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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Aztec Stone Sculpture

Aztec stone sculpture is the culmination of a long Mesoamerican tradition in the carving of stone—from ordinary volcanic rock to highly prized semi-precious stones such as jade—into objects and monuments of all sorts. The tradition began with the Olmec peoples of the Gulf Coast in the second millennium B.C., if not earlier. Literally thousands of Aztec sculptures, ranging from intimately scaled, personal works to public monuments standing up to ten feet tall, were carved fully in the round or in relief. Many still exist despite massive destruction by the Spaniards, who considered them to be heathen idols.

The most accomplished sculptors in the Aztec empire carved impressive images of the gods, often of large size, for display in temples and public spaces in Tenochtitlan’s Sacred Precinct. The sculptures served to communicate the concepts of Aztec religion and were part of complex rituals; even historic monuments were elevated to the realm of the divine and ceremony by the addition of religious symbols. The subjects portrayed were many, but images of gods and goddesses were by far the most numerous. Sculptors followed basic conventions for portraying deity figures: customarily shown in frontal view and strictly symmetrical, females are frequently kneeling, their hands resting on their knees, while male figures are often sitting with their knees drawn up and their arms crossed upon them. Ageless faces—inlaid eyes and half-open mouths lend them a lifelike look—lack individuality. Of grave expression, they portray the Aztec ideals of female beauty and male strength. Attributes, often including animal features such as fangs and claws, and attire specific to each deity such as headdresses, pectorals, and facial ornaments are carefully rendered. These were recognizable to the worshippers.

Animals and plants, lidded boxes, sacrificial vessels, and musical instruments were also made. Aztec carvers used simple stone and hardwood tools, fiber cords, water, and sand to carve the hard stones into works that ranged from barely hewn rocks to intricately detailed, superbly finished masterpieces.