Antiquities, Behind the Scenes, Exhibitions and Installations, Getty Villa

Curating The Aztec Pantheon

The premise of The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire is a unique one: that just as classical antiquity colored Spanish perceptions of Mesoamerica, the experience of Aztec civilization piqued curiosity about Renaissance Europe’s own ancient heritage.

As curators, our challenge was to make this complex story come alive through a wide range of objects: monumental Aztec sculptures, European prints and maps, and Roman antiquities.

In the introductory gallery, for example, visitors come face to face with a looming statue of a Tzitzimitl (demon), which was the recipient of blood sacrifices. This intimidating figure is installed in front of a panoramic sixteen-foot-wide painted screen depicting the 1519–21 siege and destruction of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.

<i>Tzitzimitl</i> (<i>Demon</i>), Aztec, 1440–69, found near the Templo Mayor, Mexico City. Terracotta, stucco, and pigment, 176 x 80 x 50 cm. Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City. CONACULTA-INAH-MEX © foto zabé. Reproduction authorized by the National Institute of Anthropology and History

Tzitzimitl (Demon), Aztec, 1440–69, found near the Templo Mayor, Mexico City. Terracotta, stucco, and pigment, 176 x 80 x 50 cm. Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City. CONACULTA-INAH-MEX © foto zabé. Reproduction authorized by the National Institute of Anthropology and History

Such images—what we thought of as the “shock and awe” of cultural confrontation—are contrasted with historical engravings and watercolors, which show how classicism formed a bridge between Nahua, Spanish, and mestizo peoples in colonial Mexico.

In another gallery, we grouped an Aztec eagle offering vessel and a Roman eagle, both mythological emblems that were used strategically by empires. We deliberately chose Roman objects made of bronze and installed them in cases of a different color from those holding Aztec artifacts, to distinguish them and to provoke thinking about the analogies between two expansive imperial cultures.

Left: <i>Eagle Vessel</i>, Aztec, about 1500; found near the Templo Mayor, Mexico City. Basalt and pigment, 76 x 82 x 139 cm. Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City. CONACULTA-INAH-MEX © foto zabé. Reproduction authorized by the National Institute of Anthropology and History. Right: Eagle, Roman, A.D. 100–300. Bronze, 104.2 x 78.7 x 76.2 cm. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 72.AB.151

Left: Eagle Vessel, Aztec, about 1500; found near the Templo Mayor, Mexico City. Basalt and pigment, 76 x 82 x 139 cm. Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City. CONACULTA-INAH-MEX © foto zabé. Reproduction authorized by the National Institute of Anthropology and History. Right: Eagle, Roman, A.D. 100–300. Bronze, 104.2 x 78.7 x 76.2 cm. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 72.AB.151

Our experiment in comparative archaeology brought many rewarding moments: the chance to hold the iconic Florentine Codex; witnessing the amazing excavations at the Templo Mayor with director Leonardo López Luján; exchanging ideas with Felipe Solís, the eminent late director of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City; and finally seeing powerfully charismatic Aztec statues take their place in our galleries.

Working closely with Mexican colleagues sparked different approaches, some hard questions, and lasting friendships. What better way to celebrate Mexico’s 2010 bicentennial—and to expand our curatorial horizons in new directions?

INAH / CONACULTA

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3 Comments

  1. EM Erdelac
    Posted July 11, 2010 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    A friend was recently at the Aztec exhibition at the Getty Villa (I was too, but was unfortunately forced to browse rather quickly through it due to time constraints), and mentioned something about a certain statue which contained niches for human organs. He told me he read a legend about the statue being a sort of a golem which would come to life if a heart were placed within it. I’ve tried to find this story elsewhere and have been unsuccessful. I wonder if you knew to what he was referring.

    • Posted July 20, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      I’m delighted you were able to see the exhibition before it left L.A. Your friend may have been referring to the eagle-shaped receptacle (cuauhxicalli) containing a cavity in which the hearts of war captives and slaves were cremated.

      The reference to the golem suggests that he or she may also have been speaking of the Venus of Texcoco, the only life-size statue of a nude female in Aztec sculpture. It is an example of ixiptla–a person or thing animated by teotl, which in Aztec belief is the immaterial dynamic energy or intangible divine force that exists in everything, including inanimate objects and things in nature. It is known as animism in anthropology; the idea that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in anything in the natural environment (animals, plants, rocks, mountains, thunder, and so on). Although the Venus of Texcoco is a stone statue, she would have been painted and dressed to become a divine being. The statue would have been endowed with the characteristics of the deity by the jade or greenstone “heart” that was placed in the niche carved in her chest.

  2. EM Erdelac
    Posted November 14, 2010 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Excellent! Thank you very much!

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      Touched by an angel. Or demon.

      The 16th-century alchemist and mathematician John Dee spent years documenting his conversations with what he believed to be angels.

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      Title page from “A True and Faithful Relation …,” 1659, Méric Causabon. Getty Research Institute.

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