Arts Curriculum

Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Axis Mundi of the Universe

Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Axis Mundi of the Universe

Fragment of an anthropomorphic brazier. Aztec, ca. 1300. Fired clay and pigment, 18 x 22 x 9 cm. Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Arte, UNAM, Mexico City 08-741814. Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías

The great temple known as the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan symbolizes the axis mundi, the Aztec center of the world, where the sky, the earth, and the underworld met. According to Aztec worldview, the universe consisted of three layers. The middle layer was the earthly one, inhabited by humans. Above that world, the Aztecs imaged thirteen levels or heavens, Omeyocan, the “place of duality,” being the uppermost. Below the earthly layer, there were the nine levels of the underworld. The lowest of these was the realm of Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Land of the Dead.

Each of the four cardinal directions radiated out from the Templo Mayor and was associated with a deity, a bird, a color, and a glyph. The dual temple rose above all other buildings in the Sacred Precinct. The southern half was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, solar and war god, while the northern half was dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain, water, and the earth’s fertility. Together Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli encompass the natural and social universe of the Aztec empire. While Tlaloc was a god of earth and rain, Huitzilopochtli stood for the sun and the sky. Tlaloc marked the time of rains; Huitzilopochtli scorched the earth, with sun and war, in the dry months. Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli together represent the cycle of life and fertility, and mark the geographic, ritual, and symbolic heart of the universe, uniting old and new, center and periphery, in the sacred artificial mountain looming over the Aztec capital.


Fragment of an anthropomorphic brazier

The Aztec were known not only for their sculpture, but also for their expressive and sensitive poetry. The sculpture and poem below provide a glimpse into ways that the cycles of life were portrayed. Look carefully at the sculpture. The three faces represent the cycle of life. In the middle we can see the face of a young man, with all his teeth and wearing an ornament between the nose and upper lip. On either side are two halves of the face of an old, toothless man; these two faces are framed by the symmetrically divided face of a corpse with its eyes closed.

The thirteen decorative rings (four on the young man’s head, nine on the corpse’s) represent the parts of a calendar cycle.

Nezahualcoyotl, the poet-king of Texcoco writes:

I, Nezahualcoyotl, ask this:
Is it true one really lives on the earth?
Not forever on earth, only a little while here.
Though it be jade it falls apart, though it be gold it wears away,
Not forever on earth, only a little while here.


–Michael D. Coe, Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2002), fifth edition, p. 223.

Fragment of an anthropomorphic brazier. Aztec, ca. 1300. Fired clay and pigment, 18 x 22 x 9 cm. Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Arte, UNAM, Mexico City 08-741814. Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías

  • After reading the poem, describe its meaning in your own words.
  • What similarities can you find in the poem and the sculpture. What differences?
Fragment of an anthropomorphic brazier. Aztec, ca. 1300. Fired clay and pigment, 18 x 22 x 9 cm. Museo Universitario de Ciencias y Arte, UNAM, Mexico City 08-741814. Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías



The artist who made the Mask with Three Faces chose to represent the life cycle in three stages. How would you choose to portray the cycle of life? What phases of life would you include? Why?

Social Studies