Of corn and sacrifice

It has been a while since my last post, which, on the one hand, has to do with the renewed closure of Vienna´s art venues in a second pandemic-induced lockdown that hit us in November. And on the other hand I have been super busy with my other ventures — the new Spectaculum Magazine I created to feature photography of the arts by other great photographers, and my occupation as a (volunteer) co-editor for the Pictorial Mag (which I definitely recommend checking out if you are interested in photography). Between those two and my paying job I hardly find the time or energy for my Vienna blog. I did, however, manage to see at least one exhibition just before lockdown: The Aztecs at Weltmuseum Wien.

The exhibition provides wonderful insights into the ancient world of the Aztects, who actually called themselves Mexica. When the Spanish invaded their lands, these indigenous people ruled large swathes of Mesoamerica as a powerful empire. The name Aztecs is derived from a mythical place of origin, Aztlán, from where nomadic people spread and settled on some islands in Lake Texcoco, where they founded a hugely impressive city, Tenochtitlan, in the early 1300s.

Mexico City today, once a floating city in the middle of a lake

This eventually became what we know today as Mexico City. Then as now it was an economic powerhouse and a centre for cultural and religious activities. By 1519 it had some 200,000 inhabitants, with aqueducts providing the city with fresh water, and numerous markets selling products from all around Mesoamerica.

The all-important corn (maize) was ubiquitous. (Corn, beans and squash formed the staple of the Aztec diet.) A little historic anecdote I read somewhere is that the Aztecs are credited with “inventing” popcorn – apparently they used it for ornamental purposes and to adorn Tlaloc, their supreme god of rain, earthly fertility and of water.

A detail from Diego Rivera´s mural depicting Tenochtitlán shows market sellers with corn
A reproduction of Rivera´s colourful mural at the Weltmuseum Wien

As a visitor to the exhibition, you experience a walk through a civilisation that has left many artworks and traces behind, witness to a fascinating and also cruel history.

A giant (early 16th century) figure of the Aztec Lord of the Underworld, Mictlantecuhtli, beckons visitors. The sculpture is on loan from the Museo Templo Mayor in Mexico City.

The Aztecs´practices were not for the faint of heart, as our guide told us. According to their creation myths, the Aztec universe was created by gods who sacrificed themselves for humans, and to pay them back, the humans had to return the favour, not only bringing food offerings to the gods, but also blood and organ (both animal and human) sacrifice.

A sculpture of Xipe Totec “Our Lord the Flayed One”, god of renewal and rebirth and thus also agriculture; he always wears the skin of a flayed person, usually a prisoner, as a symbol for corn shedding its skin. The flayed skins were often taken from sacrificial victims who had their hearts cut out.

You can virtually visit their most important temple, the Templo Mayor, the centre of the Aztec universe, a pyramid built to signify the Snake Mountain, where, according to Aztec mythology, the patron God Huitzilopochtli was born. Sadly, only the foundations of this major pyramid remain today, as the Spanish conquistadores used its stones to build their own cathedral next to it.

The exhibition offers looks at the layout of their city, and beautifully lit artworks and artefacts.

A young artist sketches the model of the Aztec pyramids in the exhibition.

There are giant stone statues, mythical pottery figures, gold, and a facsimile of a codex made in the 1500s with drawings that explain the Aztec origin myth and culture.

What impressed me quite a lot as well was a multimedia display in the final hall of the exhibition, showing murals that depict Aztec life back then, juxtaposed to modern-day photographs of similar scenes. Cultures and heritage prevail, even when suppressed.

Fortunately the Aztec exhibition runs through 13 April 2021, so for Vienna residents and visitors, you have a good chance of catching it after all this lockdown business is over. It is well worth seeing. Over 200 artefacts are on display, including loans from Mexican and European museums. In June 2021 this exhibition will move from Vienna to the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, Netherlands.

2 thoughts on “Of corn and sacrifice

  1. Thank you Karin for this. I thought a knew a lot about the Aztecs. But then I went to the great exhibition at the Weltmuseum and then more, after reading your great and informative blog. Thanks


    1. In all honesty, I also did not know that much about the details of their culture, the tour at the museum helped a lot, plus reading up on it afterwards.


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