Explain how symbols and themes are used in "A View of the World" to articulate the Aztec worldview.
"The Aztecs experienced "nature" in all its complexity not as a mere mundane entity out there, but rather as deeply connected with superhuman powers and beings, manifesting themselves in countless aspects of the surrounding world and a sacred landscape."
Video: "Aztec Religion"
This video gives a really good & quick overview of the most important gods, rituals, beliefs, & tenets of Aztec religion, as well as touching on the role of architecture & temples.
"Most of the preoccupation in the religion had to do with fear of the nature, and a fear of the end of the world.”
The Creation Story
The Aztec creation story evolved over the civilization's existence. The was due in part to the simple passage of time, but the story may have also been altered purposefully to fulfill political purposes. For example, the Aztec belief that their empire lied at the center of the universe, and is therefore the most important civilization on Earth, could have been used as a tool to justify political or military actions. One common variation is the legend of the five suns - the five births of the world: five suns, and so five different worlds, have existed. Despite fluctuations in the creation story, the theme of birth, death, and rebirth remains constant. But it's not a story of endless cycles, as you may see in other cultures. For the Aztecs, there was a definitive beginning to the universe.
In the beginning, the universe was void. At some definite point in time, the dual god, Ometecuhtli/Omecihuatl, created itself. This god was made of paradoxes: it represented good and bad, chaos and order, masculine and feminine. It had four children, which came to represent the four cardinal directions. The gods were Huizilopochtli (south), Quetzalcoatl (east), Tezcatlipoca (west), and Xipe Totec (north).
These four gods created other gods, along with water and the sea monster Cipactli, a part fish, part crocodile creature that consumed everything the four gods created as they fell into the water. Because of Cipalctli's insatiable appetite for the gods' creations, the four gods attacked and eventually defeated the sea monster.
As one reference website puts it, "From Cipalctli, the universe was created (in some traditions this happened between the last two suns). All the 13 heavens stretch into her head. The earth was created in the middle, and her tail reaches down to the underworld (Mictlán)."
The Aztec creation story is difficult to understand, and the multiple versions make piecing everything together quite confusing. The main ideas to take away are: 1. the theme of rebirth, 2. the existence of a pantheon of gods, and 3. the connection between the gods and nature.
The Aztecs were highly concerned with preserving a balance in nature. They did so through careful interpretation of the heavens to anticipate and avert natural disasters as well as performing sacrificial rituals to appease the gods. Huge elements of the religion - human sacrifice & religious festivals - were connected with and based off of the Aztec calendar system and cosmology. For example, every 52 years, the Aztec people were terrified that the world would end. All religious fires were extinguished, people all over the empire would go into mourning and destroy their possessions. However, when the Pleiades (a seasonal constellation) appeared, the people would be assured that they were safe - for another 52 years, at least.
Divination and astrology were used to interpret tetzauitl (or "bad omens"). These religious beliefs played parts in the arts of the time through the famous "Book XII" of Sahagún's Historia General. The book gives an impressive account of perceived "bad omens" that preceded and supposedly foretold the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. In addition, priests called tonalpuhque ("counters of days") that had a thorough knowledge of astrology and the Aztec calendar system would be consulted before important undertakings or events.
Aztec gods and goddesses each rule 1 (or more) human activities or aspects of the natural world. Many deity were adopted or adapted from other Mesoamerican cultures. But the Aztec pantheon still reflects their individual culture and concerns as a civilization; for example, because the Aztec civilization was based heavily upon farming, there are many gods dealing with agriculture.
In addition to those mentioned in above sections, here are a few important gods & goddesses:
- Tlaloc - god of rain & agriculture
- Huitzilopochtli - god of war & patron god of the Mexica tribe (the Aztecs)
- Quetzalcoatl (“the feathered serpent”) - culture hero and god of civilization and order, created humans
- Tezcatlipoca - god of destiny and fortune, connected with war and sorcery
(According to the Aztecs)
(via Their Art)
As discussed in earlier sections, the Aztecs were highly concerned with the dynamic between humans, nature, and the gods. As a result, they saw it as their duty to fight and die for the gods in order to keep the world order in balance. They believed that the gods predetermined each person's future and that life after death depended on the gods’ decisions and personally striving to live a balanced life.
Similar to other Mesoamerican cultures, the Aztec worldview divided the universe into three levels. The middle level, Earth, was where humans lived - above the underworld and below the heavens. In acknowledgement of the underworld, the Aztecs would bury statues. The main temple in the capital city, Tenochtitlan, was thought to be the center of the universe and the earthly connection between the underworld and the heavens.
Aztec Art - Overview
In general, Aztec art was almost always related to religion. And, because religion and nature were so closely intertwined, art often depicted a wide variety of insects, birds, fish, and animals as well as the gods, who frequently resembled various kinds of animals themselves. In terms of technical characteristics, depictions of the gods were sharp, angular, and brightly colored. Other artistic subjects included priests (usually dressed as gods) performing a ritual & Aztec warriors in their armor.
