Aztecs: Conquest and glory

Aztecs: Conquest and glory

For tickets and avoid the queues: Friends of Te Papa tickets ($10.00) are purchased only from the Te Papa Stores. Three convenient locations, Te Papa Store, Level 1;  the Aztec Exhibition Store in the Visa Platinum Gallery on Level 4; and at the Te Papa Store at 34 Brandon Street.

A mere 500 years ago the Aztecs dominated an area we now know as Mexico. Yet the way they lived their lives and their belief system were vastly different from the people who live there today. So different that it is hard to comprehend how such a dramatic change could have taken place. Aztecs: Conquest and glory, opens at Te Papa on Sunday 29 September 2013. (Friends are invited to an exclusive, free viewing all day on Saturday 5 October – see here for details).  The exhibition showcases over 200 spectacular artefacts and tells of the Aztecs’ dramatic and glorious rise to power.  It explores how the Aztecs, a people who were originally known as the Mexihcah, conquered and controlled most of Mesoamerica and then, in 1521, were themselves conquered by the Spanish. The objects, all of which come from Mexican museums and have been brought to New Zealand by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, and the National Council for Culture and the Arts, provide the basis for a compelling story. These objects and their associated stories shed light on the lives of these fascinating people, and clearly illustrate how their religious beliefs and ritual practices infiltrated every aspect of daily life. A beautiful gold pendant made in the image of Xochipilli the flower prince is a stunning example. The floral headdress on the pendant reflects Xochipilli’s role as the god of spring, flowers, music and song – like most of the Aztec gods he had multiple roles. He was the patron god of artisans as well as gay men and male prostitutes. Everyone had their own god who protected and guided them but to whom sacrificial offerings must be paid.  The gods kept the universe in balance and ensured the sun would rise each day. The artisan who created this piece would have worshipped Xochipilli and in return was protected by him; perhaps that’s why he created such an intricate and spectacular piece. Other expertly-made items include those made of greenstone, silver, alabaster and turquoise. Beautiful jewellery made of these materials were some of the most highly prized but could only be worn by the elite or noble class and were forbidden to commoners. A lip-plug featuring an intricately carved mythical Cox-cox bird is a wonderful example. It was likely to have been worn by a noble or priest with an exotic feather threaded through the hole. Feathers were one of the most highly valued materials of all. A sculpture depicting a warrior’s head demonstrates another style of lip-plug. This one sat like a flat disc under the lips but forced a fierce expression. To earn the right to wear this, the warrior must have had great success in battle, the highest achievement of which was to capture rather than kill the enemy. The style of his headdress and lengthened earlobes (caused through wearing large ear spools) indicate he was a governor or army chief. Alongside small, but beautifully crafted luxury and everyday items, are large and dramatic sculptures.  One of the most famous is the ‘Eagle Warrior’ sculpture. It represents an elite ‘Eagle’ warrior who had died, either in battle or after sacrifice. As depicted in this sculpture, his soul was destined to follow the sun on its embattled journey against the forces of darkness. Another important sculpture shows Mictlantecuhtli – Lord of the Underworld. In typical form he grins manically whilst his liver hangs out. In the exhibition he is positioned to welcome visitors into a space that represents life after death and the four-year journey to Mictlan, the place of the dead. Aztec cosmology and religious belief are central to the way the exhibition is structured and organised. At the heart of their universe was a great temple called the Huey Teocalli, later it famously became known as the Templo Mayor. The Aztecs believed that radiating out from the temple were thirteen heavens and below were the nine levels of the underworld. It was positioned in a sacred location pointed out by their leader god – Huitzilopochtli – the god of war. At the top of the temple were two shrines dedicated to two of the Aztecs’ most important gods Tlaloc, the god of rain, a god worshipped for his ability to ensure a successful crop and of course Huitzilopochtli. In Aztecs: Conquest and glory the Huey Teocalli has been recreated at one tenth of the size and placed at the heart of the exhibition. Just as it dominated the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, it will also dominate the exhibition space providing a framework by which to explore and understand the history, lives and loves of the Aztec people.

Lynette Townsend Curator, Communities and Diversity

Feature Image:  Detail: Xochipilli – The Flower Prince.  All images courtesy of Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes – Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. Photographer: Michel Zabe.