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THE JAMES AND MARILYNN ALSDORF COLLECTION
Post Lot Text
AZTEC STONE ALTAR
Among the many remaining works of Aztec sculpture, receptacles hold a special place because of their shape and their probable function. Three kinds of these may be considered: the tepetlacalli, the cuauhxicalli and the “altars”. The tepetlacalli(?) are actual coffers, closed with a lid and holding human remains or sacrificial offerings. The cuauhxicalli, often zoomorphic (felines or eagles), have a sort of basin intended- according to sources- to hold the sacrificed victim’s heart. The third category, to which scholarly literature gives the name of “altar”, shows great formal unity: often impressive blocks whose upper part is fitted with a flat and shallow cavity.
The function of the Altars was almost certainly closely linked to the ceremonial rites, whilst the receptacles and spaces were for the display and even the consumption of the sacrificial remains, be it blood, food, liquids, perfumes or objects. The Altars are decorated with a variety of lower reliefs, representations of gods, human figures in sacrificial or ceremonial acts, animals, the Aztec calendar and cosmographic symbols.
The basalt sculpture shown here is decorated on its four sides with reliefs representing the days of the Aztec ritual calendar, founded on a cycle of 20 names and 13 figures. On opposite panels one can distinguish 'One Jaguar' and 'Ten Jaguar' while it is believed 'Seven-Crocodile' is placed between the two. The fourth side represents 'Four Movement', an important glyph symbolizing the 'Fifth World', the world of the Aztecs themselves, a successor to the preceding worlds, and fated, like its predecessors, to be destroyed in a final apocalypse.
This motif is associated with the upper part of the receptacle which, despite damage, probably represents Tlalechuhtli (the chthonic monster who catches the souls of the dead) and whose claws can still be seen at the edges.
The defacement was probably deliberate and fashioned by the Spanish to re-use the Altar for more Christian purposes, the irregular shape of the basin now bites into the figure of the monster, the surface of the sculpture erased to form a holy water font, stoup or baptismal font.
Thus, beyond cultural and religious upheavals, and as it was often the case, the ancient arts of the Americas were perpetuated in the heart of the New World.
The massive quadrangular altar boldly carved on four sides with days from the Aztec calendar, two of the sides represent a crouching, ferocious feline with bared fangs and talons, whiskers flowing in wavy streams with small circles in the field, indicating numbers, one represents the date “One Jaguar”, the other “Ten Jaguar”, one side carved with an animated anthropomorphic figure wearing a jagged skin and ferocious upper jaw of a creature, probably that of the “Seven Crocodile”, Teociopactli, a primeval sea monster, part crocodilian, part fish with indefinite gender, a flint, Tecpatl knife, extruding from the back, the fourth side with the circular representation of “Four Movement”, the upper part of the altar representing abbreviated images of Tlalteuctli, the Earth Monster, with prototypical feline claws protruding, in her role as the Earth Monster, as borders to a shallow basin, probably an early Colonial transformation of the altar into a baptismal font; in grey basalt.
For a recarved Aztec stone monolith as a Colonial basin see Luján and Fauvet-Berthelot, 2005: p. 174, no. 83.