Art of the Americas to World War I
- Introduction to the Aztecs (Mexica)
- More on the Aztecs (Mexica)
- Unearthing the Aztec past, the destruction of the Templo Mayor
- Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan, the Coyolxauhqui Stone, and an Olmec Mask
- Codex Borgia
- Tlaloc vessel
- Serpent mask of Quetzalcoatl or Tlaloc
- The Sun Stone (The Calendar Stone)
- Coyolxauhqui Stone
- Monolith of Tlaltecuhtli (Earth Lord)
- Double-headed serpent
- The House of the Eagles, and sculptures of Mictlantecuhtli and Eagle Warrior
- Eagle Warrior (Mexica)
- Stone kneeling figure of Chalchiuhtlicue
- Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca
- Brazier of Chicomecoatl
- Sacrificial Knife with Mosaic Handle and Chalcedony Blade
- Aztec art and feasts for the dead
- Feathered headdress
- Aztec feathered headdress: backstory
- Remembering the Toxcatl Massacre: The Beginning of the End of Aztec Supremacy
- Painting Aztec History
The skull of the Smoking Mirror
This mosaic is believed to represent the god Tezcatlipoca, or "Smoking Mirror," one of four powerful creator deities, who were amongst the most important gods in the Mexica* pantheon. Tezcatlipoca is often depicted with obsidian mirrors at the head and is conventionally cast as an adversary to Quetzalcoatl. The name "Smoking Mirror" derives from the Nahuatl (Mexica) word tezapoctli, meaning "shining smoke" and representations of Tezcatlipoca are typically characterised by distinctive black stripes on the face and a smoking mirror generally displayed in his headdress, at his temple or in place of a torn-off foot.
The base for the mosaic is a human skull. The skull is cut away at the back and lined with deer skin on which the movable jaw is hinged. Long deerskin straps would have allowed the skull to be worn as part of priestly regalia. Skull ornaments like this are depicted in the Mixtec Zouche-Nuttal Codex.
The mosaic decoration is worked in alternate bands of bright blue turquoise and black lignite. The eyes are made of two orbs of polished iron pyrite framed by rings made of white conch (Strombus) shell. The nasal cavity is lined with plates of bright red Spondylus (thorny oyster) shell.
Farthest reaches of the Mexica empire
The turquoise, lignite, pyrite and shell were all procured from the farthest reaches of the Mexica empire and beyond. The effort made in assembling this diverse selection of exotic materials emphasises the divine "other-worldly" nature both of the mosaic and whoever wore or displayed it.
Turquoise was sent as tribute to the Aztec capital from several provinces of the empire. Some of those provinces were located in present-day Veracruz, Guerrero and Oaxaca. The turquoise was sent as raw chunks or as cut and polished mosaic tiles decorating a variety of objects, such as masks, shields, staffs, discs, knives and bracelets. We know from a tribute list issued by the emperor Moctezuma II that ten turquoise mosaic masks, made by skilled Mixtec artisans, were sent each year from a province in Oaxaca.
*The people and culture we know as "Aztec" referred to themselves as the Mexica (pronounced "Mé-shee-ka").
C. R. Cartwright and N. D. Meeks, "Aztec conch shell working: high- tech design," British Museum Technical Research Bulletin 1, (2007), 35-42.
C. McEwan, A. Middleton, C. Cartwright, R. Stacey, Turquoise mosaics from Mexico (London, The British Museum Press, 2006).
C. McEwan, R. J. Stacey and C. R. Cartwright, "The ‘Tezcatlipoca’ skull mosaic in the British Museum collections: new insights and questions of identity," E. Baquedano (ed.) Tezcatlipoca: Trickster & Supreme Aztec Deity (Colorado, University of Colorado Press, 2014).
C. McEwan, Ancient Mexico in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1994).
© Trustees of the British Museum
Want to join the conversation?
- I notice in this and other articles and videos prior -- the there is extensive use of red and yellow. Both these colors are considered good luck in Chinese Culture. The Amerindians were of Asian extraction. Do you think there is a connection or it is just coincidence or availability of pigments ?(7 votes)
- The first paragraph mentions that Tezcatlipoca was one the creator deities of the Mexica mythology. What exactly was Tezcatlipoca's role in the mythology?(6 votes)
- Is there more masks that need to be uncovered?(4 votes)
- We don't, yea, we can't, know the needs of the as-yet-uncovered masks for being uncovered. It's even possible that those masks themselves (if they exist) have no need to be discovered.(1 vote)
- The asterisk mentions that the pronunciation of Mexica should read as "Mé-shee-ka", but in the modern nation of Mexico the spanish pronunciation is "Mé-hee-ko"...
Is that just the difference between "Spanish" and "Aztec" pronunciation? Or am I reading the phonetic incorrectly in "Mé-shee-ka" and the "shee" is similar to "hee" of Mexico?(4 votes)
- There's an explanation of the phonetic evolution of the name in this Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_of_Mexico(2 votes)
- Was this used for religious ceremonies of warefare (probably religious ceremonies).(4 votes)
- It was part of the religion. Many nations around the world have called on their religions to bless their wars. The Mexica weren't all that different from the Spanish, who brought monks. priests and missionaries along on their conquest journeys.(1 vote)
- Is that mask like a skull inlaid with turquoise?(3 votes)
- Yes. They took the skull and put paint and precious stones on it to make the mask. They also lined the inside with deerskin.(2 votes)
- According to the second paragraph, they made this mosaic with a human skull. How would they retrieve one of the skulls?(4 votes)
- Very likely, they got it from the grave of someone whom they didn't respect enough to leave her (or his) bones alone.(1 vote)
- where can I read more about the origin of the turquoise the Aztecs used, from the southwest united states?(1 vote)
- I think you can read about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turquoise#United_States Please let me know if this is helpful.(1 vote)