Iconography: Mesoamerican Iconography

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Each major Mesoamerican culture developed its religious imagery in a distinctive fashion, although all were historically interlinked and drew from the common pool of Mesoamerican stylistic-iconographic tradition. This type of pictorialization was especially important in an area cotradition that lacked fully evolved phonetic scripts. It constituted an effective technique of visually communicating in a standardized, codified manner the basic concepts of the religious-ritual systems that played such a crucial sociocultural role in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica.

Issues of Interpretation

The Mesoamerican iconographic systems that were functioning at the time of the Spanish conquest in the early sixteenth century can be interpreted with the aid of a broad range of data, including written sources compiled in Spanish and in the native languages. The iconographies of the earlier cultures must be studied without the assistance of texts of this type and pose much greater interpretative difficulties. The technique most often employed has been to invoke similarities between the Conquest period images, whose connotations are reasonably well understood from ethnohistorical information, and those of the earlier traditions, assigning to the latter generally similar meanings. This procedure, employing the elementary logic of working from the known to the unknown, is often referred to as the "direct historical approach" or "up-streaming."

This technique has been criticized, particularly when long temporal spans are involved. Disjunctions between form and meaning in religious imagery, it has been pointed out, have been common in iconographic history (above all in the Western tradition with the sharp ideological breaks that accompanied the rise of Christianity and Islam). However, those who sustain the validity of the direct historical approach argue that no major disjunctions of the type that occurred in the West took place in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. They cite various examples of imagic continuity from Olmec to Aztec and suggest that Mesoamerica can be more fitly compared to pre-Christian Egypt or to India and China, areas well known for their long-term iconographic continuities of form and meaning. These disagreements among leading scholars indicate that considerable caution is advisable when appraising the accuracy of interpretations of religious images and symbols of the more ancient Mesoamerican cultures.


Most archaeologists agree that the earliest sophisticated religious iconographic system in Mesoamerica was that of the Olmec, which flourished between about 1200 and 400 bce (Middle Preclassic), and was centered in the Gulf Coast region of eastern Veracruz and western Tabasco. Olmec style, which conveyed religious concepts imaginatively and effectively, was one of the most striking and original esthetic expressions ever achieved in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. Unfortunately, accurately ascertaining the connotations of the intricate Olmec symbol system presents formidable difficulties, and interpretations of prominent students often differ radically.

A major characteristic of Olmec iconography is the blending of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic features. Much of the controversy surrounding the interpretation of Olmec iconography has focused on these fused images, which often exhibit additional overtones of infantilism and dwarfism. The most popular interpretation has been that they merge feline with human characteristics, and the term were-jaguar has become fashionable to refer to them. Frequently cited in support of this interpretation are two well-known Olmec monumental sculptures from two small sites near the great Olmec center of San Lorenzo, Veracruz, that supposedly represent a jaguar copulating with a human female, thus producing a hybrid feline-human race, the "jaguar's children." In this view, the composite creature, connoting rain and terrestrial fertility, constituted the fundamental Olmec deity, the archetypical ancestor of all later Mesoamerican rain-and-fertility gods. However, another interpretation would give preeminence to crocodilian rather than feline imagery; the rattlesnake and the toad also have their vigorous proponents.

Other Olmec composite beings are recognized, but opinions differ concerning the precise zoological identification of their constituent elements. A considerable case has been presented for the importance of a polymorphic, essentially saurian creature with various aspects. Called the Olmec Dragon, it has been postulated as the ancestor of a variegated family of celestial and terrestrial monsters prominent in later Mesoamerican iconography.

To what extent Olmec religious imagery indicates the existence of discrete, individualized deities has also elicited considerable debate. Some scholars argue for a fairly sizable Olmec pantheon, often linking its members with prominent contact-period gods. Others view Olmec symbolism as connoting various generalized supernaturalistic concepts but not recognizable deitieswhich, in their opinion, did not emerge in Mesoamerica until much later. However, it seems likely that at least prototypical versions of various later deities were already being propitiated in "America's first civilization."


A series of closely interrelated stylistic and iconographic traditions known as "Izapan," after the major site of Izapa, Chiapas, Mexico, flourished between about 500 bce and 250 ce (Late Preclassic-Protoclassic) in the area flanking the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, concentrated in the Pacific slope region of Chiapas, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Izapan iconography bears a close relationship to Olmec, from which it partly derives, but its formats are generally somewhat more complex. The style is most typically expressed by low-relief carving, commonly on the perpendicular stone monuments known as stelae, which are sometimes fronted by plain or effigy "altars."

