The Region of Mystery: Ned Denny on How the Aztecs Shocked the Mind into an Awareness of Divinity. (Art)

By Denny, Ned | New Statesman (1996), December 2, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Region of Mystery: Ned Denny on How the Aztecs Shocked the Mind into an Awareness of Divinity. (Art)


Denny, Ned, New Statesman (1996)


They get a pretty bad press, those Aztecs. Not their belated incarnation as a Royal Academy blockbuster, all spotlit and audio-mapped and given the Ten Things You Need To Know About...treatment in the Sunday papers, but for their one-time habit of spilling blood. This they did with passion and flair, ripping out the hearts of sacrificial victims in order to fuel the Sun god, the gore pooling on eagle-shaped altars that personified that great deity. And then there was the maize festival every September, at the climax of which a priest flayed a young girl and then danced through the streets in her still-warm skin. Shorn of their sacred context and presented as a spectacle of horror, these customs appear to modern eyes as pure brutality. And brutal they undoubtedly were. Even revealing that the girl represented the maize and that the ceremony enacted the mysteries of death and resurrection is hardly likely to get your approval. Still, the very least we can say about the Aztecs is that they were honest about their violence.

The Aztec taste for sacrifice, along with most of their culture, was the legacy of much earlier civilisations. Late to form themselves into a settled nation, the extremes to which they took it was probably the result of a certain chippiness, a desire to establish themselves in the eyes of the gods. From the vast, belittling ruins of Teotihuacan and Tula they also derived their sculptural styles, as can be seen from the Standing Goddess (c.250-650) that predates them by a millennium. Squat and square as a robot, she seems obdurate as the stone itself, as though the intention wasn't so much to create a vision of divine grace as merely to anthropomorphise the unhewn block. This is the weird, angular style with which the Aztecs carved their finest figure pieces, while numerous other works show them perfectly capable of realism. Take, for example, the Deified Warriors (c.15 00), personifications of the five trees that in Aztec cosmology hold up the sky. Like the aforementioned goddess, they have an air of almost b rutish invulnerability. No limbs overstep the boundaries of their block-like forms, which are nevertheless alive with enigmatic detail. Half-close your eyes, in fact, and these warriors look like stone machines.

But they weren't only interested in carving figures. Unlike the Greeks, for whom human proportions were the measure of beauty, the Aztecs saw divinity in all living things. …

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