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 the magnetic realm of the supernatural in order to enter the corridors of aesthetic and anthropological speculation. She ceases to embody a crystallization of the powers of the beyond in order to become an episode in the history of mankind’s beliefs. As she leaves the temple and enters the museum, there is a change in her nature if not in her appearance.

In spite of these changes the Coatlicue is still the same as she was. She is still the block of stone with a vaguely human form, covered with terrifying attributes that were anointed with blood and perfumed with incense in the Main Temple of Tenochtitlán. I am not only thinking of her material appearance but also of her psychic radiation: just as it did four hundred years ago, the statue both attracts and repels us, producing both seduction and horror. Its powers have been preserved intact even though the form and place of their manifestation have changed.

Whether on top of the pyramid or buried among the ruins of an old teocalli, whether hidden behind a screen or placed in the center of a museum, the Coatlicue always causes astonishment. It is impossible not to linger and look at her, if only for a moment. The spirit is caught in amazement: the enigma of the block of stone paralyzes our sight. The exact nature of the sensation that overcomes us in this moment of stillness is unimportant: admiration, horror, enthusiasm, curiosity. Without ceasing to be what we see, the work of art once more reveals itself as that which lies beyond what we see. What we call a “work of art”—an ambiguous name, especially when applied to the works of ancient civilizations—is perhaps no more than a configuration of signs. Each onlooker combines these signs in a different way and each combination expresses a different meaning. The plurality of meanings, however, is resolved into just one sense, which is always the same: a meaning that is inseparable from sensory experience.


The unearthing of the Coatlicue is a repetition, on a reduced scale, of what the European mind must have experienced at the time of the discovery of America. The new lands appeared as an unknown dimension of reality. The Old World was ruled by the logic of the triad: three times, three ages, three persons, three continents. America had literally no place in this traditional world view. After its discovery the triad was dethroned. No longer were there just three dimensions and only one true reality: America represented a new dimension, an unknown fourth dimension. This new dimension was not governed by the principle of the triad but by the number four. The American Indians considered space and time, or rather space/time, to be a single and dual dimension of reality that responded to the order established by the four cardinal points: four destinies, four gods, four colors, four ages, four worlds beyond the grave. Each god had four aspects; each space, four directions; each reality, four faces. The fourth continent had emerged as a full and palpable presence, overflowing with its rivers and mountains, jungles and deserts, its fantastic gods and its readily available treasures. It was real in its most immediate expressions and marvelous in its more delirious manifestations. It was not another reality but rather the other facet, the other dimension of reality. Like the Coatlicue, America was the visible revelation of the invisible powers.

As the new lands gradually revealed themselves to the eyes of the Europeans, it could be seen that they were products of history as well as nature. The Indian societies were seen by the first Spanish missionaries as a theological mystery. The General History of the Things of New Spain is an extraordinary book, one of the founding works of the science of anthropology. Yet the author, Bernardino de Sahagún, always believed that the ancient Mexican religion was one of Satan’s ploys and that it had to be eradicated from the soul of the Indian. This theological mystery later became a historical problem. What changed was the mental viewpoint but not the conceptual difficulty. Unlike the cases of Persia, Egypt, or Babylonia, the American civilizations were no older than the civilization of Europe. They were simply different, yet this difference was radical: it constituted a real “otherness.”

No matter how isolated the centers of civilization of the Old World may have been, there were always contacts and links between the Mediterranean cultures and those of the Near East, and between the latter and those of India and the Far East. Persians and Greeks were in India, while Buddhism spread from India into China, Korea, and Japan. On the other hand, although we cannot rule out entirely the possibility of contacts between the civilizations of Asia and America, it seems obvious that America experienced nothing comparable to these transfusions of ideas, styles, techniques, and religions that revitalized the societies of the Old World. In pre-Columbian America there were no external influences as important as those of Babylonian astronomy in the Mediterranean, Persian and Greek art in Buddhist India, Mahayana Buddhism in China, or Chinese ideograms and Confucian thought in Japan. It seems that there was some rather limited contact between the Mesoamerican and Andean regions, yet these two societies owe nothing or very little to extraneous influences. In economic practices and artistic forms, in social organization and cosmological and ethical concepts, the two great civilizations of America were original in the broad sense of the word: their origin was internal.

It was precisely this originality that was one of the causes, and perhaps the decisive one, of their destruction. Originality is also a synonym for “otherness” and both terms point to isolation. Neither of the two civilizations of America had an experience that was common and constant among the societies of the Old World: the presence of the other, the intrusion of alien civilizations and cultures. This is why they saw the Spaniards as beings from another world, as gods. The reason for their defeat is to be found not so much in their technical inferiority as in their historical isolation. Their mental universe included the belief in another world and its gods, but not the idea of another civilization and its inhabitants.

