Temple: Mesoamerican Temples

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The most common form of sanctuary in Mesoamerica is the temple-pyramid-plaza, that is, the peculiar combination of an elevated foundation, almost always artificially built, with a temple on the upper platform. Usually adjoining this unit at the base of the access staircase is a series of open spaces (plaza, esplanade, altar platform). This basic combination was perpetuated for over twenty-five centuries, with several constants that gave it relative coherence within an extremely varied panorama and allowed it to be integrated into larger and more complex architectural clusters.


The embryonic form of this temple combination can be found in the principal mounds built from compressed soil or from adobe (sun-dried brick) by the Olmec in areas around the Gulf of Mexico, such as San Lorenzo (in the present-day Mexican state of Veracruz) and La Venta (in Tabasco) between 1200 and 900 bce. Associated with a thrust toward monumentality that reflected the cultural vigor in Mesoamerica at the end of the Preclassic period (600 bce200 ce), the temple-pyramid-plaza soon spread to other regions. Thus, in the central plateau of Mexico we find, as antecedents to the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon in Teotihuacan, the large, elongated mounds of Totimehuacan (Puebla) and the superimposed circular platforms (150 meters in diameter) in Cuicuilco, in the southeast corner of the Valley of Mexico. In the northern part of Petén (Guatemala), in the heart of the Maya area, the massive pyramids of El Mirador, with their apexes emerging from the dense forest, foreshadow the great Maya temples of Tikal in the same region.

Together with this tendency toward monumental building there was a great preoccupation with architectural permanence. This concern was reflected in the emergence of large retaining walls for the compressed fill of earth and rubble. These walls constituted the solid nucleus of the pyramid, and their taluses tended to follow the natural sloping angle of the fill. The access staircase, generally the only one placed on the axis of the temple, was initially incorporated into the general mass of the pyramid itself. With the passing of time it tended to project outward, frequently bordered by two alfardas, or flat ramps, which in turn often projected slightly beyond the steps or, according to local or regional style, assumed more complex shapes. In the same manner, the sides of the pyramid could be decorated with large masks or other sculptures or ornamented rhythmically with moldings, notably variations on the talus panel (tablero-talud or talud-tablero, a panel, or tablero, usually framed with moldings, that projected from the slope). These architectural elements, together with the proportions, divisions, and other formal characteristics of the foundation, define the principal masses of the structure and highlight their respective horizontal or vertical features.

Finally, the temple itself, which usually occupies the upper platform of the pyramid, evolved from a simple hut to a more elaborate building made of masonry. Depending on the region, it was covered with a flat roof supported by wooden timbers and surrounded by low parapets or, as can be observed among the Maya, with vaulting made up of different types of projecting (corbeled) arches. Various types of panels, moldings, and sculptures enrich the temple silhouettes, which could be crowned with more or less massive roof combs, as in the case of Classical Maya architecture, or with sculptured finials distributed at regular intervals on the outside perimeter of the parapet in the style of a battlement. Such finials can be observed in the architectural tradition of Mexico's central plateau from the period of Teotihuacán until the Spanish conquest.


From the Spanish chroniclers of the sixteenth century we learn that in spite of the staircases, which were usually wide and well proportioned in relation to the whole (and independent of the scale, large or small, of the rooms inside), the sanctuary that usually topped each pyramid for the most part remained closed to the common mortal. This observation seems to indicate that, at least in its community aspects, worship was conducted outdoors, either on the upper platform of the pyramid in front of the main entrance to the sanctuary or, if there was one, on the altar platform in the center of the plaza located at the foot of the pyramid, where the congregation gathered.

Naturally, there are a few exceptional cases in which the pyramid was conceived without a temple. If in fact worship was essentially an outdoor activity, the interior space of the sanctuaries, relatively large in Mexico's central plateau, Oaxaca, and other regions of Mesoamerica, could be reduced to very small dimensions, apparently without undermining its sacred character. This is particularly evident in the Maya area, where the width of the interior spaces fluctuates on the average between three meters and seventy-five centimeters, as we can see when we compare, for example, a temple in Palenque, in southern Mexico, with one in Tikal. There are, however, extreme cases, such as Building A in Nakum (Petén), where the narrow chambers measure only fifty and forty-two centimeters in width (perhaps to function as a "loudspeaker" that dramatically amplified the voice of the priest). Such considerations likewise help to explain those full-scale simulated temples in the Rio Bec region of Campeche, which are sometimes crowned by two or three solid "towers." These towers, incorporated into the mass of a low, functional building, in turn constitute versions of compressed pyramids, complete with simulated staircases. This imitation of the temple-pyramid was not detrimental to the symbolic meaning of certain privileged parts of the building, such as the staircase, the sides of the tower, the main doorway (or its upper frieze alone), and the roof comb.

The primary function of the Mesoamerican pyramid was to elevate the temple; occasionally it served as a ruler's mausoleum (as in the outstanding example of Palenque). However, the pyramid could lack a temple altogether (as in the twin-pyramid complexes of Tikal), or it could have twin staircases leading to two clearly differentiated temples (as occurs during the last three centuries before the Spanish conquest).

The Mesoamerican tradition of not razing buildings to the foundation before undertaking new construction is fortunate for archaeology. As a result of much remodeling, expansion, and superimposing, which on occasion generated artificial acropolises (the particularly high and compact clusters of buildings that resulted from centuries of adding new layers of construction, as found at the North Acropolis of Tikal), the remains of temples, dismantled only to a certain height to become part of the fill for a new building, reappear bit by bit from their burial ground to tell us the history of their city, their gods, and their rulers. While the effigies of deities (as well as the sacrificial stone) speak to us about a place designed for rituals, other features, particularly among the Maya (where we find so many roof combs, stelae, and other dynastic records), suggest the self-glorification of a ruling prince.

See Also

Iconography, article on Mesoamerican Iconography; Pyramids, overview article.


Three general surveys with good photographs and an appreciation of architectural aesthetics may be recommended: Doris Heyden's and my Pre-Columbian Architecture of Mesomamerica (New York, 1975), Henri Stierlin's Maya (Fribourg, 1964), and Stierlin's Mexique ancien (Fribourg, 1967).

Paul Gendrop (1987)

Translated from Spanish by Gabriela Mahn