painting, pre-Columbian, sculpture

Moctezuma at the British Museum

September 30, 2009

Published on Culture 24

Exhibition: Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler, The British Museum, London, until January 24 2010

Before too long you come across a likely looking knife. The handle is sculpted into a crouching warrior and covered in tiny chips of turquoise mosaic. The blade is a vicious looking slice of obsidian. But according to the plaque this was a ceremonial ornament, never actually used for human sacrifice. The effect of this news is a strange sense of disappointment.

Not far away is a two-foot tall pot decorated to look like an eagle. A plaque reveals this would have been used to store human hearts prior to burning them as an offering to the gods. Now that’s more like what we look for in our Aztecs.

But as curator Colin McEwan has been quick to point out, this exhibition is in fact about a civilization called the Mexica (pronounced Mesheeka), who were ruled by elected Emperor Moctezuma between 1502 and 1520. He has described this as “a signal moment in the history of the Americas”.

The human heart pot is in fact unfinished. Chances are the local craftsmen were interrupted by the arrival of Hernán Cortés and an army of Spaniards. It briefly seems as if the conquistadors had a righteous cause, until you come across an indigenous picture book (a codex) which shows one of Cortés’ stewards burning four Mexica nobles at the stake for late payment of tributes.

It’s an irony that Moctezuma is said to have mistaken Cortés for a god, the legendary hero Quetzalcoatl. The Emperor sent many gifts to the explorer, including a fabulous two-headed serpent made from carved wood and covered in turquoise mosaic and fragments of red thorny oyster shell. This exhibit did not have far to travel and most will recognize it from the museum’s permanent collection.

Many more astonishing works of art have come from further afield. The Monument Dedicated to Sacred Warfare is a pyramidal altarpiece made from volcanic rock. On its first visit to Europe, it sits atop a plinth in the museum reading room. In 1507, the year it was made, the Mexica were still in blissful ignorance of the war that would end all wars.

The latter part of the exhibition tells the story from the invaders’ point of view. An extensive series of oil paintings inlaid with mother of pearl, the Enconchados, relate how the kingdom slowly passed into Spanish hands. A vast screen glorifies the conquest with an epic narrative sweep. The conquistadors brought armour, swords, Christianity and disease. The Mexica gods, while awesome and mysterious, could only look on.

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