This engraving depicts one of the most famous Aztec deities, Coatlicue. In pre-Hispanic times, the great monolithic statue of Coatlicue stood in the sacred temple precinct of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan where it was one of several female deities thus honored. After the Spanish conquest, this sculpture was buried—in part to prevent indigenous worship of this powerful deity. During the repaving of Mexico City’s zócalo in 1790, the Coatlicue was rediscovered, along with another Aztec monument, the Calendar Stone. Its significance as an object of worship had waned, given the three centuries of evangelization of Spanish America. Instead, it was of greatest interest as a historical monument, capturing the attention of the Creole astronomer and historian Antonio de León y Gama, who published this engraving and an analysis of the sculpture two years after its rediscovery.
León y Gama had an artist draw this Aztec work like a taxonomist, measuring every surface, and recording views of front and back, sides, top and bottom. A well-educated man, León y Gama understood the scientific procedures of his day, and brought them to bear in the drawing and his analysis, which attends to each iconographic detail of the Coatlicue with almost clinical fidelity. His approach parallels Enlightenment thinking that took root in 18th-century Spanish America.
Such a serious analysis of an Aztec sculpture was unusual at the time. Even so, this study, and the sculpture it represented, became a touchstone for educated Creoles in New Spain as they sought to better understand the pre-Columbian past. It was this past, they increasingly believed, that distinguished them—and ultimately their political destiny—from that of Spain.
Boone, Elizabeth Hill. 1999. “The ‘Coatlicues’ at the Templo Mayor.” Ancient Mesoamerica 10 (2): 189-206.
Gutiérrez Haces, Juana. 1995. “Las Antigüedades Mexicanas en las descripciones de don Antonio de León y Gama. In Los discursos sobre el arte. Juana Gutiérrez Haces, ed., pp. 121-146. Mexico City: UNAM.
Keen, Benjamin. 1971. The Aztec Image in Western Thought. New Brunswick: Rutgers.
León y Gama, Antonio. 1792, reissued, with additions, 1832. Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras que se hallaron en la Plaza Principal de México. Mexico.