From the beginning, the European historical mind came face to face with the hermetic civilizations of America. From the second half of the sixteenth century there were multiple attempts to suppress the differences that seemed to deny the unity of the human race. Some claimed that the ancient Mexicans were one of the lost tribes of Israel; others attributed a Phoenician or Carthaginian origin to them; others, like the Mexican scholar Sigüenza y Góngora, thought that the similarities between certain Christian ceremonies and some of the ritual practices of ancient Mexico were a distorted echo of the sermon of the Gospel by the apostle Saint Thomas, known among the Indians by the name of Quetzalcóatl (Sigüenza also believed that Neptune had been a leader of civilizations and the founding father of Mexicans). The Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, a walking encyclopedia with a craze for everything Egyptian, argued that the pyramids and other pieces of evidence were ample proof that Mexican civilization was an overseas version of Egyptian civilization, an opinion that must have delighted one of his readers and admirers, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz…. Each one of these exercises in concealment was followed by a resurgence of American “otherness.” It was unavoidable. At the end of the eighteenth century the recognition of this difference marked the beginning of true understanding. Yet this recognition entailed a paradox: the link between ourselves and the other depends not on resemblance but on difference. We are united not by a bridge but by an abyss. Man is a plurality: men.


Art survives the societies in which it is created. It is the visible tip of the submerged iceberg that represents every civilization. The recovery of the art of ancient Mexico has taken place in the twentieth century. First, there was archaeological and historical research: later, aesthetic comprehension. It is often said that this understanding is an illusion: what we feel, when confronted by a relief from Palenque, is not what the Maya experienced. This is true. But it is also true that our feelings and thoughts about the work are quite real. Our understanding is not an illusion: it is ambiguous. This ambiguity is present in all our views of works from other civilizations and even in our ideas about works from our own past. We are not Greeks, Chinese, or Arabs; neither can we say that we fully comprehend Romanesque or Byzantine sculpture. Our only recourse is to translate, and each of these translations, whether it be of Gothic or Egyptian art, is a metaphor, a transmutation of the original.

In our efforts to recover the pre-Hispanic art of Mexico there were two important factors. The first was the Mexican Revolution, a phenomenon that deeply modified our view of the past. The history of Mexico, especially in those two great events we call the Conquest and Independence, can be seen as a dual separation: firstly from the Indian past and secondly from New Spain. The Mexican Revolution was a partially successful attempt to reestablish the links that had been broken by the Conquest. We suddenly discovered ourselves to be, in the words of the poet López Velarde, “a Castilian and Moorish land with Aztec streaks.” It is hardly strange then that modern Mexicans, dazzled by the splendid ruins of the ancient civilization recently unearthed by archaeologists, should have wanted to retrieve and exalt this impressive heritage. Yet this change in our historical perspective would have been insufficient if it had not coincided with another change in the aesthetic awareness of the West.

The change was gradual and took centuries. It began at almost the same time as European imperial expansion and the first expressions are those to be found in the chronicles written by the Spanish and Portuguese navigators, conquistadors, and missionaries. Later, in the seventeenth century, the Jesuits discover and become obsessed with the civilization of China, a passion that was to be shared a century later by their enemies, the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment. At the dawn of the nineteenth century the German Romantics were fascinated both with Sanskrit and with Indian literature, a fascination that reappears once again when modern aesthetic awareness discovers the art of Africa, America, and Oceania at the beginning of our century. In teaching us how to appreciate objects ranging from a black mask to a Polynesian fetish, modern Western art has enabled us to comprehend the art of ancient Mexico. The radical “otherness” of Mesoamerican civilization is thus transformed into its opposite: thanks to modern aesthetics, these works that seem so distant are also contemporaneous.

Naturally, the aesthetic recovery of pre-Columbian art would have been impossible without the labor and discoveries of the archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists from England, France, Germany, and North America. Their formidable work encompasses the whole of the nineteenth century and continues in brilliant fashion up to the present. One example of this is the new vision of Mayan culture that we are beginning to develop thanks to the great advances made in the deciphering of their writing system by several archaeologists and linguists from different countries, especially from the United States.

