February 8, 2019 in Art
Aztec Essay

Aztec Goddess in Today’s World

One of the most significant features of monumental art is the stability of its masterpieces. One of the best ways for a civilization to survive its end symbolically lies in the development of sculptural and architectural traditions. In other words, every civilization can disappear, but the trace its artists leave on the stones will remain in dialogue with the next civilization. The central role in this communication between epochs play sculptures of people who remain in stones the way they were many years ago. Here one has to contemplate. If sculptures of people are central, what about the images of gods, what place do they hold here? What sphere of ancient life speaks to us through the stones that once were worshiped by people as symbolic substitutes for those forces that organize the world and rule it? In this case, the question concerns the head of Aztec goddess Xilonen (see fig. 1) and its place in our relation to Aztec culture. Certainly, the head of the goddess tells us about the spiritual life of Aztecs, but her divinity is expressed through the material, everyday forms in a symbolic way.

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The head of Xilonen looks very realistic. For example, it is clear that the sculpture depicts a female face. Xilonen has a soft oval face, elegant nose and eyes (by Mesoamerican norms), which pretty and young women traditionally have. There is a chaplet on the goddess’ neck, which probably hints the observer of the sculpture that the depicted woman belongs to the nobility. The sculptor ornamented her head with flowers and maize (see fig. 1). These elements of nature mean that Xilonen embodies the force of natural fertility and has a close connection with the agricultural sphere of Aztecs (“Head of Xilonen”). Besides, she is not only a young noblewoman or a goddess of plants. The third very important component of her face shows us Xilonen’s ethnicity. Certainly, she is a goddess in the form of a Mesoamerican noble girl. Each of these elements becomes clearer through the cultural context that brings senses into the empty stone symbols.

The society of Aztecs was agricultural, and the main grain they cultivated was maize, or corn. It means that one of the most important relatively controlled source of life for them was the harvest of maize, the volume of which depended on different natural phenomena. Today every farmer tries to find the best conditions for his agricultural activity because he understands his harvest both as a resource and a part of inanimate nature. The Aztec understood this issue in a completely contrary way, and one of the best proofs of it is the gorgeous and expressive head of Xilonen.

Xilonen is not only abstract natural or divine force that commands maize to appear on fields. It is a personification of maize itself, but not all its types. Xilonen as a young girl symbolizes maize when it is not ripe enough but only starts to grow in order to become once totally ready for gathering. As a representative of nobility, she not only states that gods and noble Aztecs have some common features; it is a poetic interpretation of maize that only a traditional agricultural society could provide. Maize as the main source of life protects people from death like noblemen (warriors) protect a city from invaders.

It is also important to mention that, according to Smith, the social structure of a typical Aztec city included two groups: the nobility, who were considered as native owners of land, and other people (peasants and slaves), who were considered as commoners. There is a very elegant symbolism that helps to understand the way of Aztec thinking and, maybe, to imagine the spiritual deepness our postindustrial civilization lost because of our pragmatic attitude toward the world. The young maize embodied by Xilonen, a young noble girl who possesses land, waits for that time when it will sacrifice its life to feed commoners and their masters.

Aztec mythology explains the origin of the world and society in the same way. Some gods sacrificed their blood and bodies in order to create everything in this reality (Smith). The sacrifice of Xilonen, who dies every harvest in order to resurrect in the future season, reflects Aztec’s beliefs concerning a sacrifice as the basis of world existence. Certainly, it is also very interesting that Xilonen embodied only young maize. When it became ripe, another god embodied it. Besides, the person of a young noble goddess was an implicit part of the maize in all its forms.

Xilonen’s face is very attractive because it has a mark of divinity inseparable from society and nature. In those times, all parts of the world were details of one system, which included nothing but the relationships between different personalities: between people, gods, and between people and gods. The collective values of traditional society made the world animated and spiritually full because gathering of maize, for example, was a specific form of communication between social, natural and divine worlds. Today we see the nature through the prism of social or even personal needs. That is why there is no communication, but only consumption of natural resources. When I look at the face of Xilonen, I feel a need for a traditional integrated approach to the world that we lost with the technical, scientific and economic development.

Such position is not common for many people, though. While I looked at the head of Xilonen on the exhibition, there came some tourists who tried to understand the specifics of ancient times (or just to kill the time) through the observation of artifacts demonstrated there. I asked one of them what he (it was a middle-aged Russian man named Sergej) thinks about the sculpture. The answer was surprising because it underlined a detail that I did not take into account. The tourist said that it is very interesting that the material used for the sculpture is basalt, the density of which is the highest among other rock formations. It means, he said, the sculptor had to work very hard and for a very long time in order to realize his project.

That man from Russia was an apologist for the postindustrial way of life. One of his remarks concerning the sculpture was an expression of pity because the artists wasted a lot of time by working with primitive instruments and techniques while modern ones can produce much more exemplars with higher preciousness of the work. In such a way, Sergej’s attitude toward the sculpture is more condescending than nostalgic or admiring because he understands past epochs through the prism of evolution. In my opinion, historical process is changing without direct development or degradation, and when we get some innovations, we always lose some traditional details of our lives. The basalt head of Xilonen embodies difference between symbolic and pragmatic epochs.

Certainly, Sergej is right in some respect because the quantity of production the state can provide determines its economic power. Through this prism, the artist who created the head of Xilonen worked primitively because his instruments were not effective as those most sculptors have today. On the other hand, the parameter of production quantity can be applied to equipment but not a masterpiece, which is always individual and unrepeatable because of artist’s unique state of inspired mind. The process of masterpiece creation does not depend on instrument. An artist is the only instrument that determines the result of work.

Thus, there are many ways to understand and interpret the sculpture of the young maize goddess. In my opinion, deep thinking about it helps to discover many elements of relationship between Aztecs and the world around them. The gods of Aztecs had the forms of people, ethnic features of native Mesoamericans, and elements of nobility wearing. It means that Aztecs did not separate their social order from the world order, and to be a god of the world was the same as to be a nobleman or noblewoman in the state. Aztecs lived in the reality where nothing was dead, but each part of the universe was a manifestation of some personified divine force. The researchers claim that the head of Xilonen belongs to 1400-1500 AD. According to Smith, Hernando Cortes destroyed the Aztec Empire in 1519. Thus, the sculpture represents sacral art in the last years of Aztecs’ authentic culture (before any transformation connected with the Spanish invasion). This detail increases the contrast between mythological holistic culture of Aztecs and bourgeois mercantilist European culture.

Our postindustrial culture includes many details that belong to different epochs and cultural grounds, but the main characteristic feature of it is the way of production based on machines, which transformed all social, economic, and other relations between people. The most popular form of today’s art is performance when in the center of public attention is not an artifact, but the process of its making. The basalt goddess of Aztecs represents entirely another way of thinking and attitude toward the world. That is why it not only shows what sort of art Aztecs used to create, but also what they thought about themselves and their place in that reality.

Figure 1.

“Head of Xilonen, the Goddess of Young Maize.” Art Institute Chicago. n. d. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.


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