Common colours in Aztec art

Written by james holloway | 13/05/2017
Common colours in Aztec art
This page from an Aztec codex shows the palace of emperor Moctezuma II. ( Images)

The Aztec or Mexica civilisation flourished in Central America from the 14th to 16th centuries. The Aztec Empire centred on a powerful alliance of city-states: Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City), Tlacopan and Texcoco. These three states dominated a large number of other towns and peoples until the empire was overthrown by the Spanish in the 16th century. Aztec art was diverse and technically sophisticated; it used a wide range of colours from different sources.


Common colours in Aztec art
This Aztec mask is made from tiny pieces of turquoise. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Turquoise, a blue-green mineral, was a major component of Aztec art, particularly mask-making. The stone had to be imported, either by trade or as part of tribute payments, since it is not common in the area around Tenochtitlan. Most of the turquoise used by the Aztecs probably came from western Mexico. The Aztecs thought of turquoise as being similar in colour to water, making it a particularly appropriate stone with which to honour Tlaloc, the god of rain.


Red features heavily in Aztec art. The best red dyes and pigments were manufactured from cochineal, a small insect that feeds on the prickly pear cactus. The Codex Mendoza records that Tenochtitlan received bags of cochineal as tribute from other city-states. After the fall of the Aztec Empire, the Spanish colonists profited by selling cochineal on the European market. While the temple of Tlaloc in Tenochtitlan is depicted in blue in Aztec art, the neighbouring temple of the god Huitzilopochtli is depicted in red.


Aztec art often makes use of strong contrasts between bright and dark colours. In sculpture and stonework, dark stones such as obsidian and lignite could be used to achieve this effect. Obsidian, a type of volcanic glass, was also used to make artefacts such as mirrors and knives. The British Museum houses a mask of the god Tezcatlipoca. Made from a human skull, the mask is decorated with alternating bands of turquoise and glossy black lignite.

Other colours

Brilliantly-coloured feather decoration was an important part of Aztec ceremonial costumes. Skilled artisans would create elaborate headdresses, cloaks and other items from the plumage of many different species. Quetzal plumes were used for their green colour, roseate spoonbill feathers for red and hummingbird feathers for turquoise. Pottery was another major Aztec artform. Most Aztec pottery was red and black, but the potters of the city of Cholula, near Puebla, produced vessels with elaborate multi-coloured decoration.

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