Standard-Bearer, 1200–1519 AD
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
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Creating a Sculpture
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.
• Describe sculpture as art with the three dimensions of height, width, and depth.
• Recognize and describe realism and abstraction in art.
• Make one abstract and one realistic sculpture.
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.
- Look at this sculpture closely; note its height, width, depth, and weight (noted alongside the artwork’s title and material). What words would you use to describe it?
- In what ways is this sculpture stylized, and in what ways is it realistic?
- Closely look at the proportions of this figure. Do they reflect the proportions of a real-life human? What changes has the artist made to the proportions?
- Describe the surface and texture of the sculpture. What material might it be made of? How does the material affect the appearance of the sculpture?
- Observe the figure’s stance and the expression on his face. What might this pose communicate?
- How did the artist arrange this sculpture—the figure’s limbs, pedestal, and clothing—to create a sense of solidity and strength?
- Consider the function that this artwork played in Aztec culture: a symbolic guard for an important entry or passageway. How do the design choices the artist made reinforce this object’s function?
- Look closely at the figure’s dress, noting each garment and piece of jewelry that the artist has included. How would you describe them? Might they tell you anything about this figure?
- Why do you think the artists chose a stylized, geometric design rather than a naturalistic design?
- Imagine the potential symbolism of entering a new building, or passing from one building into another. What role might a standard-bearer have played in such an entrance or passage? Why might Aztec builders and artists have considered it important to have standard-bearers?
- This object, weighing over 200 pounds, was hand-carved out of volcanic rock, which was carried by laborers over land and water. What does this information tell you about the role of this object in Aztec society? Why do you think these laborers and artisans went to such lengths to obtain this unwieldy and sometimes dangerous material?
- Imagine this object in its original context, and compare it to the way it would look today, in a museum gallery. How might its impact change? Would it still lend a sense of strength and imposition?
• Teach students two simple methods of creating sculpture.
• Divide students into cooperative groups. Have each group develop two small sculptures, one that is abstract and one that is realistic.
• Compare and contrast finished works.
Resources Available to Order
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.