The Power of Ancient Mexican Art

On August 13, 1790, during excavation work by the municipal authorities, the workers were digging up the Central Square in Mexico City when they discovered a colossal statue. It was unearthed and turned out to be a sculpture of the goddess Coatlicue, the “Lady of the Serpent Skirt.” Viceroy Revillagigedo immediately ordered that it be taken to the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico as a “monument of America’s ancient past.” Carlos III had donated a collection of plaster replicas of Greco-Roman works to the university some years earlier and the Coatlicue was placed among them. But not for very long. A few months later, the learned men of the university decided it should be buried again in the same place where it had been discovered. The Aztec idol might have rekindled ancient beliefs in the memories of the Indians and, above all, its presence in the cloisters was seen as an insult to the very idea of beauty.

Nevertheless, the scholar Antonio de León y Gama was able to write a series of notes describing the statue and another stone that had been found near it; the so-called Sun Stone. These notes were not published until 1804, in Rome. Baron Alexander von Humboldt probably read them in the Italian translation that very year. During his stay in Mexico, Humboldt asked to be allowed to examine the statue. The authorities agreed. It was dug up and, once the German scholar had satisfied his curiosity, it was buried again. The presence of this awe-inspiring statue was unbearable.

The Great Coatlicue—as she is now known by archaeologists, to distinguish her from other sculptures of the same deity—was not permanently unearthed until years after the independence movement at the beginning of the last century. First she was left in the corner of a courtyard in the university. Then she was placed in a corridor behind a screen, like an object that provoked both curiosity and embarrassment. Later a place was found where she could be viewed as an object of scientific and historical interest. Today she occupies one of the central places in the National Museum of Anthropology, in the large room devoted to Aztec culture.

The changing fortunes of the Coatlicue—from goddess to demon, from demon to monster, and from monster to masterpiece—illustrate the changes in our sensibility over the last four hundred years. These changes reflect the increasing secularization that characterizes the modern age. The opposition between the Aztec priest, who worshiped her as a goddess, and the Spanish friar, for whom she was a demoniacal manifestation, is not as total as it seems at first sight. For both of them the Coatlicue represented a supernatural presence, a mysterium tremendum. The difference between the eighteenth-century attitude and that of the twentieth century also betrays a similarity: the condemnation of the former and the enthusiasm of the latter both respond to a primarily intellectual and aesthetic criterion. From the end of the eighteenth century the Coatlicue abandons …

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