In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Art of the Aztec Empire

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Data Sources
  • Journals and Magazines

Art History Art of the Aztec Empire
Cecelia F. Klein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0013


Intensive scholarly study of Aztec art began in the 19th century and accelerated dramatically in the last one hundred years. Initially, it was concerned primarily with identifying the figures portrayed in monumental stone carvings made before the devastating 1521 Spanish conquest of the Aztec heartland. That heartland was located in central Mexico, in what is now called the Valley of Mexico, which is today almost entirely covered by the urban sprawl of Mexico City. There the Mexica—the wandering, Nahuatl-speaking ethnic group that would come to head the federation of three cities now known as the Aztec Triple Alliance—founded their capital, Tenochtitlan, and its immediate neighbor to the north, Tlatelolco. The two cities shared a small island in what was then a large lake, later drained by the Spaniards, known as Lake Texcoco. Although most of the people in the other two cities spoke Nahuatl like the Mexica, they had arrived in the area before the Mexica and were not themselves Mexica; moreover, like Tenochtitlan at its peak, those cities housed members of several different ethnic groups. For the sake of convenience, scholars therefore today often refer to the collective constituents of the Triple Alliance and its satellites as the Aztec or the Nahua—neither of which were names used by the peoples. Within a period of less than a hundred years, the Triple Alliance militarily consolidated its control of the other older, non-Mexica communities on the lake’s shores and much of the broader area known today as Mesoamerica. By the time of the conquest, the Aztec paramount ruler, Moteuczoma (Moteuczoma or Moteucçoma is the currently preferred spelling for the name previously rendered as Moctezuma, Motecuhzoma, or Montezuma) Xocoyotzin, or Moteuczoma II, was living in a densely populated, economically prosperous capital laced with canals and connected to the mainland by means of large, paved causeways. As could be expected, the Aztec state and local leaders celebrated and reinforced the Triple Alliance’s imperial success by erecting and periodically enlarging impressive buildings, some decorated with murals, and by commissioning or collecting sculptures, large and small, that were made of a variety of materials. Many of those sculptures represented and/or honored the numerous deities in the Aztec pantheon. Elites, including government officials, were also commissioning instruments, insignia, and clothing made by highly skilled craftsmen working with precious materials such as turquoise and feathers. They also recorded their myths and histories (mythohistories), as well as calendrical prognostications, in painted manuscripts that conveyed information through pictures accompanied by glyphs and signs representing names and dates. The decades since the 1950s have seen an explosion of interest in the art of the Aztec empire on the part of professionally trained educators, art historians, ethnohistorians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and museum curators. Since 1978 this interest in Aztec art has intensified further as a result of the remarkable discoveries made in the course of the ongoing excavations of the former ceremonial center of the Aztec capital.

General Overviews

There are many books on the Aztec, most of which do not deal directly with Aztec art but some of which do provide valuable information on Aztec history, social organization, life style, and culture. The latter studies are helpful in putting Aztec art into its broader context. Especially useful in this regard are books and articles on Aztec mythology and religion; the subject matter of the majority of Aztec figural artworks is in one way or another religious. In the last fifty years there has been an increasing number of general works that focus specifically on Aztec art. Some of these are surveys (Pasztory 1998), whereas others contain catalogue entries for individual art objects (Nicholson and Quiñones Keber 1983, Matos Moctezuma and Solís Olguín 2002) or scholarly essays on various aspects of Aztec art that are written by different authors (Boone 1982). Those listed here tend to be consulted frequently by art historians, in many cases because they contain more and higher quality illustrations than other sources. As always, the date of publication should be kept in mind owing to revisions necessitated by ongoing excavations and other scholarly work. Many Spanish-language articles on the Aztec that were published by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México are available online as a pdf.

  • Boone, Elizabeth Hill, ed. The Art and Iconography of Late Post-Classic Central Mexico: Proceedings of a Conference at Dumbarton Oaks, October 22 and 23, 1977. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Library & Research Collections, 1982.

    Contains essays by leading, internationally renowned scholars on a variety of aspects of Aztec visual culture, including architecture. Some articles are formal analyses, others iconographic studies. Two of the essays focus on the Mixteca-Puebla pictorial style and the Mixtec pictorial sub-style.

  • Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo, and Felipe Solís Olguín. Aztecs. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2002.

    Extensively illustrated exhibition catalogue containing numerous essays and entries by experts on various aspects of Aztec material culture. When this exhibition moved to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, it was accompanied by a very similar catalogue edited by Felipe Soís Olguín titled The Aztec Empire (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2004). Also published in Spanish.

  • Nicholson, H. B., with Eloise Quiñones Keber. Art of Aztec Mexico: Treasures of Tenochtitlan. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1983.

    Together with an introduction on “The Discovery of Aztec Art,” this book by a distinguished ethnohistorian assisted by an art historian features some of the most skillfully made Aztec sculptures to have survived the conquest. Contains illustrated, detailed catalogue entries as well as a glossary of Aztec deities. Illustrations are black and white.

  • Pasztory, Esther. Aztec Art. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

    Paperback reprint of the original hardback edition (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983). Detailed art historical study of Aztec art, architecture, and “crafts.” Organized by genre and medium, the book is profusely illustrated, in many places with color photographs. Contains a thirteen-page glossary with a guide to pronouncing Nahuatl words.

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