Art review: ‘The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire’ @ Getty Villa


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‘The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire’ is a show of modest size but outsize impact. Not only is the subject unexpected and intriguing, but the loans that have been secured are phenomenal. It’s the most impressive show the Getty Villa has organized since reopening four years ago.

The first gallery introduces Spain’s conquest of Mexico. A second gallery charts an array of Aztec deities. The third room considers imperial power. In each section, a few European objects are also included.


Here’s the premise: Spain’s adventure abroad coincided with the Renaissance, which elevated Europe’s Greco-Roman history to a position of prominence. In the European mind, circa 1520, the Aztec empire resonated with the ancient Roman empire. What better place to ponder the connection than the Getty Villa, with its European antiquities housed in a Roman-style building?

To do so effectively required getting major loans -- and the Getty got them. Extraordinary objects have been borrowed from Mexico City’s two preeminent Aztec collections: the National Museum of Anthropology and the Templo Mayor Museum. (In part the exhibition celebrates the bicentennial of Mexican independence.) And a remarkable Mexican document from the Michelangelo-designed Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy, returns to the Americas for the first time since it was drawn and painted 400 years ago.

That work is Volume 1 of a three-volume manuscript produced under the direction of Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish-born Franciscan friar who came to Mexico to evangelize for the Catholic Church. Conquistador Hernán Cortés, who defeated the rich and powerful Aztec civilization, had a particular exchange in mind: Spain would take Mexico’s deep deposits of gold and silver and in return would bring the ostensibly greater prize of Christianity to its people.

Fair or not, the trade worked well for Charles V, the Spanish king who also reigned as Holy Roman Emperor.

Sahagún’s manuscript, compiled a half-century after Cortés’ slaughter of the Aztecs,
records their primary gods and goddesses in both Spanish and Nahuatl, the native tongue, as well as in simple, watercolor line-drawings. Each figure, almost childlike in its simplicity, is shown in profile wearing appropriate dress, often carrying a shield and holding an attribute -- a sheaf of wheat, for example, or a thunderbolt-style scepter.

Most important, many are identified with their equivalent gods and goddesses in the Roman pantheon, such as Juno (matrimony), Ceres (agriculture) and Venus (love). The Aztecs were as superstitious as the Romans, which may or may not be a mindset common to empires. And the evangelist Sahagún of course took liberties. Consider Tlaculteutl, the supposed Aztec version of Venus, who was actually associated with a concept of sexual sin.

But the manuscript had a job to do, and respectful accuracy in describing the folkways of perceived barbarians was not it. Cultural assimilation was. The fudging of identity in slight misrepresentations of Aztec theology corresponds to the cartoon-like nature of the drawings. They abandon realistic illusion and refinement for the congenial malleability of generalization.

The Florentine Codex is a trove of fascinating information, but the book can be displayed to show only two pages at a time. So engrossing context is also provided through lots of relevant engravings, maps, calendars and other documents from the Getty Research Institute, plus a dramatic 10-panel folding screen painted by an unidentified Baroque artist. The screen chronicles -- and in many respects fabricates -- an extravagant panoramic history of Cortés’ conquest.

The show’s primary visual highlights are its Aztec sculptures. Some are modest in size, including a small cylindrical vessel of speckled-gray alabaster at the entry.

Just over 6 inches high, it features the Lord of Death carved in high relief. The skull-like head and body are frontal, its arms held up and against the vessel as if it were being carried on the deity’s back. The carving, marked by simplified forms and bilateral symmetry, is direct and polished. Ornate detail is kept to a minimum; where it does appear -- on the fan-like headdress and other adornment -- the relief is shallow. The result is visual solidity, which makes the small vessel feel monumental.

Monumentality is essential to an art of empire, given the need to be imposing in the face of diverse crowds. Unsurprisingly it is a trait shared by Aztec and Roman sculpture.

An astonishing, life-size terra cotta and stucco figure of a skeletal demon leans forward, his liver suspended from his rib cage like an exotic orchid hanging from a tree. A massive, decapitated greenstone head of a sacrificed goddess is embellished with low-relief bells and sea shells, which celebrate her role in Aztec society’s founding mythology. A bulky clay water vessel adorned with the mask of the rain god, Tlaloc, is painted almost entirely blue, interrupted only by bands of earthen red and unadorned terra cotta, as befits his life-giving role.

A lavishly embellished stone figure of a flower prince, seated cross-legged on a base, appears caught in a moment of chanting. His head is tossed back, the mouth of his mask open and right arm raised. Despite this extraordinary animation, the figure is entirely confined within a vertical shaft of space established by the rectangular base. Powerful, sturdy and meant to be viewed face to face, this chanting prince sings an eternal song.

The frontality of much of this sculpture is downright confrontational. The Aztec empire was an alliance of three city-states that held its coalition together for about a century, until Cortés. Confrontational art works for a civilization that, like Rome’s, ruled its vast territory through a mix of warring aggression and compulsory tributes.

It faces you down, as if in a dare.

The Getty show, conceived under former director Michael Brand and beautifully organized by Getty curator Claire L. Lyons and UCLA art historian John Pohl, is admirably restrained in drawing connections between the empires. Occasionally direct, the comparisons are more often implied.

In the last room, a bronze eagle from Imperial Rome (in the Getty Villa’s collection) stands with wings spread and one leg raised, almost like a bird-effigy of a conquering general. It couldn’t be more different, aesthetically speaking, from the low, heavy, massive stone-carving of an eagle nearby, used in Aztec ritual as a receptacle for the incineration of a captured enemy’s heart.

However dissimilar, both sculptures tell you that you’re in the presence of an imposing power. They also say that you’d better be paying attention.

-- Christopher Knight

‘The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire,’ Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades, (310) 440-7300, through July 5. Admission: Free, tickets required. Parking: $15.

Related: The Aztecs, through old-world eyes