The horrifying remains of the Aztecs send a shiver down the spine of our art critic, Patrick Reyntiens Here is one of those enormous, climactic, all-embracing exhibitions that everyone must see. Relax. Some 200,000 have already done so. Aztecs manages to be magical, inclusive and exclusive at one and the same time. Which is to say that the Aztecs exhibition at London's Royal Academy until the April 11 is unique. It is a must. But it cannot be stressed enough that it fully informed viewing is essential. It is no good simply admiring the artefacts from a:simple "isn't it beautiful", aesthetic angle alone. You can't go to it simply to admire of condemn the items on exhibit — and triere are some 360 to see anyway. Visitors should be informed, even if superficially, ciF the basis of belief and practice that made these works of art come into being. They owe everything to religion; but what a relieon.
The pre-Conquistador history of Mexico ii very complicated. The area we now lc/low as Mexico had at least four or five distinct civilisations within its boundaries. each civilisation had an autonomous reli4ous system subtending it and the priesthood of the great and varied ziggurats, mrramids and stepped temples, seems in each case to have had supreme arbitration and initiatory powers. The priesthoods of Mexico, in all their variety. ultimately ruled all. The Spaniards, coming for the first time to a totally new world seem instinctively to have understood the situation, so familiar to them, since they came from a clerically dominated culture in Spain.
Curiously, as you go round the exhibition, although the visitor is horrified and shocked as the Spaniards must have been, at the evil and violence and murderous content of the religions they met, the general structure of religious belief was almost a parallel — and a parody — of the Judaic-Christian fundamental belief of sacrifice and of blood victims. Similar, yes, but how different. Mexico was ruled by the sun; all life and all food came from the sun in glory above the heads of the people. But the sun had to be kept alive and in activity by the ceaseless sacrifice of victims, going on day after day, when either men, women and children from the very fields, or many specially captured prisoners from outlying districts, were ritually slaughtered — their hearts being torn out by a devoted dedicated priesthood — and their blood spilt by the gallon for the continuity of the life of the sun radiating benignly high above these altars of incessant human sacrifice. . All the tutelary gods, greater or smaller, of these bloodthirsty religions are to be seen in the Royal Academy. By a strange and almost perverse turn of events, the practicality of sending the biggest of the sculptures from the Mexican museums had to be abandoned, as being impossible. The result is that the average size of the sculpture on view is about Mt in height and 2ft in width.
In Mexico, such is the scale of what has been excavated or preserved in the way of sculpture that one can only compare it to the religious sculptural remains of ancient Above: a votive vessel with an image of Xilonen, c1500, made from clay and paint Below: Mictlantecubtli, c1480, made from clay, stucco and paint Egypt. The gigantic scale of individual pieces claiming one's attention in the museums in Mexico tends to make one overlook the smaller pieces of sculpture and the details of the Aztec civilisation as seen in jewellery and smaller hand-held objects.
Not so in the Royal Academy, We are given every opportunity to examine all the exhibits at our own leisure. And this in spite of the pressure from the enormous crowds visiting the exhibition. I noticed droves, not to say hordes, of school children between eight and 15 being shepherded round. Quite a few of these posses were from Catholic schools. I only hope that they had already been instructed recently by the school staff as to the real content and intent of the sculpture, but perhaps that would not be "politically correct" nowadays. One has to be so terribly careful. Little girls from St Monica's School should not be allowed to go back with the wrong ideas. They might end up with nightmares, such as the first Christian missionaries must have had.
The military defeat of the Aztecs by a far inferior number of soldiers from Spain did much to persuade the Mexican priesthood that they had better surrender and change sides and religion. And the pagan priesthood might have been more ready than one thinks to concede the superiority and mastery of an alien religion, since the main principles of the pagan faith and those of Judaism and Christianity are curiously parallel. The colossal outpourings of human blood were abruptly stopped — to have their place taken by the unbloody sacrifice of the Holy Mass. This must have been duly explained to the pagan priesthood. It certainly resulted in the wholesale conversion to Christianity on the part of the people of Mexico within a space of some 50 years. Nothing parallel to the astonishing volte-face had been seen in the history of Christianity since, possibly, the suppression of Egyptian temple endowments in the 4th and 5th centuries by Roman imperial authority. In both cases enormous remains were left as silent sentinels while the people adopted a beneficial and fulfilling alternative.
There is an addendum to the exhibition in the last room. This is devoted to the evidences of the survival of Aztec culture under the new tutelage of Christianity. Not much of it was left, and one might say to that, "and a good thing too". Certainly it is almost a miracle that the most bloodthirsty religion ever conceived by man was suppressed and transformed into the Southern American civilisation of the 17th and 18th centuries.
There is no evidence of this tremendous achievement, due almost without exception to the imagination, faith and energy of the Spanish religious orders. It may not be the object of the exhibition — and given the scope of the Royal Academy show this is understandable — but it is only half the story. For those who really wish to know the triumphal extent of Spanish civilisation after the Aztecs a journey to Guadalajara, Tlaxcala, Taxco, Tepozotlan, San Luis Potosi, Cuernavaca, and Morelia, to name but a few, is an absolute necessity. Perhaps this exhibition will encourage a good proportion of those who have seen it to go to Mexico to see for themselves. They will certainly not be disappointed.