Pre–Columbian Art of Mesoamerica

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Pre–Columbian Art of Mesoamerica

Mesoamerican art begins about 1500 bce, when permanent objects of great craft and skill begin to be imbued systematically with religious and other meanings by their makers. Before that time, craftsmen made finely honed tools and other utilitarian works that have endured, but their religious and ritualistic objects have perished. This era of the union of craft and meaning in enduring, nonperishable works is also the era in which the first civilizations of Mesoamerica arose, most notably the Olmecs of the Gulf Coast. By the end of the second millennium bce, the Olmecs (a modern name; their name for themselves is lost forever), probably in pursuit of hard stones like jade for making sacred objects, had established trade routes that reached from modern Guatemala and Honduras to the Mexican states of Morelos and Guerrero. Roughly extending from fourteen to twenty-one degrees north latitude, and excluding the Caribbean islands, this region is called Mesoamerica (Middle America), and from about 1500 bce until the Spanish Conquest in 1521, it was an area of some cultural unity, sharing concepts of religion, the calendar, and cultural practices, such as the ballgame. Dramatically different art styles emerged, however, at different times and places.


The Olmec (ca. 1500 bce–ca. 400 bce) built sacred centers along the swampy rivers of the Gulf Coast. At both San Lorenzo and La Venta in southeastern Mexico, millions of cubic feet of earth were formed into earthworks. La Venta exhibits the first known Mesoamerican pyramid, and its shape, a fluted cupcake, suggests derivation from the volcanoes of Central Mexico. Although radiocarbon dating has shown San Lorenzo to have been destroyed before the rise of La Venta, these and other centers of Olmec culture share forms and materials, including colossal portrait heads of their early rulers and altarlike thrones of imported basalt. Without obvious prototypes, the Olmec achieved the most naturalistic and plastic forms found in the New World, including basalt carvings of the human form (for example, the "Wrestler," ca. 800 bce) and fine kaolin "hollow baby" sculptures.


Both provincial and idiosyncratic styles merged in the highlands of West and Central Mexico and treated the human form, particularly in the ceramics of Tlatilco and Xochipala.

West Mexican Cultures

From about 200 bce until about 500 ce, peoples in West Mexico made monumental architecture and buried their dead in underground shaft tombs, following patterns that seem to be somewhat distinct from the rest of Mesoamerica. The Nayarit, Colima, and Jalisco traditions are best known through their hollow clay tomb sculptures: animated groupings of figures from Nayarit; hollow dogs and parrot vessels from Colima; and warriors with clubs from Jalisco.

Central Mexican Cultures

At the end of the first millennium bce, new civilizations emerged in Central Mexico, in the Maya region, Oaxaca, and the Gulf Coast; their florescence in the first millennium ce is generally known as the Classic period. In central Mexico, the greatest city of its day arose at Teotihuacán, peaking in the fifth century with a population of about 250,000. The city plan focused on two colossal structures completed by about 200 ce, the pyramids of the Sun and Moon, and followed by a rigid grid that encompassed all constructions, sacred, civil, or domestic. Religious buildings generally have alternating vertical and sloping planes called talud-tablero, but buildings of all sorts, including those with elaborate architectural ornament, were painted with brilliant stucco pigments, some with freehand images and others laid out with a template. Featured are devotional images of major deities, especially Tlaloc, god of rain, agriculture, and war, and the great goddess, Spider Woman; these gods are also the subjects of the few surviving stone sculptures.

Teotihuacán artisans fashioned vast quantities of figurines, initially by hand, and then later in molds. They exported these and cylinder tripod vessels to the rest of Mesoamerica. Teotihuacán's decline and eventual demise, 650–800 ce, may have disrupted Mesoamerica, leading to the end of the Classic period.



In Oaxaca, the Zapotecs made hilltop Monte Albán their capital and, in front of their buildings, set up two-dimensional reliefs of rulers and their conquests. Three-dimensional figures attached to urns accompanied the noble dead into richly painted tombs set under palaces. Although the Totonacs dominated the Gulf Coast, El Tajín was probably built by the Huaxtecs. To the south, the Totonacs made life-size hollow ceramic sculptures of gods and humans, and the Aztecs later adopted the art.

Maya Region

In the Maya region, both in the lowlands, at El Mirador and Cerros, and in the highlands, at Kaminaljuyú, Abaj Takalik, and Izapa (ca. 200 bce–250 ce), experiments in art, writing, and architecture led to uniform practices in the Classic (250–900 ce) at dozens of lowland sites. Highland stone stelae pictured rulers and gods and used a writing system to record names and dates. At lowland sites, each setback of pyramids was faced with a giant stucco mask.

