Gallery of reconstructed portraits

Created: 2003
Published: 2003
Modified: 2012

The reconstructed portrait of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin

Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin

In 1502 ce Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (*1467–†1520 ce, a.k.a. ‘Montezuma II’) was elected ‘great commander’ of Tenochtitlan by the Aztec imperial council and he accordingly obtained the honorary title ‘lord of the Colhua’. When the Spanish conquerors appeared in the coastal waters of Mexico, he was the main ruler of the Aztec Empire, which included several Mexican nations. Unlike the literal meaning of his name — ‘he who makes himself ruler by his rage, the honoured young one’ — would suggest, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin wasn't a forceful leader. He tried to prevent Spanish predominance by giving the conquerors a warm welcome. This approach didn't work. He allowed the Spaniards to take him hostage and he tolerated humiliation. As a result he lost the support of his subjects. Short after his death (it remains unclear who's responsible for the murder) Tenochtitlan was completely destroyed and the Aztec Empire came to an end. This tragic story is explained on the basis of Aztec sources by Van Zantwijk.

How should we picture the appearance of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin? Bernal Díaz del Castillo was one of the Spanish conquerors and he met Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin in person. He left us a (for that matter not very significant) description of a medium-sized, slender man, with half-long hair and a thin beard. A well-known oil painting by Antonio Rodríguez offers an unreliable image of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin. The portrait was painted almost two centuries after his death and the clothes were interpreted in a European way. The illustrations in the so-called Codex of Florence and Codex Mendoza were made by Aztecs (or rather ‘indigenous Mexicans’). Though they were made relatively soon after the Spanish conquest, it's clearly visible that these depictions too have already been influenced by European image culture. Nevertheless, all these sources are unambiguous about the (presumable) appearance of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin: he wore a ‘crown’ that was tied round the head and which had been provided with a point upwards at the front, a cloak that was tied on the shoulder and that reached beyond the knees, a loincloth, sandals, and jewels on the arms and legs. On some of the illustrations he's represented with a short beard.

Which style was generally accepted at the time of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin? Much of the pre-Spanish Aztec culture has been destroyed. Therefore, we must focus on the Mixtec handwritings from South Mexico. These can't be considered as representatives of the Aztec image culture for sure. It is plausible, however, that the style characteristics of the Mixtec handwritings were widespread in pre-Spanish Mexico. In the fifteenth century ce the Mixtecs were included in the Aztec Empire and many of the Mixtec image conventions are to be recognized in the Mexican codices from as late as the early Spanish period — in a more European form though (like in the Codex Mendoza). Even deep in the sixteenth century ce, in a single case (the Codex Selden), the pure Mixtec style was reused. The Mixtec style consists of stylized and standardized images. They are firm drawings with black lines and solid colour areas in a limited number of colours: mainly tints of ochre, completed with dark red, mint green and grey. Human figures are represented in side view and the faces don't show any individual features. The proportions of the human body are far from realistic and especially the head is too large. Perspective and depth are completely absent.

The following details were included in the reconstructed portrait. The pointed crown, knotted cloak, loincloth, and sandals appear on the images of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin in the Codex of Florence and Codex Mendoza. The decorations on the arms and legs and the ear jewel are visible on the painting by Antonio Rodríguez, but they are also customary in the Mixtec handwritings. The feather head ornament that has been tied in the hair is a detail that's so characteristic for the Mixtec style, it would be unnatural to leave it out — even though it isn't known from sources concerning Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin. The face is standard and impersonal, consistent with the Mixtec style. The only personal touch is the beard, which is mentioned by Bernal Díaz del Castillo and which is visible in both the Codex of Florence and Codex Mendoza. The official position of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin — ‘great commander’, huey tlatoani in Nahuatl — is expressed in two details. The talking cloud near the mouth, or ‘speech scroll’, like a question mark without its point, indicates human speech. At the same time this is a symbol for authority, as tlatoani literally means ‘he who speaks’. In addition, the hand that points down expresses an order or request, or the ability to order — i.e. authority. Both details are image conventions of the Mixtec handwritings. Finally, the reed mat on which Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin is standing was added to the reconstruction for decorative reasons only.

Do you have a suggestion or remark concerning this reconstruction? All comments are much appreciated.


  • Rudolf van Zantwijk, De oorlog tegen de goden. Azteekse kronieken over de Spaanse verovering (Amsterdam 1992 ce). This source book consists of reports and traditions, which were translated directly from Nahuatl into Dutch, with explanations.
  • Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España, trans. Margriet Muris and Marga Greuter (Amsterdam 1999 ce).
  • Antonio Rodríguez, portrait of Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, Italia: Firenze: Palazzo Pitti: Museo degli Argenti, 1890/5158 (México 1680–1691 ce). Though the artist appears to have been well informed about the Aztec fashion, the clothing and decorations were reproduced in a European way.
  • Codex of Florence (or ‘Codex Florentine’), Italia: Firenze: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Ms. Med. Pal. 220 (México ca. 1577 ce). This manuscript was written in Nahuatl, supplied with many illustrations, by order of the Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún by one or more indigenous Mexicans (presumably from Tlatelolco). Bernardino de Sahagún used the text for a Spanish adaptation — his book Historia de las Cosas de la Nueva España.
  • Codex Mendoza, Great Britain: Oxford: Bodleian Library, Ms. Arch. Selden A1 [Cat. 3134] (México 1535–1550 ce). This manuscript was made by order of the first Spanish vice-king of New Spain, Don Antonio de Mendoza, as a gift to King Charles V of Spain. The images were made by an indigenous Mexican. A Spanish clergyman possibly added the Spanish texts to the images. The manuscript is invaluable to the knowledge of Aztec culture.
  • Examples of Mixtec handwritings: The Mixtec manuscripts consist of long strips of deer leather or bark paper, which were folded harmonica-style. The images were painted on a thin ground of white plaster. Incidentally, it's illustrative of how the Mexican inheritance has been looted that all mentioned codices reside in Europe.

Alternatives for ‘Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin’: Montezuma / Moctezuma / Motecuzoma / Motecuhzoma — II / XocoyotzinMotecuzomatzin / Motecuhzomatzin — II / Xocoyotl.

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