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