It’s been a great year for ancient American culture down under. 2014 began with the Incas at the National Gallery of Australia, and now the Aztecs have taken over the Australian Museum. There are many similarities between these two famous civilisations, both destroyed by the Spanish invaders – the Aztecs in 1521, while the Incas held out until 1572. They combined great sophistication with practices that filled even their hardened conquerors with revulsion.
The proximity of these shows highlights the contrasting presentation styles of an art gallery and a museum. While the NGA treated each item in the Incas show as if it were a work of art, the AM presents individual pieces as fragments in a greater narrative intended to enlighten us about Aztec society.
Where the NGA display used darkened rooms, spot-lit to make every tiny object into a precious relic, the Australian Museum has taken a very different approach. The dominant room colour is bright red, while the labels are large and loud. Most of the smaller artefacts are grouped together in cases, with the big ones placed on plinths. There are models, pictures, touch screens that talk to us in Mexican accents, and a fanciful reconstruction of the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán, featuring an internal display devoted to the Aztec idea of the afterlife.
The AM show puts an unabashed emphasis on education at the expense of tasteful design. By contrast, the NGA would have had us believe that learning about Inca society was secondary to sheer aesthetic delectation. The Incas catalogue was intended to look dignified and scholarly, while the Aztecs catalogue is basically a guidebook that gives a succinct account of everything one needs to know.
Although my natural habitat is the art gallery I can’t be snobbish with Aztecs, which is one of the museum’s strongest exhibitions in years. The rather raucous presentation will not deter many people, nor detract from the power of the pieces on display. Many thousands of school children will rampage through this exhibition over the next few months, and they’ll be amazed at what they find.
It is the bloodthirsty aspects of Aztec life that everyone remembers: the endless procession of human sacrifices required to keep the sun making its diurnal journey across the sky. When the Great Temple was given an upgrade the slaughter went on continuously for four days. There were thousands of victims, although probably nothing like the 80,000 recorded by the Spaniards.
The macabre details of the Aztec sacrifices are well covered in this exhibition but we are also introduced to a sophisticated people with a talent for agriculture, a prosperous marketplace, a 365-day calendar, and a love of art. We follow the origins of the Aztecs, and their imperial march through Mesoamerica. The show also focuses on domestic life, religious beliefs, and the eventual fall of their empire to the forces of Hernan Cortes.
It was a rigidly hierarchical society in which the nobles lived in luxury while commoners had virtually nothing; an authoritarian state that dispensed swift and ruthless justice to those who broke the rules. Every aspect of Aztec life was permeated by religion, under the aegis of greedy, hypersensitive gods that demanded constant tribute.
The Aztecs believed the world had been created and destroyed four times by warring gods. They were living in the era of the Fifth Sun, which had been brought about by the gods’ self-sacrifice. Yet this primary sacrifice required human reciprocity if life on earth were to continue.
It’s never easy to step outside our own age and imagine the way ancient people thought and felt, but to capture the Aztecs’ mental universe requires a superhuman effort. For us it is unthinkable that any society should require sacrifices of men, women and children with the same urgency that other groups seek food and shelter. Although there were many gruesome forms of sacrifice, the most common was for a victim to be marched up a steep flight of steps to the top of the Great Temple, where he or she would be laid on an altar and have their heart torn out by a priest.
This was part and parcel of Aztec life, although these practises can never have seemed natural. The Aztecs would have been less than human if they did not dread the thought of such a death or feel empathy with the victims. The many grotesque effigies of the gods with which they surrounded themselves allowed everyone to confront their fears on a daily basis. These fanged, bug-eyed monsters were permanently thirsting for blood and could not be kept waiting.
The constant exposure to blood-letting and cruelty was appropriate for a society that was always at war, fighting to expand its territory or put down rebellions. Art was a form of compensation for the harshness of this existence, but we will never know the full extent of the Aztecs’ artistic skills. Most of their handiwork was destroyed by the Spaniards, with golden sculptures being melted down, sculptures broken and manuscripts burnt.
The Aztecs believed that to die in battle or to be sacrificed were the most honourable forms of death, ensuring a speedy transition to the afterlife. Those unfortunates who expired of natural causes had to negotiate nine horrific levels of the underworld before finding eternal rest. Sacrifice on the altar may have seemed a better option and many people are known to have volunteered for this short, brutal demise.
For the Aztecs the boundary between this world and the next was permeable, with momentous decisions being determined by messages and omens passed on from the gods. After two hundred years of wandering, the appearance of an eagle holding a snake in its beak told the Aztecs they must settle on Lake Texcoco. Today that eagle motif can be seen on the Mexican flag.
The city they built, Tenochtitlán, would have almost 200,000 inhabitants by the time the Spaniards arrived. This was twice as large as any city in Europe. The visitors were astonished by its size, its wealth, and the orderly manner in which it functioned.
That order was built on a rigorous code of justice that dispensed death for even small offences, and an educational system that trained every boy to be a warrior.
No-one was more revered than a man who excelled on the battlefield, which usually meant bringing home captives for sacrifice.
One of the first things viewers see in this show is a life-sized ceramic statue of an eagle warrior, painstakingly reconstructed from broken shards. It looks like a pantomime costume, but the bravest warriors earned the right to dress as an eagle or a jaguar, as if to channel the qualities of those creatures. The fiercest generals would paint their faces half-red, half-blue.
Aztec cosmology worshipped a few major deities, the most important being Huitzilopochtli (god of war) and Tláloc (god of rain and lightning). This duo occupied the top of the Great Temple, where sacrifices were made. There were thousands of lesser gods associated with every aspect of life.
One of the most popular was Quetzalcóatl, god of the wind, who takes on many shapes in this exhibition. But the unforgettable effigy is a large clay statue of Mictlantecuhtli, god of death and lord of the underworld. He stands grinning at us from the entrance to the display that represents the afterlife. Like a comic book ghoul, his hands sprout long, dangerous claws, while his liver dangles from his torso. This was the welcoming party for souls that had completed the arduous journey that took them to the final level of the underworld.
From this distance it seems the Aztecs must have lived in a state of perpetual terror, knowing the likelihood of dying on the altar, or fearing that their children might be chosen for such an honour. Yet if it hadn’t been for the Spaniards, with their swords, guns, cannon balls and – their inadvertent but most potent weapon – smallpox, there is no reason why the Aztecs should not have prospered for many years to come. They weren’t the last nation to promote a rigidly stratified society where people are united by fear. It’s a political model that never seems to lose its appeal.
Australian Museum, until 1 February 2015
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 20th September, 2014