Regal Return of an Aztec Ruler

Article excerpt

Finally, the Aztec monarch has returned to his homeland, the Americas--at least, for a time. A stunning, life-size portrait of Moctezuma II of Mexico is perhaps the most unforgettable work in the exhibition Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life, 1521-1821, on view April 3-July 25, 2004, at the Denver Art Museum and later at the Meadows Museum of Southern Methodist University in Dallas (August 29-October 31, 2004). Organized by Donna Pierce, curator of Spanish colonial art at the Denver Art Museum, the show features an assemblage of outstanding paintings, featherwork, and screens, which documents the kaleidoscope of life in colonial Mexico.

Exhibited previously in Mexico, the emperor's likeness will be seen for the first time in the United States--a significant event due to the fact that the painting is one of only two full-length extant portraits of Moctezuna. As far as is known, the only portrait of Moctezuma drawn directly from life is a deteriorated relief sculpture carved into a rocky outcropping discovered at Chapultepec in today's Mexico City. In adding iris image to the series of sculptures of his ancestors, Moctezuma's intent was to emphasize the continuity and stability of the Aztec line of rulers. In this painting, the artist has depicted the monarch as a mature man, vigorous and muscular, wearing gorgeous ceremonial dress and the accoutrements of his royal status. A Spanish soldier further described Moctezuma as having a scant beard and a long face with large, expressive eyes. He moved with dignity and princely demeanor. Though the portrait is thought to have been executed over 150 years after the death of the king of the Aztecs, his regal garments, brilliantly painted in great detail, correspond closely to images of indigenous sovereigns found in illustrated documents from sixteenth-century Mexico. These early reports or codices were frequently based upon reliable information gathered by scholarly churchmen and curious chroniclers from native sources, (and at times, from direct descendants of the indigenous protagonists present during the conquest).

The resplendent blue and white mantle bordered with feathers, the tasseled diadem, and gold ornaments all signify rulership and would have been worn by Moctezuma for state occasions and religious ceremonies. His role as supreme military commander of the Aztecs is symbolized by Iris weapons. The harpoon-pointed spear gripped in his right hand appears in earlier representations of him. In his left hand he holds a beautifully crafted, round feather shield, which is emblematic of the superb ability of the Aztec artisans to create useful objects from colorful bird feathers.

The emperor is described as being between forty and fifty years old in 1519 when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico. Gulf Coast villagers questioned by Cortes's men characterized the monarch as a slender, handsome man with a fine, straight, figure at the height of his powers--which is the image projected in the portrait.

Less is certain regarding the authorship of the anonymous painting that was found among the possessions of the Florentine duke Cosimo III de Medici and its long odyssey before returning to Mexico. It is possible that the complete history will never be revealed.

The Mexican scholar Pablo Escalante Gonzalbo, research fellow at the Institute of Aesthetic Research, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, has made an exhaustive study of the work. He has concluded from certain stylistic and iconographic clues, such as the European-type designs on the mantle and loincloth, that the portrait was indeed painted by a European, rather than an indigenous artist, in Mexico, where the native sources were at hand, during the end of the seventeenth century. Escalante Gonzalbo has attributed Moctezuma's portrait to Antonio Rodriguez, a highly skilled and prominent painter active at that time, referred to by a contemporary as "the best painter in America, the Titian of this New World," according to the scholar. …

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