Thursday, October 09, 2008

Calendar Stone Cake

I’ve always wanted to do a cake of the Calendar stone, which is actually the sacrificial stone of Motecuhzoma II, one of the last rulers of the Aztec Triple Alliance empire.

This cake is the latest in a string of Mesoamerican monument cakes undertaken here at Cake and Empire. It is also one of my most ambitious to date. Partly this is because the details are extremely unforgiving and there are many different levels of relief to evoke, as the image below can attest!

The stone itself is huge, spanning about 12 meters across. The skill of execution alone is breathtaking. The demonstration of obvious technical prowess combined with many levels of relief carving and a complex design but eye-pleasing design make it one of the most beautiful of the Aztec monuments. It was originally uncovered in the late 18th century in Mexico City (1790) which was built on top of the prehispanic capital of Tenochtitlan. It has been dubbed the Calendar stone because it depicts dates, including the twenty day month signs and the four previous “suns” or universes in the Aztec mythological cycle as represented by earth (jaguar), air, water, and fire. The present age is the fifth sun and is shown emerging from the underworld in the center of the stone.

According to the experts (in my case, Emily Umberger) the stone was probably painted but many mold castings later, the paint is only supposition, though based on known historical examples of painted monuments. She’s seen the stone up close and in person so she told me many details about it that I wouldn’t otherwise have known. For example, there is damage on the central part of the stone on the central “sun face” that isn’t due to taphonomic processes but rather to use wear most likely related to human sacrifice.

I attempted to portray the wear patterns in the cake design itself, as you can see below.

To those of raised in more antiseptic religious traditions that employ grape juice rather than real blood, use wear from religious sacrifice is a little unsettling. As a kid I used to wonder if real sacrifice rather than metaphoric made it more powerful or whether it would become routine like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. At any rate, we can be certain that it meant something significant to those who built and used these stones.
Of course, everything that is known about the stone and its original creators is complicated. Even the use of the term Aztec is fraught in academic circles, most people who use it now seem to have to engage in a lengthy aside as to what, precisely, they mean by it. Wiki has a decent entry here on the Aztecs that includes a bibliography for the interested reader.
Aside from the complex set of contexts and information attached to this monument in prehispanic times, and which remain rather obscure to me, its importance in modern Mexico interests me as well. It’s the most ubiquitous image of ancient Mexico and it is plastered on almost everything in modern Mexico as well. The Calendar stone really is used to as a representation of modern Mexico, it’s almost like a flag but better. Whatever its older meanings and usages, it has come to represent modern Mexico in a way that appears to crosscut any regional or ethnic identity. I think that is really what attracted me to attempting a cake representation.
I decided to make the scale one inch equals one meter, given the level of details in the piece. I used my favorite commercially available fondant, fondx to sculpt the different details. I did it piecemeal using the shapes of the glyphs to mold each piece separately to the right scale, figuring I could put them all together on the finished cake.

This time I wasn’t really able to make much use of any template cutouts from Emily’s drawing; instead, I had to really just use them as a sculpting guide because the level of relief and detail was too great. I think it *might* have helped if I’d been better able to recognize each of the representations of the iconographic items used. For example, the deer in the day month glyph boxes looked rather dog-like to me, so I just directly imitated what I saw from the drawing and picture rather than what I thought a deer should look like. My understanding from others with much more experience in epigraphy is that it is better to be completely familiar with the visual corpus prior to attempting what I did. Oh well.

The project turned out to be an incredibly labor intensive task, taking a total of 12 hours to finish sculpting each piece to the correct scale. Of course, it’s the most fun I’ve had with fondant in a while and it’s also the most elaborately constructed cake I’ve ever made for just me rather than for friends. I wasn’t as exacting as I could have been; there is definitely room for improvement on a future version!

For example, I left off the nemontoni (the unlucky extra days from a solar year) that were represented as glyphs right around the main sun face. I was tired at that point and I figured the missing tiny dots would go unnoticed (I figured incorrectly as it turns out). I also left out the bells that adorn the serpent figureheads that encircle the edge of the stone that probably represent the watery underworld (and would therefore perhaps have been painted turquoise). Funnily enough, no one noticed the missing bells. I think this is because the level of dimensional detail was sufficiently daunting that the eye overlooks it while the nemontoni really stood out on their own despite their tininess. Of course, I’d rather get every obsessive detail in, but I think in truth it would be slightly different each time I attempted it.

This time I felt a minor twinge while cutting the cake, almost as if I should have performed some other ceremony prior to its destruction and enjoyment. Something about the formality and obvious excessive labor of the cake combined with a group of people just standing around waiting to eat it may have lent to my wanting something more for a brief moment!