Izapan iconography frequently displays a narrative quality in its compositions, depicting a variety of ritual-mythic scenes, some of considerable complexity. These scenes are often framed by highly stylized celestial and terrestrial registers, interpreted as monster masks. As in Olmec, polymorphic creatures, ostensibly merging feline, saurian, and avian elements, are common. Even more than in the case of Olmec, identifying recognizable deities is difficult, but prominently featured in Izapan iconography is the profile mask of the "long-lipped dragon," depicted in numerous variants including the "scroll-eyed demon." Another significant Izapan composite creature was the "bi- and tricephalous monster," apparently with both celestial and terrestrial connotations. Also prominent on Izapan monuments are downward-flying, winged, anthropomorphic beings, downward-peering celestial faces, combat scenes (humanoid figures versus double-headed serpentine creatures), polymorphic bird monsters, cosmic trees with "dragon-head roots," and diminutive human ritual celebrants accompanied by various ritual paraphernalia. This region during the Late Preclassic and Protoclassic periods produced some of the most iconographically intriguing sculptures of Mesoamerica.

Classic Lowland Maya

The Izapan tradition led directly into the most sophisticated of all Mesoamerican iconographic and stylistic traditions, that of the Classic Lowland Maya (c. 25900 ce) As in the case of Izapan, which lies in its background, Maya art in general is essentially two-dimensional and painterly but is also more structured and mature in its expressive power than the earlier tradition. Nearly all of the most common Izapan iconographic themes were retained and often further elaborated. These included the bi- and tricephalous polymorphic celestial-terrestrial creature now frequently conceived as the "ceremonial bar" held by the rulers, the long-lipped dragon in numerous manifestations that eventually evolved into the long-nosed god of rain (Chac), celestial and terrestrial enclosing frames, cosmic trees, and avian composite creatures (serpent birds). Some deities that were clearly prototypical to those represented in the iconography of Postclassic Yucatán can be discerned in Maya religious art of the Classic period. Classic Maya stelaeaccurately dated, erected at fixed intervals, and containing long hieroglyphic textsdisplay profile and frontal portraits of the great Maya dynasts. Their elaborate costumes are replete with religious symbols that invested them with the aura of divinity.

A particularly complex Lowland Maya iconography is portrayed on Late Classic painted ceramic vessels usually encountered in burials. An extensive pantheon of underworld supernaturals is featured in these scenes. It has been suggested that they frequently display connections with the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh, the cosmogonical epic of the Quiché Maya of Highland Guatemala. The representations on these vessels were probably derived at least in part from painted screenfold paper books. Although no Classic period examples have been found, the surviving Postclassic specimens (known as Codex Dresden, Codex Paris, and Codex Madrid) provide some notion of the magnitude and importance of this lost Classic Maya "iconographic archive." The recent progress that has been made in the decipherment of Lowland Maya hieroglyphic writing has resulted in a considerably improved understanding of the meaning of the religious imagery so richly developed in this most spectacular of ancient New World cultures.

Monte AlbÁn

Another major Mesoamerican cultural tradition, connected in its origins with Olmec and having some Izapan ties, was that of Monte Albán, so named from the huge site near the modern city of Oaxaca. Already well developed in Late Preclassic times (Monte Albán I-II, c. 600 bce100 ce), its full flowering occurred during the Classic period (Monte Albán IIIab, c. 100700 ce). Monte Albán iconography is one of the richest and most structured in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. There is general agreement that a numerous pantheon of individualized deities was portrayed, especially in the famous funerary urns, theomorphic ceramic vessels placed in tombs. Many deities are identified by their "calendric names," the day in the 260-day divinatory cycle on which they were believed to have been born. Some can be tentatively connected with deities known to have been propitiated by the Zapotec-speakers who occupied most of the area around Monte Albán at the time of the Conquest, including the basic rain-and-fertility god, Cocijo. The walls of a few tombs at Monte Albán display painted images of deities or deity impersonators, some of them identical to those depicted on the ceramic urns. The hieroglyphic writing of Monte Albán is still poorly understood, but it has been of some aid in interpreting the iconography of one of the greatest of the Mesoamerican Classic civilizations.


