Montezuma's headdress

Moctezuma's headdress is a featherwork headdress or military device (Nahuatl languages: quetzalāpanecayōtl [ketsalaːpaneˈkajoːtɬ]) which tradition holds belonged to Moctezuma II, the Aztec emperor at the time of the Spanish conquest. However, its provenance is uncertain,[2][better source needed] and even its identity as a headdress has been questioned.[3] It is made of quetzal and other feathers with sewn-on gold detailing. It is now in the Weltmuseum Wien, and is a source of dispute between Austria and Mexico, as no similar pieces remain in Mexico.

Moctezuma's headdress
Moctezuma's feather headdress, ca. 1515, Mexico; Weltmuseum, Vienna (3).jpg
MaterialFeathers of quetzal, Lovely cotinga, Roseate spoonbill, Piaya cayana, gold
Size116 cm (46 in) high, 175 cm (69 in) diameter
Present locationMuseum of Ethnology, Vienna, Austria
Late 17th-century portrayal of Moctezuma II, wearing a xiuhhuitzolli, which was the royal crown used by Mexica emperors.[1]


The feathers of the piece have deteriorated over the centuries. It is 116 cm (46 in) high and 175 cm (69 in) across and has the form of concentric layers of different colored feathers arranged in a semicircle. The smallest is made from blue feathers of the Cotinga amabilis (xiuhtōtōtl) with small plates of gold in the shapes of half moons. Behind this is a layer of Roseate spoonbill (tlāuhquechōlli) feathers, then small quetzal feathers, then a layer of white-tipped red-brown feathers of the squirrel cuckoo, Piaya cayana, with three bands of small gold plates, and finally two of 400 closely spaced quetzal tail feathers, some 55 cm (22 in) long. The quetzal feathers in the center of the headdress are raised relative to the sides. Leather straps attach the crown to the head of the wearer.

Depiction in Codex Cozcatzin of emperor Axayácatl wearing a battle standard and back device with a similar appearance to the apparent headdress.
Detail of Codex Borbonicus showing a dancer with a similar headdress during the festival of Xocotlhuetzi.

Though it likely served as a headdress, it has also been identified in other ways. As a headdress, its appearance matches that which is seen in contemporary Aztec codices being worn by priests during the festival of Xocotlhuetzi. However, its appearance also matches that of other kinds of objects also seen in contemporary depictions. In Codex Cozcatzin, emperor Axayácatl is depicted during the Battle of Tlatelolco wearing a quetzal-feathered battle standard and some sort of large device in the back, both of which have a similar appearance. In all situations, it appears that the object is associated with the deity Quetzalcoatl. Regardless, there is no direct edivence which suggests that it actually belonged to Moctezuma.[1]


Modern reproduction of Moctezuma's headdress, in the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City

Although attributed to Moctezuma and the Spanish conquest, the provenance of the piece is unattested, and it does not match Aztec illustrations of the headdress of their nobility. It became an object of interest to European researchers such as Ferdinand von Hochstetter and Eduard Seler at the end of the 19th century, and its identification as a quetzalapanecayotl is attributed to American anthropologist Zelia Nuttall.[4] It was restored in 1878, while still thought to be a mantle rather than a headdress. It is attested since 1575 in the collections of Archduke Ferdinand[5] in Ambras near Innsbruck, Austria. At the beginning of the 19th century it was deposited in the Museum of Ethnology (inventory number 10402VO) in Vienna along with other liturgical artifacts of Quetzalcoatl and Ehecatl.

Although artifact exchanges and restitution of the headdress were negotiated with the Mexican government, a bilateral expert commission deemed the artifact too fragile for transport and thus recommended its remaining in Vienna.[6]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Olko, Justyna (2014). Insignia of Rank in the Nahua World: From the Fifteenth to the Seventeenth Century. University Press of Colorado. pp. 37–38, 128–130, 181. ISBN 9781607322412.
  2. ^ González de Alba, Luis. "El penacho de un pobre diablo", en el periódico La Jornada, versión electrónica.
  3. ^ Rodríguez, Ana Mónica. "El penacho de Moctezuma es una capa de sacerdote, afirma un investigador", La Jornada, versión electrónica Archived 2009-06-08 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Zelia Nuttall:Sur le quetzal-apanecaiotl ou coiffure Mexicaine en plumes conservée à Vienne. En: Congrès International des Américanistes, Paris 1890. Paris 1892. S. 453-459
  5. ^ "Mexico and Austria in dispute over Aztec headdress". 22 November 2012. Archived from the original on 29 November 2014. Retrieved 24 November 2012.
  6. ^ Corona, Sonia (2014-07-02). "El frágil penacho de Moctezuma". El País (in Spanish). ISSN 1134-6582. Retrieved 2022-08-05.

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