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Aztec Art Exhibit Showcases Fascinating Civilization

Visual images can be powerful markers for any society, even one which existed centuries ago. The Aztec empire in Mexico was in its glory from 1430 to 1521, but its culture still fascinates people today.

VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on an exhibit of Aztec art, which has been drawing crowds in New York City.

Even on a rainy Friday morning, people are waiting in line to see the current show at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. It’s the largest assembly of Aztec objects ever shown outside Mexico.

The Aztecs dominated Central Mexico from 1430 to 1521, when their empire fell to Spanish conquerors. But the modern fascination with the Aztecs seems unconquerable – guaranteed, spookily, by the Aztec rituals of human sacrifice to repay the gods.

Every few weeks in Tenochtitlán -- what is now Mexico City – there were religious festivals. Captured warriors were led up bloody stone stairways, and before crowds of thousands, priests cut out their hearts from their living bodies, for their life energy was believed to feed the gods, and keep the sun rising in the sky.

For the same reason – to sustain the gods -- their blood was drained into ritual vessels, and their heads mounted on poles.

Aztec warriors themselves might be honored with such sacrifice – called the “flowery” death – giving their lives willingly to renew the gods. Even their skin was flayed – and worn by Aztec priests until it dried and dropped off – to appease the god known as “Our Flayed Lord.”

And yet these same Aztec warriors wrote lyrical poetry praising nature. “With flowers you paint, O Giver of Life,” goes one poem. “We live only in your book of paintings, here on the Earth.”

The animal figures they sculpted, too, are as subtle and warm – even humorous – as anything made by gentler peoples. So it’s hard to imagine who the Aztecs really were and how they lived and felt.

But one clue, say art critics, is the fierce aliveness of the gods and people in their art. Always poised on the knife-edge between life and death, it seems, the eyes of Aztec figures stare out, fully present.

“Nobody seems to be timid about death in these sculptures,” says Anthony Calnek, a Guggenheim spokesman. “All the figures are very self-possessed. They look out at you. I think that’s one of the most captivating things: You have to meet these sculptures eye- to-eye."

Mr. Calnek added, "And there’s such a consistent vision of the cosmos as in such a state of movement, just sort of on the precipice of chaos, that you can almost imagine what it was like to think that way -- that you’re constantly worried that if you don’t please the gods, there won’t be rain, and there won’t be crops. If you don’t please the gods, the sun might not rise. I think all those things are fascinating to think about, and they are suggested by the show.”

The Aztec Empire will remain on display at New York’s Guggenheim Museum through February 13.