The Aztec shield - The only surviving Mexica chimalli in Mexico

According to historical sources, the Aztec shield or chimalli, created in the 16th century, was a gift from the Mexica elite to Hernán Cortés.

The Aztec shield - The only surviving Mexica chimalli in Mexico
The Aztec shield or chimalli is preserved in the National Museum of History. Image: INAH

The Aztec shield or chimalli (in Nahuatl language) is one of the four shields of the XVI century that still exist in the world and the only one that is conserved in Mexico. The piece shows the sumptuousness with which the high Mexica military commanders were attired. This chimalli, which is part of the collections of the National Museum of History "Castillo de Chapultepec", is one of the four that are preserved in the world, the other three are in Europe: one is in Vienna, and the other two in Germany.

The buckler elaborated in the XVI century, around the time of the Contact, was made by the amantecas who worked the art of the pen. The sources refer that the shield was made with very luxurious materials in the Mesoamerican context, such as jaguar skin, gold leaf, and bird feathers of different shades, and it is believed that it was a gift from the Mexica elite to Hernán Cortés.

The design and richness of the chimalli was a primordial element in the military clothing of the Aztecs, it played a fundamental role in distinguishing military rank and its use was governed by laws that ensured order in the Aztec army. Once it was in Spanish hands, the piece was taken to Europe to demonstrate the treasures in the New World. The chimalli arrived in Brussels in 1519 and remained in the Palace of Arms until 1796 when it was transferred to Vienna, where it stayed for almost a century.

In 1865, Emperor Maximilian of Habsburg ordered to bring the coat of arms to be included in the collections of the Old National Museum, so in January 1866 it returned to Mexico. The Mexica coat of arms has several missing parts. The part of the feline skin was detached, as well as the gold leaf and the feathers. Although there is a record of these deteriorations since Maximilian sent for it, the missing gold was already registered in documents.

The piece is in a delicate state, due to the nature of the materials that constitute it, that is why it is not on display and is kept in the warehouses of the Chapultepec Castle. The shield was shown when it returned to Mexico, in the Old National Museum next to the Pilgrimage Strip and some codices.

On the constituent materials of the chimalli it has a base of reeds, which were interwoven by vegetal fibers, on that support it had the layer of feline skin, probably of jaguar, and part of a mosaic of feathers on a bed of cotton, besides applications of gold leaf, knotted feathers, a fringe and feather tassels.

The Mexica shield has an iconography represented with three inverted moons, one at the top and three at the bottom, a curved belt in feather mosaic, and knotted feather in the middle part.

The iconography of the chimalli was very popular and recognized among the Mesoamerican peoples during the last years of the Postclassic period (900 -1521 A.D.), as shown by the representations in the Codex Mendocino, in the Matrícula de Tributos, and the Lienzo de Tlaxcala.

The Aztec armor is a fundamental piece in the history of Mexico, not only for its aesthetic value and the technique with which it was made but also because it went through important periods of Mexican histories, such as the Conquest and the Second Empire, in addition to having been part of a nationalist discourse at the beginning of the 20th century, when it was exhibited in the Old National Museum.