Standard-Bearer, 1200–1519 AD
Aztec
Igneous rock
Overall: 47 7/16 × 16 × 13 1/4 in., 221lb. (120.5 × 40.6 × 33.7 cm)
Gift of D. and J. de Menil

Habits of Mind

  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications
  • DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence

Studying Proportion

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Study proportion and abstraction in art.

•  Measure and record data about sizes of people and size relationships of individual body parts.

GRADE LEVEL

3

SUBJECT AREA

Math

HABITS OF MIND

Synthesize

Develop Grit

Connecting to the Work of Art

This sculpture is a standard-bearer, a guardian figure the Aztecs borrowed from the Toltecs, their predecessors in the Valley of Mexico.  Standard-bearers are seated or standing male figures carved fully in the round, meaning the figure has been carved from all points of view.  They originally flanked entrances and stairways and carried banners or standards in their hands.  This figure’s clothing and accessories are minimal: a loincloth tied in a stylized knot in front; large plaque-like ear ornaments; and a crescent nose ornament, representing the moon, which also covers the mouth.  This nose ornament, associated with the gods of pulque, a kind of beer, gives the standard-bearer the authority of the gods as well as of men.

 

This figure shows the formal simplicity of Aztec stone sculpture.  He stands rigidly frontal with his legs closely spaced and his arms held next to his torso, a block-like pose that recalls the shape of the stone from which he was carved.  A geometric solidity dominates the sculpture; there is no hint of movement.  This hardened, austere appearance is heightened further by the blank facial expression and the squat proportions of the figure, with his oversized feet and barely visible neck.  The figure was meant to keep his distance while asserting his presence, just as a proper guardian should.

 

This freestanding sculpture was carved from a single block of volcanic stone, a material common in the central highlands of Mexico that was often used for Aztec sculpture.  The stone was quarried, then transported by human labor over land and water.

 

The Aztecs were latecomers to the rich cultural heritage of central Mexico.  Formerly desert nomads, they settled in the Valley of Mexico by the early fourteenth century and assimilated most aspects, including artistic traditions, of the cultures they encountered.  When the Spaniards arrived in 1519, the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan had more than 250,000 residents and was larger, grander, and in many respects more sophisticated than most European capitals of the time.

Observations

  • Discuss sculpture as having three dimensions: height, width and volume.

  • What are the textures of the sculpture? What material do you think it is made of?

  • The artist made the sculpture of volcanic rock, which was available in the area. What effect does the use of this material have on the appearance of the sculpture? Do you think it is hard-edged or soft-edged or both?

  • Is the composition of the sculpture balanced and symmetric? Is it expressive? Point at elements that support your view.

  • Is this sculpture realistic or is it more stylized? What makes you say that?

  • What accessories can you spot on this figure? Do you think it is a man or a woman?

Interpretations

  • The figure seems to be holding a staff and wearing earrings and a nose ornament. What do you think is the use of those accessories? Do they tell us something about the status and wealth of this figure?

  • This figure’s clothing and accessories are minimal: a loincloth tied in a stylized knot in front, large plaque-like ear ornaments and a crescent nose ornament. Representing the moon, the nose ornament extends to cover the mouth. 

  • Do you think this sculpture is life-like? Why or why not?

  • The nose ornament, associated with the gods of pulque, a kind of beer, gives the figure the authority of the gods as well as of men. Given this information, what might have been this figure’s role in society?

  • This sculpture is a standard-bearer, a guardian figure the Aztecs borrowed from the Toltecs, their predecessors in the Valley of Mexico.  They originally flanked entrances and stairways and carried banners or standards in their hands. Explain how the use of hard volcanic rock supports the feeling of strength that this figure emanates. Are there any other details that convey a sense of strength? What about the position he is standing in?

  • Standard-bearers are seated or standing male figures carved fully in the round, meaning the figure has been carved from all points of view. Why would the artist have wanted to make a figure that is realistic? Think about the role the sculpture played in society.

  • How do the proportions in this sculpture contribute to our understanding of the work?

  • A geometric solidity dominates the sculpture; there is no hint of movement.  This hardened, austere appearance is heightened further by the blank facial expression and the squat proportions of the figure, with his oversized feet and barely visible neck.  The figure was meant to impose. Do you think this figure inspires awe and fear? Is your answer different when you think of its context then and now? Why could it be less imposing viewed in our own time?

Connecting to the Classroom

•  Describe the work of art

•  Discuss balance in the composition of the sculpture.

•  Discuss proportion in the sculpture.  What are the relationships of the individual parts to the whole?

•  How do the proportions in the sculpture contribute to the mood of the piece?

Assessment

•  Have students measure each other to determine heights and the sizes of different body parts in relation to the whole (head to total height, hand to arm, leg to total height, etc.).

•  Make charts or graphs to record the measurements.

•  Teach students to draw people, using a ten-point system that focuses on the relation of parts of the body.

•  Measure the completed drawing of a student, and compare to measurements of the student’s body.


The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.