Pre-Columbian Culture in the Modern World

Pre-Columbian Culture in Modern World History

In 1520, just as Luther’s Reformation was launched, the German artist Albrecht Dürer viewed a special exhibition by the Spanish Habsburg Emperor Charles V during his visit to Aix-la-Chapelle in Paris of newly received gifts from Mexico’s Azetan capital city Tenochtitlán.  These were gifts and rich tokens of art that the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés had received while on his way to conquer central Mexico during the previous year.  Dürer was awestruck with the arts and gifts on display and described various objects, including:

a sun all of gold a whole fathom broad, and a moon all of silver of the same size…. All the days of my life I have seen nothing that has gladdened my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marveled at the subtle ingenia of men in foreign lands.  Indeed, I cannot express all that I thought there[1].

While we cannot be sure of the actual objects that Dürer saw, these have now been lost, other surviving art works and archaeological evidence suggest representations of what Dūrer saw[2].

In one of his letters, Hernán Cortes described the rich markets and ordered structure of the Aztecan capital of Mexico[3].

This city has many public squares, in which are situated the markets and other places for buying and selling. There is one square twice as large as that of the city of Salamanca, surrounded by porticoes, where are daily assembled more than sixty thousand souls, engaged in buying and selling; and where are found all kinds of merchandise that the world affords, embracing the necessaries of life, as for instance articles of food, as well as jewels of gold and silver, lead, brass, copper, tin, precious stones, bones, shells, snails, and feathers. There are also exposed for sale wrought and unwrought stone, bricks burnt and unburnt, timber hewn and unhewn, of different sorts. …. Different kinds of cotton thread of all colors in skeins are exposed for sale in one quarter of the market; which has the appearance of the silk-market at Granada, although the former is supplied more abundantly. Painters’ colors, as numerous as can be found in Spain, and as fine shades; deerskins dressed and undressed, dyed different colors; earthen-ware of a large size and excellent quality; large and small jars, jugs, pots, bricks, and endless variety of vessels, all made of fine clay, and all or most of them glazed and painted; …. finally, everything that can be found throughout the whole country is sold in the markets, comprising articles so numerous that to avoid prolixity, and because their names are not retained in my memory, or are unknown to me, I shall not attempt to enumerate them. Every kind of merchandise is sold in a particular street or quarter assigned to it exclusively, and thus the best order is preserved[4].

Studies of the plans of the central Aztec capital and temple complexes show that in around 1500 there was a comparable use of temple, market and urban spaces that one also found at the imperial Forbidden City in Beijing in China at around the same time.

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 Model and Pictorial Depiction of Tenochtitlan (Aztec capital, Mexico City) Source:  Wikipedia

 

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Plan of Tenochtitlan Complex (East of Mexico City and Tenochtitlan)

Spanish and European conquistadors, missionaries and visitors to the New World were quick to write of their exploits of conquest and to debate the justification of mass genocide, destruction and reconstruction brought by the conquista.  The conqueror Hernán Cortés wrote letters detailing his exploits in Mexico.  Another contemporary conquistador, Bernardo del Castillo chronicled his exploits in lower Mexico and Central America and Cuba to reveal the strategy and objective of pure plunder and exploitation. A few concerned missionaries raised the alarm at the scale of crimes and genocide wrought against the killing and enslavement of the native populations and had to return to Spain to face a public debate over this policy.

 

Four hundred years after the Conquista, the revolutionary Mexican muralist Diego Rivera analyzed this conflicted history in his panoramic mural of national history in the Palacio Nacional de Mexico.   The context of Mexican scholarship into its archaeological history has been admirably studied in new anthologies[5].

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Diego Rivera, Panel from the History of Mexico Series showing Cortes’ conquest of 1519-20, Palacio Nacional de Mexico (1920s)

 

Coatlichue (pronounced “koh-at-lee-kway”) is a colossal statue from the Aztec period that was unearthed in 1790, then quickly reburied and kept from public view until the mid-19th century when it was put on public view.  It is one of the most iconic and signature pieces in Mexican art and one of the centerpieces of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Meixco. City.  The Coatlicue colossal statue held great mystery for a number of scholars from the end of the 18th century and well into the 20th century.  The Mexican art historian Justino Fernandez wrote his doctoral thesis on the sculpture and it is only with the decoding of the Florentine Codex, a major project that was published from the 1950s into the 1980s that the fuller meaning and understanding of the iconography and meaning of the sculpture was better understood[6]. For many years the consensus was that the statue showed a beheaded maternal figure Coatilicue who may have been attacked or sacrificed at the moment of giving birth to the Aztec god the god Huitzilopochtli.  This myth survived from Aztec lore and myths that were recorded in the compilations of the Florence Codex, an illustrated manuscript of Aztec beliefs and mythologies that had been compiled by Spanish and indigenous writers and illustrators.

