T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 The Emperors’ Cloak

Codex Mendoza folio 108r

Codex Mendoza folio 108r

Codex Borbonicus folio 3 (detail)

Codex Borbonicus folio 3 (detail)

Much of the information available about Aztec culture is contained in pictorial codices – manuscripts containing pictographs and symbols. Although this was the system of writing used by the Aztecs, most of the codices existing today date from after the Spanish invasion, and include annotations or glosses in Spanish. Earlier documents were deliberately destroyed as part of suppressing the indigeneous culture, and in particular imposing Christianity on the local population. Many of the codices are available on line – in particular at http://www.famsi.org/research/graz/index.html and http://www.famsi.org/research/loubat/index.html and they are fascinating to peruse.
Codex Borbonicus folio 29 (detail)

Codex Borbonicus folio 29 (detail)

There are dangers however. As generally happens, the history is written by the victorious, for their own purposes, and could be selective, deliberately misleading, or simply misunderstanding the indigenous people. They are also subject to multiple modern interpretations.

Take for example the wonderful cloak seen in the image above left, from the Codex Mendoza. Patricia Rieff Anawalt wrote The emperors’ cloak: Aztec pomp, Toltec circumstances in 1990, investigating this image and others of possibly similar garments. A brief summary, illustrated by other codex pictographs (others I’ve found, not those used by Anawalt):

Codex Magliabechiano folio 087 (detail)

Codex Magliabechiano folio 087 (detail)

  • Aztec weavers could produce fine, highly coloured fabrics, lavishly decorated with feathers, precious metals and gems. The emperors’ cloak seems subdued and simple in comparison
  • Textile tributes were required of peoples conquered by the Aztec, and were used as gifts by the emperor. Analysis suggested the compact geographic distribution of tribute textile sources of the blue diaper pattern seen in the cloak aligned with the pre-Aztec kingdoms of Alcolhua and Tepanac, and before them the Toltec
  • Codex Borbonicus folio28 (detail)

    Codex Borbonicus folio28 (detail)

  • The Toltec were venerated by the Aztec, who required that their leaders demonstrate descent from that line. Wearing a design associated with the Toltec asserted the legitimacy of Aztec authority.
  • Based on the etymology of the design’s Nahuatl name, Anawalt determined that indigo dye was used, with knotting or tying resist techniques. A series of experiments by master dyers suggested a combination of beeswax resist with the knotting.
  • Additional symbolism in the design included the green blue of the indigo, a colour associated with the Toltec; the step fret layout, linking to sky/earth dualism; and a suggestion of snake or crocodile skin, and thus “Serpent Skirt” the goddess Coatlicue, in the diamond-dot pattern.
  • Codex Mendoza folio 110v (detail)

    Codex Mendoza folio 110v (detail)

    Anawalt’s experiments and conclusions appear plausible – but not to Carmen Aguilera, who published an alternative view in 1997. Aguilera also notes the fine textiles available to the Aztecs, including fine mantles and fabrics woven with multicoloured threads, and decorations using rabbit hair and feathers, and suggests the dyed cotton proposed by Anawalt would not fit with the status of an emperor. Aguilera interprets the Nahuatl name as turquoise tile mantle, and cites the 16th century description by Aernando Alvarado Tezozomoc of “the royal mantle as a netlike garment worked with stones”.

  • Mantles and hip cloths were worn tied around the body.
  • Codex Vaticanus 3738 folio 59r (detail)

    Codex Vaticanus 3738 folio 59r (detail)

  • Some documents imply designs would be produced as part of the weaving, not dyed later. (On that, I wonder about the possibilities ikat style work would offer – dyeing warp and weft with indigo prior to weaving)
  • Aguilera agrees the Aztec sought association with the Toltec. However she suggests the high status of turquoise and its use in mosaics make it more likely for use in the mantle that the different blue of indigo
  • Aguilera cites numerous texts and images to support her suggestions.
  • Sisal, hemp and agave rather than cotton are raised as possibilities, but Aguilera suggests maguey as the main fibre. Although often a fibre used in commoners’ clothing, it is also associated with warriors.
  • Codex Borbonicus folio 29 (detail)

    Codex Borbonicus folio 29 (detail)

  • The dotted grid seen could be interpreted as tiles or beads of turquoise pierced in the centre to allow for threading on the knotted net.
  • Some inconsistencies in the first image could be explained as a misunderstanding by scribe or artist.
  • Based on patterning of Emperor's cloak A3  Watercolours and collaged paper on white cartridge paper 110 gsm

    Based on patterning of Emperor’s cloak
    Watercolours and collaged paper on white cartridge paper 110 gsm

    There is a later paper by Anawalt in rebuttal, which I haven’t been able to access – but I don’t believe which interpretation is more correct matters for my purposes. I’m looking for inspiration, not to make a direct copy.

    So far the cloak has appeared a couple of times in my sketchbook work. However even more than fairly literal design interpretations, I’m interested in trying to find more personal or emotional connections. For example there are the ideas of clothing as expressing identity and status, and seeking connections in the past to understand and make sense of oneself and one’s place in the world in the present.

    Tissue paper, folded and dipped into blue ink, then mounted on cartridge paper and stamped. A3

    Tissue paper, folded and dipped into blue ink, then mounted on cartridge paper and stamped. A3


    Aguilera, C. (1997) “Of royal mantles and blue turquoise: the meaning of the Mexica emperor’s mantle” In Latin American Antiquity 8(1) pp. 3-19. [online] Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/971589 (Accessed 7-Nov-2014)

    Anawalt, PR (1990) “The Emperors’ cloak: Aztec pomp, Toltec circumstances” In American Antiquity 55 (2) pp. 291-307. [online] Available from http://www.jstor.org/stable/281648 (Accessed 7-Nov-2014)

    T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 The Emperors’ Cloak
    Textiles 1 – Exploring Ideas
    Part 1: Cultural fusions
    Project 1: Interpreting cultural sources
    Stage 1: Researching source material – Aztec culture
    The Emperors’ Cloak

    3 Responses to “T1-E1:P1-p1-s1 The Emperors’ Cloak”

    1. 1 Lyn November 17, 2014 at 11:23 pm

      Very interesting post, and your interpretations are quite nice! The tissue paper design would make for an eye-catching fabric, I could see pillows like that.

    2. 2 fibresofbeing November 18, 2014 at 5:32 am

      Thanks Lyn
      Hmm, I wonder if I dare attempt an indigo vat on my own.

    1. 1 Indigo vat continued | Fibres of Being Trackback on January 18, 2015 at 4:16 pm

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