The power of feathers

How do you think what this object was made of? To make it a bit easier, this is an Aztec shield made at the beginning of the 16th century. The colorful creature is identified as a coyote, a guardian animal of Aztec warriors. Others believe that this is the representation of the Ahuitzotla aquatic monster. Hence the supposition that the shield belonged to the ruler with the same name. That is the last ruler who governed in the area of ​​present-day Mexico before the invasion of Europeans.

But what is this extremely colorful shield made of?

Aztec feathered shield with a blue creature
Aztec shield, ca. 1500, Weltmuseum, Vienna

Well, on a woven support the glued feathers create this unusual composition. The artist used this arrangement to make use of the feathers of a cotinga, scarlet macaw, yellow oriole and quetzal. In addition, he used fur to frame the shield and more feathers to make hanging fringes. To emphasize the meaning of the figure, the coyote and the symbol for war (spilling from his mouth) are lined with gold threads.

Nowadays, shield is displayed at the Viennese Weltmuseum. However, it belongs to the collection from the Ambras castle, where the Habsburgs have gathered a collection of curiosities aka kunstkamer. The item probably belonged to the “souvenirs” brought by Hernán Cortés as a gift to the Emperor Charles V. When Cortés arrived in 1519 to the capital of the Aztec empire (today Mexico), he considered it to be the most magnificent city in the world. One of the wonders of this new world were aviaries.

Young man wearing feather skirt and a shield
European artists tried to depict the Aztecs basing on the artifacts brought to Europe and descriptions of the travelers.
Hans Burgkmair the elder, Young man wearing feathers and a shield, 1520-1530, British Museum, London

The birds were kept in a building that almost like the royal palace. They were dozens of courtyards, balconies, gardens and ten artificial swimming pools – with fresh and salt water. Herds were looked after by 300 guardians, including veterinarians. Aviaries provided feathers in all possible colors for the needs of court craftsmen. They performed for Montezuma, the ruler of the Aztecs, multicolored plumes, capes, tapestries and other garments. The Europeans were amazed to discover that these feathered creations were equally, if not more beautiful than old world’s embroidered ornaments.

two Aztecs in feather coats
The Aztecs brought to Europe, Christoph Weiditz, Trachtenbuch, 1529, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Hs. 22474

Creating such an item requires extraordinary artistic and craft skills. The technique of building an image of colored feathers shows how closely art is related to the environment in which it arises. Just as artists from Europe and Asia collected precious pigments and obtained plant dyes, so the Mesoamerican artists collected colorful feathers to use them to compose colorful works. They all looked at what was available to use in the creation process. The correctness of their choices is evidenced by the still vivid hues of chimalli shields (this one), medieval altars or paintings on silk from the Ming dynasty.

I partially used the book by Thor Hanson, Pióra. Ewolucja cudu natury [Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle], Łódź 2019.

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