I have mentioned the distinguishing features of Mesoamerican civilization as originality, isolation, and something I have had to call “otherness.” I should also add two more features: spatial homogeneity and temporal continuity. In the territory of Mesoamerica—a rugged land of contrasts in which every climate and every landscape coexists—several cultures arose whose frontiers more or less coincided with geographical boundaries: the northwest, the high central plateau, the Gulf of Mexico coast, the Valley of Oaxaca, Yucatán, and the low-lying regions of the southeast that extend to Guatemala and Honduras. The diversity of cultures, languages, and artistic styles does not fracture the essential unity of this civilization. Although it is not easy to mistake a Mayan work for one from Teotihuacán—the two poles or extremities of Mesoamerica—in each of the great cultures there are certain common denominators. Here is a list of the most outstanding features:

The cultivation of corn, beans, and pumpkins;

the absence of draft animals and, consequently, of the wheel and the cart;

a rather primitive technology that did not surpass the stone age, except in certain activities such as excellent craftsmanship in precious metals;

city-states with a military and theocratic social system, in which the trading class held an important position;

a highly ingenious and complex writing system, limited to the Mayan area, which combined hieroglyphics and logograms (glyphs) with syllabic elements; in the other cultures, the writing system was less perfectly developed and consisted of pictography combined with phonetic elements;

codices with exquisite and elegant designs;

a complex calendar based on the combination of a 260-day cycle with a solar year of 365 days;

the ritual game played with a rubber ball (this game is the model for certain modern sports in which two teams play against each other with a bouncing ball, as in basketball or football);

a highly advanced astronomical science, inseparable from astrology and from the caste of priests, as it was in Babylonia;

centers of commerce not unlike our modern free ports;

a world view that combined the revolutions of the stars with the rhythms of nature in a kind of dance of the universe, an expression of the cosmic war which was, in turn, the archetypal model for ritual wars and human sacrifices on a grand scale;

an extremely severe ethical and religious system which included practices such as confession and self-mutiliation;

cosmological speculations in which the notion of time played a central role, with a striking emphasis on the concepts of movement, change, and catastrophe (their cosmology was also a philosophy of history, as Jacques Soustelle has demonstrated);1

a religious pantheon ruled by the principle of metamorphosis: the universe is time, time is movement, and movement is change, a ballet of masked gods dancing the terrible pantomime of the creation and destruction of worlds and of human beings;

an art that had already provoked the amazement of Dürer before it astonished Baudelaire, an art that has found recognition in temperaments as diverse as the Surrealists and Henry Moore;

a poetry that combines metaphorical lavishness with metaphysical insight.

The temporal continuity is just as remarkable as the spatial unity: an existence that lasted three thousand years, from the birth of the first settlements in the neolithic period until the destruction in the sixteenth century.

The history of Mesoamerica, like that of every other civilization, consists of great upheavals and rebellions, yet there were no far-reaching changes comparable, for example, to the Christian transformation of the world of antiquity in Europe. The cultural archetypes remained essentially unchanged from the time of the Olmecs (around 1000 BC) until the final collapse. Another outstanding and perhaps unique feature was the coexistence of an undeniable primitivism in the technical field—I have already pointed out how in many ways Mesoamerica did not surpass the neolithic—with highly developed religious concepts and an art of great complexity and refinement. The discoveries and inventions were numerous and among them are two really exceptional ones: the invention of the zero and of positional numeration. The example of Mesoamerica shows once more that a civilization is not to be measured, or at least not exclusively, by its production techniques but by its thought, its art, and its achievements in the moral and political spheres.

In Mesoamerica an advanced civilization coexisted with a rural way of life not very different from that of the archaic villages before the urban revolution. This division is reflected in Mesoamerican art. The village artisans made objects for daily use, normally from clay or other fragile materials, objects that transmit a charming sense of grace, fantasy, and humor. Here utility is not at odds with beauty. Also belonging to this type of art are the many magical objects that transmit the psychic energy defined by the Stoics as “universal sympathy,” a vital fluid that unites all animate beings—humans, animals, plants—with the elements, the planets, and the stars.

The other type of art is that of the great cultures: the religious art of the theocracies and the aristocratic art of the princes. The religious art was almost invariably monumental and public; the aristocratic art was ceremonial and lavish. Like so many other civilizations, Mesoamerica never entertained the idea of pure aesthetic experience. In other words, aesthetic pleasure, whether derived from popular and magical art or from religious or court art, was not isolated but rather bound up with other experiences. Beauty was not a separate value: in some cases it was tied to religious values while in other cases it had a utilitarian value. Art was not an end in itself; it was a bridge or a talisman. A bridge, because the work of art transports us from the here and now to another time beyond. A talisman, because the work transforms the reality we see into another reality: Coatlicue is the earth, the sun is a jaguar, the moon is the decapitated head of a goddess. The work of art is a medium, a transmission channel for the sacred powers and the alien forces. The function of art is to open the doors that connect us to the other side of reality.