In this century a number of interesting studies have come forth by Cecelia Klein and others that have made use of new archaeology and revelations of similar sculptures that provide a comparison to the Coatlicue statue.  Among these new sculptures we find other “sister” figures, including one with her head intact but showing a full “snake skirt” wrapped around her waist.  The suggestion is now that these pre-Columbian sculptures refer to earlier Aztec or Mayan myths about the existence of four earlier suns or solar beings that preceded the age of the current sun.  It is thought that perhaps these female deities are found in clusters or groups and refer to the cycle or place of the earlier suns or that they also refer to the fertility of land and the role of women deities[7].

This Khan Academy site and video helps to introduce and explain the statue.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline on Mexican arts is here

An interactive index of Mexico’s archeological sites is found her in Spanish

 

Anderson, C. E. D. A. J. (1950-82). Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press.

Cortés, H. (1907). Cortés’s Account of the City of Mexico, From his Second Letter to the Emperor, Charles V. The Library of Original Sources. O. J. Thatcher. Milwaukee, Wisconson University Extension Co.: 318-327.

De León, A. (2010). “Coatlicue or how to write the dismembered body.” MLN 125(2): 259-286.

Fernández, J., and Constantino Reyes-Valerio (1968). Mexican Art. London, Hamlyn.

Fernández, M. (2014). Cosmopolitanism in Mexican Visual Culture. Austin, University of Texas Press.

Franco, J. (2004). “The return of Coatlicue: Mexican nationalism and the Aztec past.” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 13(2): 205-219.

Hugh Honour, J. F. (2009). A World History of Art. London, Laurence King Publishing Ltd. .

Klein, C. F. (2008). “Klein, Cecelia F. 2008. “A New Interpretation of the Aztec Statue Called Coatlicue, “Snakes-Her-Skirt.” Ethnohistory 55, no. 2: 229-250. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 7, 2017).” Ethnohistory 55(2): 229-250.

Panofsky, E. (1955). The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

[1] Hugh Honour, J. F. (2009). A World History of Art. London, Laurence King Publishing Ltd. . As quoted as quoted in Panofsky, E. (1955). The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. Princeton, Princeton University Press..

[2] Fernández, J., and Constantino Reyes-Valerio (1968). Mexican Art. London, Hamlyn.

[3] Hugh Honour, J. F. (2009). A World History of Art. London, Laurence King Publishing Ltd. .

[4] Cortés, H. (1907). Cortés’s Account of the City of Mexico, From his Second Letter to the Emperor, Charles V. The Library of Original Sources. O. J. Thatcher. Milwaukee, Wisconson University Extension Co.: 318-327.

[5] Fernández, M. (2014). Cosmopolitanism in Mexican Visual Culture. Austin, University of Texas Press.

[6] Anderson, C. E. D. A. J. (1950-82). Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press. See also, De León, A. (2010). “Coatlicue or how to write the dismembered body.” MLN 125(2): 259-286. Franco, J. (2004). “The return of Coatlicue: Mexican nationalism and the Aztec past.” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 13(2): 205-219. Klein, C. F. (2008). “Klein, Cecelia F. 2008. “A New Interpretation of the Aztec Statue Called Coatlicue, “Snakes-Her-Skirt.” Ethnohistory 55, no. 2: 229-250. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 7, 2017).” Ethnohistory 55(2): 229-250.

[7] Klein, C. F. (2008). “Klein, Cecelia F. 2008. “A New Interpretation of the Aztec Statue Called Coatlicue, “Snakes-Her-Skirt.” Ethnohistory 55, no. 2: 229-250. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 7, 2017).” Ethnohistory 55(2): 229-250.

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