Dominating the Classic period (c. 100750 ce) in central Mexicoand spreading its influence throughout Mesoamericawas the dynamic civilization of Teotihuacan, centered in the urban metropolis known by that name at the time of the Conquest and located about twenty-five miles northeast of Mexico City. Teotihuacan iconography, evidenced by a plethora of ceramic and stone pieces and numerous mural paintings, was one of the most intricate and variegated of ancient Mesoamerica. Symmetry and repetitiveness were hallmarks of Teotihuacan formats, which, particularly in the murals, include processions of ritual celebrants, frontal anthropomorphic and zoomorphic images flanked by profile figures, and complex scenes involving numerous personages engaged in a variety of activities. The dominant theme was clearly the promotion of fertility, featuring what appear to have been at least two major aspects of the preeminent rain-and-fertility deity that was prototypical to the Aztec Tlaloc. Aquatic and vegetational motifs are ubiquitous.

To what extent clear-cut deity representations are present in Teotihuacan iconography, as in the case of the earlier Mesoamerican traditions already discussed, has generated considerable differences of opinion. Various motif clusters have been defined, which some have suggested might have connoted distinct cults. Certain images have also been identified as discrete deities of the Aztec type, and they have often been labeled with Nahuatl names. They include Tlaloc, the rain-and-earth god; a female fertility deity who may be the prototype of various Aztec goddesses (Chalchiuhtlicue, Xochiquetzal, Teteoinnan, and others); an old fire god (Aztec Huehueteotl or Xiuhtecuhtli); the flayed god (Xipe Totec); a butterfly deity, the Fat God (possibly prototypical to Xochipilli/Macuilxochitl, the Aztec god of sensuality); and, perhaps, prototypes of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent creator-and-fertility god; Xolotl, god of monsters and twins; and Tecciztecatl, the male lunar deity. As in earlier and contemporary Mesoamerican traditions, composite zoomorphic images are another hallmark of Teotihuacán iconography. Some, such as the feathered serpent, may have served as the "disguises" or avatars of various deities, as in the Aztec system.

Classic Veracruz

During the Early Classic period (c. 100600 ce), after the fade-out of the Olmec tradition in the Gulf Coast region, a distinct regional stylistic and iconographic tradition emerged, climaxing during the Late Classic and Epiclassic periods (c. 600900 ce). It was best expressed at the major site of El Tajín, in northwest Veracruz, where a sophisticated style of relief carving, featuring double-outlined, interlocking scroll motifs, decorates a number of structures; these include the famous Pyramid of the Niches, two ball courts with friezes portraying complex sacrificial rituals connected with the ball game, and even more complicated ceremonial scenes on a series of column drums in the Building of the Columns.

The most famous exemplars of Classic Veracruz iconography are the handsomely carved stone objects worn by the ball players or replicas thereof: yokes (ballgame belts); hacha s, thin stone heads; and palma s, paddle-shaped stones, the latter two objects attached to the yokes worn by the players. Sculptured on these pieces are various anthropomorphic and zoomorphic beings, especially a monstrous creature probably symbolizing the earth. A major tradition of ceramic sculpture also flouished in this region during the Classic period. Some examples appear to represent deities that were prototypical to those of Postclassic times. They include the Old Fire God; versions of Tlaloc and long-lipped beings probably related to the iconographically similar Izapan and Maya rain-and-fertility deities; male and female figures wearing human skins, evidencing rituals similar to those of the Aztec fertility deities Xipe Totec and Tlazolteotl/Teteoinnan; the Fat God; perhaps a proto-Ehécatl (wind god); and a whole complex of smiling figures seemingly expressing aspects of a cult of sensualitypossibly involving the ritual ingestion of hallucinogenssimilar to that of Xochipilli/Macuilxochitl of later times. Complex ceremonial scenes are also represented on mold-pressed, relief-decorated ceramic bowls.