Symbols in Aztec Art
The Aztec written language prior to the arrival of the Spanish was a conglomeration of three different kinds of symbols: pictograms, ideograms, and phonograms. Pictograms are simple, straightforward images that mean exactly what they are - a tree meant "tree," a snake meant "snake." Phonograms, on the other hand, are closer to an alphabet; they still use pictures, but in this case, the pictures represent a specific sound. Ideograms (or iconographs) are, in this case, the most relevant category out of the three, as they were used most often in religious art. Ideograms are symbols that represent an underlying, implied idea. For example, a warrior standing triumphantly over another, unarmed warrior would be a symbol of conquest, or repeating footprints may represent a journey or time passing. Some of the most common religious symbols were those of the sun, the eagle, the feathered serpent, and the cactus.
The Aztecs used these systems of writing in their manuscripts, known as codices. Codices are not only highly valuable sources of economic, political, and historic information, but they also provide a large amount of information on religion, rituals, and the Aztec worldview.
Pulling all this stuff together - symbols in "A View of the World"
"A View of the World" is a page from an Aztec codex (the Fejervary-Majer Codex, to be exact) and gives a summary of Aztec cosmology. As mentioned before, the cardinal directions - north, south, east, and west - in addition to the direction of "center" are integral to the cosmological creation story. In "A View of the World," the importance of these directions and their associated deity is further highlighted through the artist's placement of emphasis upon the center figure and the four boldly-framed scenes radiating outward from the top, bottom, and sides of the center image. Outside of these cardinal direction boxed-off scenes, ideograms are seen radiating out from the center in diagonals.
Each of the four cardinal directions is represented through the combination of specific deity, birds, and plants. In these scenes, the Aztec worldview of the interconnection between the gods and nature is explicitly expressed. In addition, the balance between two deity and two natural elements (a bird and a plant) in each cardinal direction scene articulates the Aztec desire for harmony between the heavens and the natural world, as well as the close relationship between the gods and nature. This theme of balance between the gods and nature is taken even further as it is observed that the plant in each scene splits up the two deity into individual, evenly-spaced areas, achieving a composition that is almost mathematical in its precision. Further, the meticulous symmetry of the piece as a whole emphasizes the Aztec belief in the need for balance in the universe.
In addition to the theme of balance expressed in "A View of the World," the Aztec calendar is referenced in the work. The 260 dots seen on the path ringing around the center figure refer to the 260-day Mesoamerican divination calendar. In addition, the 20 day signs of this same calendar are scattered throughout the image. By associating elements of the calendar with the four directions, "A View of the World" speaks to the importance of the unity of time and space in the Aztec worldview.
Looking at "A View of the World," I was struck by how much the composite perspective made the figures resemble ancient Egyptian art (and it's not that hard to see why). I think it's really remarkable to see how two completely different civilizations can end up making art that's so similar - both in appearance and purpose. Even though they were half a world and several centuries apart, the ancient Egyptians and the Aztecs both depicted their figures in the same unique perspective and, what's more, they both often depicted deity and made frequent use of symbols to convey deeper ideas that supported the meaning of their works as a whole.
In her publication, "Culture, Politics, and Identity in the Paintings of Frida Kahlo," Janice Helland analyzes Kahlo's works, finding many parallels between her art and that of the Aztecs. The following quotes are excerpts from Helland's article that expertly articulate the connection between common themes and motifs:
“In Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940, Kahlo's thorn necklace draws blood from her neck. Aztec priests performed self-mutilation with agave thorns and stingray spines, and Coatlicue's neck also bleeds. The dead hummingbird is sacred to the chief god of Tenochtitlan, Huitzilopichtli, the god of the sun and of war. It also represents the soul or spirit of the warrior who died in battle or the sacrificial stone.”
“...the awesome, fearful goddess figure Coatlicue, now on view in the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City .... This serpent-skirted goddess, adorned with a necklace of skulls that rests upon her breasts and enhances her severed neck, is a favored motif in Kahlo's work .... In addition to Coatlicue imagery, Kahlo also uses images of the heart and the skeleton in her paintings. All three are important symbols in Aztec art as well as in Kahlo's Mexicanidad.”
“In another painting, Roots, 1943, Kahlo [depicts] her own body, from which grows a lush, rich green foliage veined with red blood. The skeleton is not death; it speaks of life. Kahlo's representation of the skeletal figure and death can be understood only in relation to their iconography in Aztec work.”
TEXTBOOK: Stokstad, Marilyn, and Michael Watt Cothren. Art History. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2014. Print.
MUSEUM SITE: "The Aztecs, People of the Sun." Pointe-A-Calliere. Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History, May 2015. Web. 19 May 2016.
SCHOLARLY JOURNAL: Helland, Janice. "Culture, Politics, and Identity in the Paintings of Frida Kahlo." Not Given: 397-406. Print.
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- "Aztec Religion." Crystalinks. Crystalinks, n.d. Web. 19 May 2016. <http://www.crystalinks.com/aztecreligion.html>.
- Cottrill, Jaime. "Aztec History." Aztec History. N.p., 2016. Web. 19 May 2016. <http://www.aztec-history.com/>.
- Andra. "The Aztecs' Mark on Modern Art and Culture." Pixel77. Pixel77, 2012. Web. 19 May 2016.
- "How Did the Aztec and the Spanish Ways of Life Reflect Their Worldviews?"
Our Worldviews. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 283-90. Calgary Board of Education.
Web. 19 May 2016.