Art History



Degree Name

Master of Arts in Art History (M.A.)

Type of Paper/Work

Qualifying paper


William L. Barnes

Second Advisor

Heather M. Shirey

Third Advisor

Victoria Young


In pre-Columbian Aztec art, depictions of fertility goddesses and supernaturals are often characterized by death imagery. This investigation explores the repeated co-occurrence of childbirth signifiers and death iconography in those depictions. The deities included in this research are named Cihuacoatl, Tlazolteotl, and Coatlicue. Also included are the female supernaturals known as the cihuateteo, and the tzitzimime. These goddesses and supernaturals are associated with childbirth through mythological narrative. Additionally, they are depicted with three major signifiers of childbirth, a parturition pose, pendulous breasts, and sagging flesh on the torso. The death iconography exhibited in their depictions includes skeletonization of the head or face, skulls and dismembered body parts displayed in costume and jewelry, and symbols of human sacrifice. This paper presents a comprehensive examination of these images through an iconographical analysis while utilizing a feminist methodology to establish the connection between fertility and death in the Aztec worldview. Ultimately, this connection is explored in relation to Aztec gender ideology in an effort to create a more nuanced understanding of the role of women and the way they were regarded in Aztec society. Here I argue that death iconography in female fertility imagery in Aztec art is symbolic of divine feminine power and evidence that Aztec gender ideology was based in complementarity rather than hierarchy.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.