How to Read an Aztec Sculpture the Monitor Invites You to Sit in on a Series of Conversations with Curators at Major Art Museums on Choice Objects in Their Collections Series: Curators Tour, the Art Institute of Chicago, Last in a Series

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This Aztec Coronation Stone, says Richard Townsend of The Art Institute of Chicago, makes sense only when "you understand how to read it."

Fortunately, Dr. Townsend, curator of the Department of African and Amerindian Art since 1981, can read Aztec sculpture like a book.

"Reading" is the right word. The mature Aztec style, exemplified by this "strongly defined, crisply graphic" piece, is essentially hieroglyphic. "One of the old traditions the Aztecs draw upon," Townsend explains, "is of pictorial manuscripts that recorded history or ritual events, or were used for making prognoses - divinatory, calendrical manuscripts somewhat like the I Ching in Chinese tradition. The Aztecs translated imagery, borrowed from the manuscripts, into stone commemorative monu- ments." In doing this, they came up with a sculptural style that was new in the long tradition of Mesoamerican art to which they were heirs. "They carved relief images all over three-dimensional forms - such as a cylinder or a truncated cone or, in this case, a three-dimensional rectangle. The monument's message is given by the stone's basic shape as well as the imagery of the relief." Originally, the sculpture would have been brightly colored, like the manuscript pages. "It's as if they are wrapping the stone in a page." Townsend continues: "The Coronation Stone refers to the year and date Emperor Motecuhzoma II acceded to power. It shows him as the inheritor of the world," indicating "that his rule was destined from the beginning of time. "The face of the monument has signs referring to the series of five ages or eras - of creations and destructions - of the earth since its initial creation. Each age, called a 'sun' in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, was imperfect according to Mesoamerican mythology and had ended in a catastrophe, only to re-emerge in new form." Beginning in the lower right corner and moving counterclockwise, "the first hieroglyphs represent the first 'sun,' which ended in a plague of jaguars. The second era, represented by the mask of the wind god, ended in hurricanes. The third ended in a rain of fire, represented by the mask of the rain god. And at the lower left is the female deity of ground water - lakes and rivers - signifying the fourth era, which ended in a great flood. "And then in the very center is an X-shaped cartouche with an eye in the middle. It refers to the movement of the earth - and thus to the present era, predicted to end in earthquakes. "So that sequence of hieroglyphs recounts mythic history. "There are two other dates, bringing it into present, Aztec historical time. One is the square cartouche below with 11 dots meaning '11 reed' - corresponding to AD 1503. Then at the top there is the day sign 'one alligator,' which corresponds to June 15, probably when Motecuhzoma II was finally confirmed in office." Townsend then explains the imagery repeated on the four sides of the stone, which represent the four quarters of the world. …