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Tuesday, 12 November, 2002, 18:17 GMT
Aztecs show dazzles
Reclining Jaguar, Aztec, Late Post Classic, courtesy of Brooklyn Museum of Art
The Aztecs worshipped the jaguar

The new Royal Academy show Aztecs, destined to be the blockbuster of the year, could do for Mexico what the Tutankhamun show did for Egypt.

Aztecs has already sold the largest number of advance tickets for a Royal Academy show since its Monet exhibition in 1999.

It features more than 380 works, many of which have never been viewed outside their native Mexico.

This exquisite exhibition consists of a dazzling array of objects from the war-like and bloody Aztec civilisation of central Mexico.

Sacrificial knife, Mixtec-Aztec, 1350-1521, courtesy of the British Museum
Knives were used to slay sacrificial victims

The Aztecs flourished just before the Conquest, when Cortez and 600 men destroyed their capital and began a new chapter in the history of the New World.

It is a spectacular show full of dramatic images of both man and beast. The Aztecs revered the jaguar and the eagle, and their full-size statues of eagle-men (complete with wings and talons) are a revelation.

The Aztecs also worshipped the snake, seeing them as a symbol of renewal of their civilisation which had to be reborn every 52 years.

Their life-like scuptures from nature of the creatures of renewal, from the snake to the frog to the flea, are beautifully rendered in dark stone - and remind one of modern scupturors like Brancusi with their smooth rounded lines and abstract forms.

Henry Moore was very taken with the reclining human figures sculpted by the Aztecs and their predecessors, the Mayan civilisation, and used as vessels for human sacrifice.

Death, and human sacrifice, played a huge part in Aztec culture, and is reflected in the many objects on display.

Shield pendant, c. 1500, Aztec-Mixtec, courtesy of Bal Varte de Santiago, Veracruz
Aztec jewellery is stunning in its detail
Most beautiful are the huge vessels for burning incense that were placed at the top of the temple, visible for miles around, in fantastic shapes of gods and warriors.

Some of these have never before been displayed anywhere in the world, having only recently been found in Mexico at the huge Temple Mayo dig (whose archaeologist is one of the main curators of the show).

Mexico, although willing to lend, takes the position that any Aztec objects held by museums outside Mexico, if returned to Mexico, must remain there - making such a show only possible outside the country.

Included in the exhibition is an amazing fertility goddess with sticks of corn for earrings and a hat made in the shape of a temple.

Also on display are the knives used to slay the sacrificial victims and vessels used to keep their heart and blood to appease the gods.

Fan, c. 1500, Aztec, courtesy of the Museo de Antropologia
It is surprising how well preserved some objects are

The Aztecs also worked beautifully in silver, gold, turquoise, jade and feathers (which were the most prized material of all, reflecting their worship of birds).

Their jewellery is exquisite, especially the pendants which reflect sounds of wind and water.

And terrifying beautiful is the face of a god, made using a human skull upon which were pasted hundreds of pieces of jade, obsidian and shell.

Surprisingly, several of their spectacular feather ritual shields are preserved, giving a sense of the riot of bright colour that decorated much of scupture as well.

Also preserved are some extraordinary wooden musical instruments, such as drums and flutes, that were used in religious rituals.

And the Aztecs had a primitive system of writing to record the value of tribute due from the tribes they had conquered.

But within two years, between l519-21, this was all destroyed by the Spanish who plundered the gold and deciminated the population.

Perhaps the saddest object in the exhibition is the melted down bar of gold (lost by a Spanish soldier during the war) which is all that is left from a large hoard of jewellery.

Luckily, the Spanish used the stone sculptures as building material, and it is still being recovered in Mexico City today.

Aztec art, like African art, has had an important influence on modern art, especially in the Americas.

The arrival of this exhibit in London will make the reasons for that influence clear.

Aztecs is on at the Royal Academy from 16 November until 11 April 2003.

See also:

15 Nov 02 | Entertainment
04 Nov 99 | Americas
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