of outsiders into the most powerful group in the region, they spent years migrating from the land of Aztlán, somewhere to the north, searching for a place to settle. Their god Huitzilopochtli told them to look for a a place at the center of a lake, where they would find an eagle perched atop a cactus plant, and to build their capital there. They gave their city the name Tenochtitlan, from nochtli, the Aztec name for the nopal cactus. Historically, it was from this swampy island, surrounded by the waters of five interconnecting lakes, that the Aztec built and ruled a powerful empire that at one time comprised much of what is now Mexico. After razing Tenochtitlan to the ground, the Spanish invaders, recognizing the power the ruined city still held for the people, built Mexico City, the capital of their North American empire and now of modern Mexico, on its ruins. This same symbol, marking the connection between the indigenous past and the present, is seen in the national seal of Mexico, with the image of an eagle standing on a nopal cactus with a serpent in its beak at its center.
Patricia J. Sarro, 2019
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