Aztec Art and Literature

Art and literature both played important roles in the Aztec empire. From the mid 14th to mid 16th centuries, artisans and poets/authors wrote the history of the Aztec people, perhaps unknowingly at the time, through their sculpture, pottery, weaving, poetry, and narratives. It was a firm Aztec belief that artists were born with their skills however, each was trained, and the art was passed from father to son in most cases, where the son was an apprentice for many years as he mastered the needed skills.

There were two main types of art used or revered by the Aztecs during the peak of Aztec dominance in Mesoamerica: utilitarian and "luxury." Utilitarian art were objects such as pottery, household tools (blades), and textiles. There were craftsmen who specialized in each "industry" or occupation; such as cotton weaving for clothing, basket weaving, blacksmithing, carpenters, & stone-cutters. However; these craftsmen most likely produced their goods as a supplement to farming and family care-taking and lived in the rural areas within the Aztec empire.[i]

Luxury art was created by master craftsmen who most likely were "full-time" artisans. They mainly lived in the cities, close to the more affluent Aztec population (the rulers and priests, for example). Their art was made from a variety of precious and semi-precious materials such as gold, silver, and turquoise. However, the Aztecs were best known for their mastery of feather working. Fans, costumes, shields, and mosaic hangings were all made by intricately weaving and gluing feathers together and these items were prized possessions of the Aztec nobility.[ii]

The Aztecs also had a literature and poetry. They had a written language called Nahuatl (a form of hieroglyphs or pictographs or codices) and it was not only used for inventory or for ritual. One particular codex is an illustrated history of the Aztecs and Nahuatl people which covered the years between around 1168 through 1591. It is called The Codex Aubin or also called The Codex of 1576 and the "Historie de la Nation Mexicaine depuis le depart d'Aztlan juscqu'a l'arrivee des Conquerants Espagnols." Aztec poets and authors became more abundant after the Spanish conquest in the mid 1500s. This is due to the  Spanish missions and schooling of the native peoples in Spanish culture and language. Many poets kept true to the Aztlan language and form but hints of Spanish and Christianity became to appear more frequently at this time. For as the Natuatl poem says:

"The city spreads out in circles of jade, and radiates flashes of light like quetzal plumes, beside it the lords are carried in boats; a flowery mist envelope them."[iii]

The written world of the Aztecs not only told of their everyday lives, but also gave knowledge of other aspects of their culture.

[i] Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel. Handbook to Life in the Aztec World. Los Angeles: California State University, 2006.
[ii] Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
[iii] Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel. Handbook to Life in the Aztec World. Los Angeles: California State University, 2006.