With its apparent floruit during the Epiclassic period (c. 750900 ce), the extensive hilltop site of Xochicalco flourished in what is now the state of Morelos, Mexico, and gave rise to another distinctive stylistic and iconographic tradition, mainly expressed in relief sculpture. The greatest amount of sculpture decorated one remarkable structure, the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. Aside from huge, undulating representations of the feathered serpent, various cross-legged seated personages, reflecting Lowland Maya stylistic influence, are depicted, many identified with their name signs and in some cases, seemingly, place signs as well. Calendric inscriptions are also present, and some scholars have suggested that the carvings may commemorate a major gathering of priests to discuss calendric reform and other ritual-religious matters. Another possibility is that this conclave involved some important dynastic event, perhaps a royal coronation. Other Xochicalco monuments, such as three elaborate stelae now in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, feature hieroglyphic inscriptions and different deities, including a version of the rain god, Tlaloc, and a fertility goddess.


At the outset of the Postclassic period a new political and cultural power arose north of the Basin of Mexico, at Tollan, modern Tula, in the state of Hidalgo. Flourishing between about 900 and 1200, Tollan was a major metropolis, capital of an extensive empire. Its stylistic and iconographic tradition was quite eclectic and represented an amalgam of various earlier traditions (Teotihuacan, Xochicalco, El Tajín, and others).

Toltec iconography is known primarily from relief sculpture, decorated ceramics, figurines, and some remarkable cliff paintings at Ixtapantongo, southwest of Tula in the Toluca Basin. The relief carvings frequently depict armed, elaborately attired personages on quadrangular pillars and, in processional files, on bench friezes. Some of these figures are identified with their name (or title) signs and seem to depict actual individuals. The militaristic flavor of Toltec imagery was also expressed by alternating representations of predatory animals and birds: jaguars, pumas, coyotes, eagles, and vultures. Recognizable deity depictions are rare in the reliefs but can be more readily identified in the ceramic figures and especially in the Ixtapantongo cliff paintings. Many appear to be prototypical forms of Aztec deities: Tlaloc, Quetzalcoatl, Xipe Totec, various fertility goddesses, pulque deities, solar and Venus gods, and others. Toltec iconography was particularly haunted by the feathered-serpent icon symbolizing Quetzalcoatl; the related "man-bird-jaguar-serpent" motif was also important.

Mixteca-Puebla and Aztec

During the Toltec period a new stylistic and iconographic tradition was apparently emerging to the southeast, centered in southern Puebla, Veracruz, and western Oaxaca (the Mixteca), which has been labeled "Mixteca-Puebla." During the Postclassic period its pervasive influence was felt throughout Mesoamerica, as a kind of final iconographic synthesis of the earlier traditions already described. In contrast to its predecessors, it was characterized by a greater depictive literalness, plus a particular emphasis on symbolic polychromy. An extensive pantheon of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic supernaturals was represented with relatively standardized identificatory insignia.

The Aztec sytlistic and iconographic tradition, which flourished in central Mexico during the last century or so before the Conquest, can be considered, from one aspect, a regional variant of Mixteca-Puebla. It differs principally in displaying an even greater naturalism in human and animal imagery. It also was expressed much more frequently in monumental three-dimensional stone sculpture, particularly deity images. Because of the wealth of available ethnohistorical documentation, the Aztec iconographic tradition can be interpreted with considerably more success than any other Mesoamerican system. Virtually all of its principal symbols have been correctly identified as well as the great majority of the numerous deity depictions, which include almost every member of the crowded pantheon mentioned in the primary sources. Those who advocate maximum utilization of the direct historical approach in the analysis of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican iconography stress the importance of this extensive corpus of information concerning the Aztec system as a key point of departure for interpreting the much less well-documented pre-Aztec traditions.

See Also

Aztec Religion; Maya Religion; Mesoamerican Religions, article on Mythic Themes; Olmec Religion; Temple, article on Mesoamerican Temples; Toltec Religion.


Acosta, Jorge R. "Interpretación de algunos de los datos obtenidos en Tula relativos a la epoca Tolteca." Revista mexicana de estudios antropológicos 14, pt. 2 (19561957): 75110. A useful, well-illustrated summary of the archaeological aspect of Toltec culture by the principal excavator of Tula. Includes some discussion of the iconography.

Caso, Alfonso. "Calendario y escritura en Xochicalco." Revista mexicana de estudios antropológicos 18 (1962): 4979. An important study of Xochicalco iconography, focusing on the hieroglyphic writing system and calendric inscriptions.

Caso, Alfonso. "Sculpture and Mural Painting of Oaxaca." In Handbook of Middle American Indians, edited by Robert Wauchope and Gordon R. Willey, vol. 3, pp. 849870. Austin, Tex., 1965. Well-illustrated discussion of Monte Albán iconography through sculpture and wall paintings.

