Art history beyond the European tradition expanded drastically around the year 1500, an era of European expansion and exploration. Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa to India in 1497; Christopher Columbus (inadvertently) discovered and claimed Central America for Spain during his 1492-1504 voyage; and the first circumnavigation of the world was made in 1519-1522.
In 1500, the Aztecs (or Mexica, as they called themselves) dominated central Mexico with an astonishingly accomplished society. Tenochtitlan, site of present day Mexico City, was founded in 1325 and became the wealthiest and largest city on the American continent, housing up to 250,000 people at the height of its prosperity; its citizens were accomplished in astronomy, cosmology, architecture, and painting. It was into this highly evolved society that Hernan Cortes marched in 1519.
Coatlicue. Circa 1487-1520. Stone, height 11'4". Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City.
I'm not aware of art history records indicating whether Cortes saw the imposing figure of Coatlicue, the Mexica goddess of life and death and an icon of Aztec art.
But could he have missed "She of the Serpent Skirt"? She loomed at a height of 11 feet 4 inches at the main Tenochtitlan main temple. According to Aztec legend, Coatlicue was decapitated by jealous offspring while she gave birth to Huitzlopochtli, the Aztec national god. She is adorned with a necklace of human hearts and hands with a skull pendant, hanging above her skirt of woven snakes. With clawed feet and fangs protruding from her elbows, Coatlicue was nothing short of terrifying -- and not just then. She is a poignant reminder that the value of famous artwork is a function of the context in which it is both made and seen.
Although the Spanish destroyed most Aztec art during their conquest of 1519, Coatlicue was buried instead, as if the Spaniards feared desecrating such a formidable religious icon. Placed at the site where the Cathedral of Mexico was constructed in 1522, she was rediscovered in the late 18th century, only to be re-buried yet again -- Coatlicue was too vivid a reminder of the 'pagan' history the Church wished to repress, so this imposing symbol of Aztec art and culture was again buried.
Albrecht Durer, Self-Portrait. Oil on panel, 1500. 26 1/4" by 19 1/4". Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
Roughly 200 years later, Coatlicue was transformed into an icon of Mexicanidad, a pro-native movement associated with the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution (and with such famous painters as Frida Kahlo). Now proudly displayed at the National Museum in Mexico City, this statue remains a powerful reminder not only of the beauty of Aztec art, but also of the impact on art (and art history) of political, religious and social contexts, including perceived social status – Cortes' world view of European dominance and superiority, reinforced by the ease with which the Spaniards overtook Peru and Mexico, surely facilitated destruction of so much Aztec artwork.
Cortes sent some looted goods home to the Queen and her son, Charles V, who displayed them in Brussels. Although few viewers valued the artistry of these extraordinary treasures, one notable exception is the famous Renaissance painter and etcher, Albrecht Durer (whose Four Apostles, recently reviewed here, was made in the same timeframe). He wrote:
All the days of my life I have seen nothing that has gladdened my heart so much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marveled at the subtle ingenia of men in foreign lands.
And perhaps that’s another lesson of art history – brilliant artists like Durer find inspiration and beauty where it exists, irrespective of social and cultural norms.
QUESTIONS: Are there famous paintings which have also been worshipped, reviled, and worshipped again like Coatlicue? Which other famous painters have searched beyond their cultures for inspiration from unknown ones (van Gogh and woodblock prints, for starters!)?