art in unusual places - animal magic of mesoamerica

Mesoamerica was the cultural hub that extended from North/Central Mexico down to the Pacific Ocean side of Costa Rica. 

An area with an exceptionally rich visual culture - from gold jewellery to monumental ceremonial pyramids, Mesoamerica was home to the cultural juggernauts we call the Aztecs, and the, perhaps lesser known, Mixtecs/Mixtecos.

 The Mixtecs are an ancient indigenous civilization (still around today) whose lives ran parallel to the Aztecs. Many historians consider 'Aztecs' the people of Tenochtitlan (the Mexica people), or perhaps the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico, whilst others use the term more like a term of cultural reference - an allusion to a generally 'Aztec' way of life. This makes sense since, despite technically being broken up into around 20 ethnic groups, the Aztecs were united by language, common myths, beliefs and enduring cultural similarities.

To kick off my round-up of notable Aztec artifacts - behold - the stone monkey vessel:

Mixtec Monkey Vessel, 10th - 13th Century, Onyx Marble, Pyrite, Shell | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

Although this may look like a representation of a spirit on it's way to haunt your dreams, we can tell this sculpture represents a monkey from its positioning - monkeys were often depicted in crouched positions, holding their tail above their head.

The date of this piece suggests that it was created by Mixtecs (they pre-dates the Aztecs slightly), and is thought to have been painstakingly carved from stone. Notice the bowl-like dip in the top of the sculpture, thought to have been carved using bamboo 'drills', before being nicely smoothed out. It's possible, then, that this was used as a trinket bowl of offerings to the Gods.

When I first saw this I stared at it in awe at all the tiny details (those teeth!), until I felt like it's eyes had the ability to emit some sort of Aztec curse, then I stopped.

The inclusion of the monkey in visual culture seems to me to be inherently Mesoamerican. This could be sue to the prominence of the Mexican spider monkey, or the fact that in Aztec myth monkeys symbolized the visual arts, music, dance and play - perhaps due to their mischievous nature. 

In Aztec culture, monkeys weren't the only animal worthy of artistic credit. The image below displays a collection of frog-shaped necklace ornaments. I imagine these were worn like charms on a charm bracelet. 

Necklace Ornaments, Frogs 15th - Early 16th Century, Gold | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

Perhaps a symbol of status and grandeur, these gold charms would have been worn by Aztec nobility. Frogs symbolised water and rain, and the subsequent success these created in farming and agriculture. Although some Aztecs were literate, many forms of communication still took the form of images, illustrations and glyphs, making visual culture extremely valuable.

These frogs were made using the lost-wax method of casting - perfected to an enviable degree of accuracy by the Mixtecs. Whilst it's unclear whether these ornaments are of Aztec or Mixtec origin, the craftsmanship edges them towards the Mixtec aritsts' canon. 

Another artifact fraught with symbolism is the serpent labret (below). A labret is a piece of jewellery inserted into a piercing just below the wearer's bottom lip - and it's thought this could have been worn ceremoniously during battle. The serpent's intimidating expression would certainly be a good way of psyching out your opponenets. 

Aztec Serpent Labret with Articulated Tongue, 1300 - 1521, Gold | © The Met Museum | Creative Commons Licence CC0 1.0

The Aztecs worshiped 'Quetzalcoatl', a feathered serpent-God, which this ornament is thought to represent. To emphasize its godliness, the serpent is cast in solid gold. A metal with intense symbolism, gold was thought to have Godly and spiritual qualities on par with those of the sun. 

Horrendously, many examples of Aztec gold were melted down during the Spanish conquest, though fortunately some, like this one, still remain intact.

Sources | | | | sortBy=Relevance&ft=aztec&offset=120&rpp=20&pos=123 | | | Michael E. Smith, 'Chapter 1: The Aztecs of Mesoamerica' and 'Chapter 11: Art, Music and Literature' in 'The Aztecs', Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.


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