Caso, Alfonso. "Dioses y signos teotihuacanos." In Teotihuacan: Onceava Mesa Redonda, Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología, pp. 249279. Mexico City, 1966. A broad survey of Teotihuacan iconography, extensively illustrated.

Caso, Alfonso, and Ignacio Bernal. Urnas de Oaxaca. Memorias del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, no. 2. Mexico City, 1952. The classic study of the effigy funerary urns of the Monte Albán tradition, illustrated with hundreds of photographs and drawings.

Coe, Michael D. The Maya Scribe and His World. New York, 1973. A beautifully illustrated catalog featuring principally Late Classic Lowland Maya painted ceramic vessels, with perceptive analyses of their complex iconographic formats and accompanying hieroglyphic texts.

Joralemon, Peter David. A Study of Olmec Iconography. Dumbarton Oaks Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, no. 7. Washington, D.C., 1971. The most comprehensive study of Olmec iconography, profusely illustrated by line drawings. Includes "A Dictionary of Olmec Motifs and Symbols."

Kampen, Michael Edwin. The Sculptures of El Tajín, Veracruz, Mexico. Gainesville, Fla., 1972. An important monograph describing and analyzing the sculptural art of the greatest of the Classic Veracruz sites. Includes a catalog of all known Tajín carvings, illustrated with excellent line drawings.

Kubler, George. The Iconography of the Art of Teotihaucan. Dumbarton Oaks Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, no. 4. Washington, D.C., 1967. Significant pioneer discussion and analysis of Teotihuacan iconography, utilizing a linguistic model requiring that "each form be examined for its grammatical function, whether noun, adjective, or verb." Includes a table of approximately one hundred Teotihuacan motifs and themes.

Kubler, George. Studies in Classic Maya Iconography. Memoirs of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, vol. 18. New Haven, 1969. Preliminary but broad-ranging consideration of Classic Lowland Maya iconography, with special attention to dynastic ceremonies, ritual images, and the "triadic sign."

Nicholson, H. B. "The Mixteca-Puebla Concept in Mesoamerican Archaeology: A Re-Examination." In Men and Cultures, edited by Anthony F. C. Wallace, pp. 612617. Philadelphia, 1960. Discusses and defines the Postclassic Mesoamerican Mixteca-Puebla stylistic and iconographic tradition conceptualized as a "horizon style," with some consideration of its origins and the mechanism of its diffusion.

Nicholson, H. B. "The Iconography of Classic Central Veracruz Ceramic Sculptures." In Ancient Art of Veracruz: An Exhibit Sponsored by the Ethnic Arts Council of Los Angeles, pp. 1317. Los Angeles, 1971. A concise discussion of the iconography of Classic Veracruz ceramic figures, with suggestions that some of them probably represent specific deities.

Nicholson, H. B. "The Late Pre-Hispanic Central Mexican (Aztec) Iconographic System." In The Iconography of Middle American Sculpture, pp. 7297. New York, 1973. Summary discussion of the iconographic system of Late Postclassic central Mexico, with specification of its leading diagnostics.

Parsons, Lee A. "Post-Olmec Stone Sculpture: The Olmec-Izapan Transition of the Southern Pacific Coast and Highlands." In The Olmec and Their Neighbors, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson, pp. 257288. Washington, D.C., 1981. Perceptive, well-illustrated discussion of the Izapan and related stylistic and iconographic traditions as manifested in the Pacific Slope region of Chiapas-Guatemala and adjacent highlands.

Quirarte, Jacinto. Izapan-Style Art: A Study of Its Form and Meaning. Dumbarton Oaks Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, no. 10. Washington, D.C., 1973. A significant pioneering attempt to define the leading formal and iconographic features of the Izapan stylistic and iconographic tradition; well illustrated with numerous line drawings.

Robicsek, Francis, and Donald M. Hales. The Maya Book of the Dead: The Ceramic Codex; The Corpus of Codex Style Ceramics of the Late Classic Period. Charlottesville, Va., 1981. Extensive album of photographs (including full-surface rollouts and color) of Late Classic Lowland Maya ceramic vessels with scenes and hieroglyphic texts related to the surviving ritual-divinatory paper screenfolds. Includes iconographic analysis and preliminary decipherment of the texts.

H. B. Nicholson (1987)