Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler, British Museum, London

Sacrificial vessels, phallic daggers, nightmarish imagery the art of the Aztecs was meant to inspire terror

Prepare to be haunted by Moctezuma, the British Museum's scary autumnal blockbuster.

Approaching the show along a dark, narrow and claustrophobic corridor, we can already hear the sound of mournful winds blowing far beyond. But then, hung with extravagant flair at the top of a staircase, a full-length painting of the last elected Aztec emperor confronts us. He presents an exotic spectacle. Brandishing a feathered shield, a bejewelled lip-plug and ornate loin-cloth, Moctezuma II flaunts his physique like a poseur shamelessly addicted to fancy dress.

But don't be deceived into thinking that he was merely a playful show-off. His full name, Moctezuma Xocoyotzin, means "Angry Lord". Despite his love of gold bracelets and anklets festooned with dangling bells, he was a battle-hardened killer. Nor did he spare himself physical pain. Next to his outrageous portrait, painted by Antonio Rodriguez in the late 1680s, we find an ominous stone casket which may have contained the instruments Moctezuma employed to draw his own blood as a sacrifice to the gods.

During the 18 years of his reign, from 1502 until 1520, the emperor's ruthless military control over his subjects was underpinned by an ability to intercede with deities. According to sacred legend, the site of the Aztecs' capital city, Tenochtitlan, was chosen after a lethal struggle between their patron god and the deity's nephew, Copil. The battle only ended when Copil's heart was sliced out of his butchered body and thrown across Lake Tetzcoco to an island. There, on terrain now inhabited by Mexico City, the capital was founded around 1325 and swiftly expanded into a powerful metropolis.

Sacrificial rituals lay at the alarming centre of the culture developed by these people, who adopted the name "Mexica". And wherever we look, the British Museum's mesmerising show testifies to this remorseless obsession. A spectacular eagle vessel, carved from andesite stone, has suffered from damage inflicted on its fierce and frowning face. But the cavity in the eagle's body is still visible, enabling us to peer down into the place where the hearts of human captives were once held. They had been sacrificed to feed the Sun, and a dedication stone for the Great Temple is carved with the dynamic figures of Moctezuma's uncles, zealously piercing their ears with sharp bones to let blood flow into the toothed mouth of the stone, channelling it into the earth.

Fangs leapt out even from the sculpture installed in the emperor's own palace. Moctezuma, who had many wives and 19 children, built a colossal residence with volcanic stone hewn from the nearby mountain slopes. But he made sure that visitors to his grandiose residence felt terrified rather than welcomed. They were confronted by images as nightmarish as the feathered serpent, carved from a basalt block, who bares immense and rapacious teeth at everyone rash enough to gaze at him. Physical contact with Moctezuma was forbidden, and citizens were ordered to lower their eyes in his presence. Anybody who refused might well have ended up as one of the real skulls ranged in public display on racks around the Great Temple. These, alas, have not survived to appear at the British Museum.

Carved stone skulls, once covered in lime to make them look intimidatingly real, are included, however. Yet they are neither as skilfully wrought nor as inventive as the sculptural highlights here. One, a knife, takes the form of a crouching eagle warrior who clasps the phallic blade with the ardour of a lover. It is made with the same consummate panache as the alluring turquoise mosaic mask and double-headed serpent, both eager to devour Moctezuma's enemies.

Soon after Hernan Cortes and his well-armed Spanish troops arrived in 1519, the emperor was himself sacrificed. The circumstances of his death are still debated by scholars, but they all agree that his people were subsequently devastated by diseases such as smallpox, contracted from their Spanish conquerors. The final painted portrait of Moctezuma shows a dejected victim, utterly unlike the exuberant despot who greeted us with such a flourish at the entrance to this macabre, spellbinding survey.

To 24 Jan 2010. Information: 020-7323 8299

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test