Nahua Art Theory


A Glimpse into 16th Century Nahua Art Theory

110124_nahua_codex_matritensisSince the majority of Indigenous Americans did not have writing before the 16th century, oral history, songs, dances, and visual art record precontact philosophies, history, and worldviews. In Mesoamerica, writing dates back 3,000 years, beginning with the Olmecs. Mayan, Mixtec, and Aztec peoples created vast libraries of books; however, many of these were burned by Spanish invaders. From the surviving manuscripts, or codices, we can glean a little of early Mesoamerican thought, including their views about art. Below are some excerpts from Nahuatl poetry recorded after Spanish contact.

Here through art I shall live forever…
A singer, from my heart I strew my songs
I carve a great stone, I paint thick wood
My song is in them…
I shall leave my song-image on earth
(Brotherston 160).

Toltecayootl a ycaya ninemiz ye nicã ayyo.
Ac ya nechcuiliz ac ye nohuan oyaz onicas a anniihcuihuana ayayyan cuica-nitl y yehetl y noxochiuh nõcuicayhuitequi on teixpã ayyo.
Hueyn tetl nictequin Tomahuac quahuitl nic ycuiloa yã cuicatl ytech aya oncan no mitoz in quemanõ in can niyaz nocuicamachio nicyacauhtiaz in tlpc (Bierhorst 220).

–Nahuatl poem (circa 1570)
Cantares Mexicanos, fol. 27r-27v
The Cantares Mexicanos is a collection of lyrical poetry from the courts of the Triple Alliance (Aztec). The manuscript is in the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de México in Mexico City. Approximately one and a half million people speak Nahuatl today.

The Artist

The artist: disciple, abundant, multiple, restless.
The true artist, capable, practicing, skillful;
maintains dialogue with his heart, meets things with his mind.

The true artist: draws out all from his heart;
works with delight, makes things with calm, with sagacity,
works like a true Toltec, composes his objects, works dexterously, invents; arranges material, adorns them, makes them adjust.

The carrion artist: works at random, sneers at the people,
makes things opaque, brushes across the surface of the face of things, works without care, defrauds people, is a thief.
-Nahuatl poem from the Codex Matritensis,
fol. 115 v. (208), ca. 1540—1585

Miguel León Portilla writes that artists had a central role in Mesoamerican society and “they had to learn to converse with their own hearts.” He writes that since the painters manifested sacred imagery into their artworks, they strove to become Yolteotl or “one with God in his heart” (Portilla 209). The above poem comes from the Codex Martritensis, also known as the Florentine Codex, which is a collection of a dozen books written between 1540 and 1585. Other Nahuatl poems from the Codex Matritensis describe jewelers and metalsmiths, stonemasons, textile artists, and potters. These poems juxtapose the habits of worthy artists with inept artists, described as “careless,” “greedy,” or “like a turkey with a shrouded heart” (208). In describing great artists, one such poem says, “The artists knew how to place them,/truly they put their deified heart into them./What they made was marvelous, precious/worthy of admiration” (211). —AM

  • Bierhorst, John. Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1985.
  • Brotherston, Gordon. Book of the Fourth World: Reading the Native Americas through their Literature. Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge, 1992.
  • Inman, Mason. “Oldest Writing in New World Discovered, Scientists Say.” National Geographic News. 14 September 2006. Web.
  • Portilla, Miguel León. Native Mesoamerican Spirituality, Ancient Myths, Discourses, Stories, Doctrines, Hymns, Poems from the Aztec, Yucatec, Quiche-Maya and Other Sacred Traditions. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.


  1. Some examples of words for “art” in Indigenous languages of the Americas:
    Cherokee: ᏗᏟᎶᏍᏙᏗ or ditlilosdodi = art
    Choctaw: tonkasali imponna = artist
    Cree: naspasinahikewin ᓇᐢᐸᓯᓇᐦᐃᑫᐃᐧᐣ = art ||
    Kalaallisut (Greenlandic Inukitut): Eqqumiitsuliorneq = art, lit. “to create something strange”
    Muscogee Creek: nakvhakv = art, nakvhayv = artist
    Nahuatl: tōltēcāyōtl = art, artworks
    Ojibwe, Minnesota: muzenebeëgawenene = artist/painter
    Quechua: kapchiy = art; sumaq kapchiy = visual arts

    • Early Maya, Mixtec, and Nahua codices were on amatl (also spelled amate) paper, made from fig bark and coated with lime. Post-contact codices were also on parchment (fine lambskin or other delicately processed hides). Amatl is enjoying great popularity today as an art support in Mexico.

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