Aztec feathered headdress

Feathered headdress, Aztec, reproduction (National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City). Original: early 16th century, quetzal, cotinga, roseate spoonbill, piaya feathers, wood, fibers, amate paper, cotton, gold, and gilded brass, Aztec, Mexico, (World Museum, Vienna)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, looking at an amazingly beautiful feathered headdress.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:11] This is a replica of a feathered headdress that’s currently in a museum in Vienna, sent to Europe by Hernan Cortés, the Spanish conquistador, who defeated the Aztecs.

Dr. Harris: [0:20] Cortés comes in with his army of Spanish soldiers, conquers the Aztec people, and is overwhelmed by the beauty of much of what he sees, especially these feathered objects, and sends a lot of them back to Spain to Charles V.

[0:37] I can see why he would [laughs] send these objects back. There’s nothing like it in Spain that I can think of.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:44] Even though this is a replica, it gives us a really good sense of what some of these feather objects would have looked like. You have these stunning quetzal tail feathers, which only come from the male quetzal. We see so many of them, and usually the bird only has two, three, tail feathers.

[1:01] These come from a lot of different quetzals, a kind of bird that you find in Central America, places like Costa Rica. What this is speaking to is the long-distance trade that’s happening, as well as tribute items that are sent back to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.

Dr. Harris: [1:17] The Aztecs have an empire with lots of cities that they’ve conquered. What they exact from those cities is luxury goods, and that includes feathers, textiles, cacao, shells. They’re all coming to the capital of the empire, which is actually here, in what is present-day Mexico City, but was then Tenochtitlan. Did I say that right?

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:38] Almost, Tenochtitlan.

Dr. Harris: [1:40] The feathers, we have to imagine as part of an entire costume. In so much Aztec art, we see not only the feather headdress, but we see paper ornaments, we see other kinds of elaborate aspects of costume that were part of rituals, part of performances.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:57] Costume was incredibly important to the Aztecs, as it was to many Mesoamerican cultures. What’s unfortunate for us is we’re seeing this here as a static item.

[2:06] Imagine feathers, with this beautiful iridescence, shimmering in the light and moving with wind, and being danced and able to transform the ruler wearing this into something else entirely.

[2:19] If you see where you’re supposed to place this on top of your head, and then you see the extent to which the feathers radiate outwards, it’s almost like your identity becomes less important than what you’re wearing.

Dr. Harris: [2:30] You’re completely subsumed by this costume.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:33] Besides these gorgeous quetzal feathers, what we have here are pure gold ornaments as well as other colors of feathers like a beautiful turquoise blue.

Dr. Harris: [2:41] The people who made this lived in a special quarter of the capital.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:45] They were called, in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, “amanteca,” “feather-workers.” They were highly regarded. After the Spanish conquest, when people like Hernan Cortés, the Spanish conquistador, encountered objects like this, they were so impressed.

[3:02] This is actually a type of artistic production that doesn’t cease with the conquest, but what we do see is a shift in subject matter. Instead of, say, making ritual headdresses like this, we see objects that display Christian iconography.

[3:17] Very close to the feathered headdress here in the museum, we see a replica of a chalice cover that is made of feathers. If we’re looking at the subject matter, it looks very Aztec.

[3:28] We see water glyphs and what looks like a ray of fire and a strange kind of mouth, or symbols that are very unfamiliar to us in other words. This is the beginning of a reinterpretation of Christian iconography using Aztec glyphs.

Dr. Harris: [3:42] We have a coming together of these two cultures, a hybrid art form. A chalice is something that we see in Christian ritual. It’s the vessel that contained the wine that becomes the blood of Christ during mass.

[3:58] This coming together of these two very different cultures, but Aztec culture forced to become a Christian culture by the Spanish.

[4:06] [music]


This headdress is also called the Penacho of Moctezuma II. Moctezuma II’s headdress was first mentioned in a European inventory in 1596, when it was acquired by Austrian Archduke Ferdinand II von Tyrol. It was listed there as “a Moorish hat.” It was likely an object sent from Mesoamerica to Europe by Hernan Cortes, but it is unknown whether it actually belonged to Moctezuma II himself.

In the late nineteenth century, Austria established its first Museum of Natural HIstory, with geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter as its director. While searching for objects to display in the new museum, von Hochstetter found the headdress in Ambras Castle, Archduke Ferdinand’s former residence in Innsbruck, Austria. Since then, the headdress has been displayed in the ethnology museum in Vienna (now called the Weltmuseum Wien). In 2010, the Weltmuseum embarked on a restoration and research project on the headdress in conjunction with INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History).

Over the last century and a half, the headdress has become an important touchstone for Mexican national and indigenous identity, and many Mexicans think it should be returned. Representatives and activists from Mexico have continuously made requests for its repatriation, but despite a deal almost struck in 2011, the Austrian authorities have as yet refused to officially allow the loan or return of the headdress to Mexico, claiming that the trip across the Atlantic would be too risky for the fragile object. As art historian Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll writes,

Despite intensifying demands to repatriate the headdress from the 1980s, [the headdress] has remained a centerpiece in the modern museum….When I encountered [the headdress in Vienna] in 2012, after a major refurbishment project at the Museum für Völkerkunde and soon before the museum was renamed the Weltmuseum, the headdress was poised at an angle of 45 degrees in another new custom- built vitrine at the centre of a special exhibition titled Penacho: Pracht & Passion (Penacho: Glory & Passion). The exhibition, which granted free access to Mexican citizens and was accompanied by a Spanish version of the catalogue, focused on the art of museum conservation and studiously avoided any reference to the by-now vociferous repatriation lobby.

The replica of the headdress in Mexico City, which is featured in the video above, was created and installed in 1940.

Backstory by Dr. Naraelle Hohensee