I have talked about beauty, yet this is an error. Expression is the word that really suits Mesoamerican art. It is an art that speaks, yet it speaks with such concentrated energy that its speech is always expressive. To express is to squeeze out the juice and the essence not only from the idea but from the form. A Mayan god covered with attributes and signs is not a sculpture to be read like a text but rather a sculptured text: a fusion of reading and contemplation, two acts that are dissociated in the West. The Great Coatlicue astounds us not only on account of her dimensions (two and a half meters tall and two tons in weight) but because she is a concept turned to stone. If the concept is one of terror—in order to create, the earth must devour—the form through which it is expressed is an enigma: each attribute of the deity (fangs, forked tongue, serpents, skulls, severed hands) is represented in realistic style, yet the totality is an abstraction. The Coatlicue is at the same time a charade, a syllogism, and a presence that condenses within it a mysterium tremendum. The realistic attributes are associated according to a sacred syntax, and the resulting phrase is a metaphor that combines past, present, and future with the four directions. A cubed stone can also be a metaphysic.

Lack of humor is, of course, the risk and peril of this art inspired by bloody theologians. (In every religion theologians are closely related to executioners.) At the same time it is impossible not to perceive in this rigor a dual fidelity to the idea and to the material: stone, clay, bone, wood, feathers, metal. The “stony” quality that Henry Moore admired so much in Mexican sculpture is the other side of its equally admirable conceptual rigor. Matter and meaning are fused together: the stone speaks and becomes an idea; and the idea is transformed into stone.

Mesoamerican art is a logic of forms, lines, and volumes; it is also a cosmology. There is nothing further removed from Greco-Roman and Renaissance naturalism, based on the representation of the human figure, than the Mesoamerican conception of space and time. For the Mayan or Zapotec artist space has fluidity and becomes time, while time is solid, like a block or a cube. Moving space and frozen time: two poles of cosmic movement. There is a rhythm of convergence and separation in this ballet where the dancers are stars and gods. Movement is dance, the dance is a play, and the play is the war of creation and destruction. Mankind is not at the center of this game, but human beings are the givers of blood, the vital substance that drives the world and enables the sun to rise and the corn to grow.

Paul Westheim pointed out the importance of the “stepped fret,” the ornamental pattern in the form of steps, a stylization of the serpent, of the zigzag effect of the ray and of the wind that ripples the water’s surface and the undulating fields of corn.2 The same form is used to represent the grain of corn that grows upward only to fall back to the earth, just as the priest climbs up and down the steps of the pyramid, or as the sun rises up in the east and hurls itself down in the west. As a sign of movement, the stepped fret represents the steps on the pyramid; and the pyramid is time transformed into geometry and space. The pyramid at Tenayuca has fifty-two serpent heads: the fiftytwo years of the Aztec century. The pyramid of Kukulkán at Chichén-Itzá has nine double terraces (the eighteen months of the year) while its staircases have 364 steps plus the one on the top platform (the 365 days of the solar calendar). In Teotihuacán, each one of the two staircases of the Pyramid of the Sun has 182 steps (364 plus one for the platform at the apex) and the temple of Quetzalcóatl has 364 serpent fangs. The pyramid at El Tajín has 364 niches and one hidden. Marriage of space and time. Movement expressed by the geometry of stone.

But what about man? He is one of the signs that universal movement traces and erases, traces and erases…. According to the Aztec poem, “The Giver of life writes with flowers.” His songs shade and color those who are to live. We are creatures of flesh and blood, yet as ephemeral as the colors of painted shadows: “Only in your paintings do we dwell here on earth.”

This tragic vision of human existence is not devoid of a certain melancholy splendor. Mankind, tied to the turning cosmic wheel, is a toy in this cruel game played by the gods, a game that revolves around the single obsessive theme of creative sacrifice. Nevertheless, it is precisely for this reason that mankind is the axis of the universe; each and every act, all of his works, are rituals or prayers that nourish the hungry gods. Without human blood, life would cease to flow and the universe would come to a halt. This view of the world and of mankind is the exact opposite of our modern conception, which sees nature as an enormous reservoir of energy and resources that the human race can dominate and exploit with impunity. In this way we have destroyed our natural environment and endangered the very survival of our species. The civilization of Mesoamerica is an example of the reconciliation of man with nature, even with its more terrifying aspects. It is a lesson in solidarity with the universe.

translated by Anthony Stanton

This Issue

December 6, 1990