Close-up detail of the projected Aztec Sunstone, showing glyphs in circles around the face of the fifth god.

New Fire: illuminating the fifth Aztec sun

Religions and civilisations have been formed on the basis of tales of creation and destruction. From Genesis to Ragnarök, we have looked for ways to explain our origins, understand the world around us and comprehend what is beyond our control. Some of the stories that our ancestors used as a means to understand their place in the world are almost comical by today’s standards, but there’s no doubting that they are also beautiful, creative and enthralling.

Possibly the most mystical and fascinating of all these ancient peoples are the Aztecs. Mythologised through films and literature, knowledge of the Aztec civilisation has been largely interpreted through archaeological remains, artefacts and religious chronicles. Together, they tell a story of a people with exceptional skill in astronomy, agriculture and art, but who also believed in over 200 different deities and appeased some of them through human sacrifice. One particular artefact that exemplifies this dichotomy is the Aztec Sunstone. Scholars have studied this incredible piece for over two hundred years, painstakingly translating its glyphs and deciphering its role as both a religious object and potentially more practical purposes in the fields of astronomy and chronology.

It is said that stone depicts our sun in its fifth incarnation. Each of its predecessors – a god, transformed into the sun – shone over the earth until it reached the end of its era, heralding the destruction of the world, wiping out the human race through an assortment of means: being ravaged by monsters, destroyed by hurricanes, fire falling from the sky and floods submerging the earth. In the great oral tradition of storytelling, there are many slightly different versions of the Aztec creation story, but essentially ‘god’ (‘Ometeotl’, who was both male and female), gave birth to four sons, the Tezcatlipocas of the East, North, South, and West, who created the universe and light, but to bring this light to the world, one of the gods had to sacrifice himself by leaping into a fire.

A Canon Medical Viamo sv7 portable ultrasound, a tablet-sized screen with a probe attached by a short cable.
An incredible projected Aztec Sunstone forms part of the touring ‘Azteken’ exhibition and is displayed alongside hundreds of relics, some never shown publicly before.

The Sunstone itself currently resides at the National Museum of Anthropology, but it is possible to stand in its rays through a light and sound projection that is on display alongside exquisite Aztec relics at the ‘Azteken’ exhibition at the Linden Museum in Stuttgart. The complex projection by MatrixWorks Europe and Dutch integrator MAV Techniek uses two GeoBox ‘warping’ video processors and two Canon laser projectors and lenses to create the curved background projection image of the Aztec sun on two screens. A third Canon projector with an ultra-wide zoom lens projects images onto the huge stone.

Visitors are immersed in history, learning how the lifetime of each sun god ended in despair and tragedy, but by the birth of the fifth, the Aztecs (who called themselves the ‘People of the Sun’) assumed the responsibility of appeasing the god in order to keep the sun from falling from the sky. They believed that the only way to do this was through gruesome ‘New Fire’ sacrificial ceremonies, where freshly extracted and still beating human hearts would be offered to the sun in hope that it would avert the end of the world. This ‘feeding of the gods’ continued until the conquistadors, led by Hernán Cortés, arrived in the capital, overthrowing the Aztec empire and bringing the territory under Spanish rule.

500 years on from his arrival in the Gulf of Mexico, the exhibition tells the story of Cortés’ journey through the provinces to the sacred capital of Tenochtitlán, using a wealth of rare objects and texts, gathered from around the world. The Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Museum of Anthropology) in Mexico City and its contemporary, the Museum of the Templo Mayor have loaned extraordinary sculptures, ceramics, mosaics and goldworks that give glimpses into a sophisticated, yet primitive culture, where the vivid illustrations and colourful illuminated manuscripts seem so at odds with the practices Cortés discovered.

‘Azteken’ plans to tour when circumstances allow and will visit Vienna and the Netherlands. You can learn more about the exhibition and see panoramas of the exhibits at the Linden Museum website.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

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