At Tikal, carved stelae with flat, linear images of rulers covered with ritual paraphernalia and accompanied by dates counted from a base date that can be correlated to the European calendar, were erected before 300 ce. By 550, the end of the Early Classic, such monuments had been set up at Uaxactun, Copán, Yaxchilán, Caracol, and other sites. The union of ruler portraiture and glyphic historical narrative was unique to the Classic Maya. In a script that represents both the sounds and syntax of languages, these texts illuminate Maya art from a Maya point of view. Large structures housed royal tombs, shrines for ancestor worship. At both Tikal and Río Azul, monochromatic paintings in red or black covered tomb walls, some with death dates and others with iconography of the underworld. Kings took rich offerings to the grave, including pots, jade masks and jewelry, sacrificial victims, perishable foodstuffs, and cloth. Stone ballcourts were included on most city plans.

During the fourth and fifth centuries, weaponry, fashions, and goods from distant Teotihuacán affected the Maya. Traditional quadrupod and basal-flanged bowls gave way to cylinder tripods on which the Maya began to paint narrative scenes in bright stucco or earth-toned slips.

Widespread sixth-century warfare hindered the development of Maya art, but in the seventh century, city-states flourished. At Palenque, King Pacal the Great initiated interior wall sculpture with multifigural compositions. Before his death, he built the nine-level Temple of Inscriptions for his own memorial, and an interior staircase leads to his tomb. At Copán and Quirigua, seventh- and eighth-century sculptures featured high relief, and portraits of Copán king 18 Rabbit achieve a plastic three-dimensionality. Tikal stone sculpture followed established canons, but the carved wooden lintels of funerary temples bear innovative imagery. Under kings Shield-Jaguar and Bird-Jaguar, Yaxchilán favored lintels recording marriage, bloodletting, and warfare. To the north, King Chaac erected palaces at Uxmal with elegant proportions. At Bonampak, a complete program of paintings treats warfare, bloodletting, and dynastic succession; in subject and style it relates closely to contemporary paintings at Cacaxtla in Central Mexico, which in turn shared an eclectic style with Xochicalco and Seibal. Generally, Mayan art has a changing and individual style. The uniqueness of Mayan art reflects how various Mayan kings looked for new symbols to project power. In the ninth century, most Classic cities were abandoned.

About 900, at both Tula (in Hidalgo) and Chichén Itzá (in Yucatán) new art forms emerged, including chacmool statues, atlantean supports, and serpent columns. Metallurgy arrived in Mesoamerica, and the Chichén Sacred Well (a natural sinkhole) received gold-disk offerings with repoussé designs. Colonnades flank many civil structures; at Chichén Itzá, a stone skull rack adjoins the largest ballcourt in Mesoamerica. Elaborate paintings at Chichén detail massive warfare, perhaps waged by a Toltec and Chichén alliance. Together, these two cities dominated all of Mesoamerica, and along their axis, both Toltec and Mayan iconography and ideology were shared and diffused until these cities were abandoned in the twelfth century. Poorly made architecture characterizes later architecture at Mayapan and Tulúm.


In Central Mexico, the Aztecs founded their island capital, Tenochtitlán, in about 1345. Politically and economically imperialistic, they dominated much of Mesoamerica at the time of the Spanish Conquest, and their wealth supported Tenochtitlán's development as a sacred center where architecture and sculpture replicated the cosmos and the gods. Dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec sun god, and to Tlaloc, the main dual pyramid, or Templo Mayor, faced a round temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent creator and wind god. The Aztec placed three-dimensional basalt sculptures inside religious architecture, including the beheaded Coatlicue with her necklace of hearts and hands. Round two-dimensional stones such as the dismembered Coyolxauhqui, sister of Huitzilopochtli, and the great Calendar stone recording the ages of humanity's destruction were placed flat on the ground or on the surface of a temple. At the same time, simple vegetal and animal forms were formed from hard, semiprecious stones. Aztec nobility dwelt near the sacred precinct in multistoried palaces. Canals replaced streets, and aqueducts brought fresh water from the mainland. Ruler portraits were carved into live rock at nearby Chapultepec, and pools and temples were formed of the live rock of mountains surrounding the Valley of Mexico.

Like most Mesoamericans, the Aztecs had quantities of screenfold genealogies, histories, and religious and divinatory texts. Some skilled scribes may have been foreigners, Mixtecs from Oaxaca, who also practiced metallurgy and featherwork in Tenochtitlán. Little Aztec gold survives, but Mixtec gold from a Monte Albán tomb reveals the skill in lost wax and filigree that the Aztecs admired. Aztec and Mixtec tlacuilos also produced pictorials, which have been used to understand their concepts of history and writing.

Within a generation of the Spanish Conquest in 1521, little art in the pre-Columbian tradition was being made. The Spanish sought native tribute lists, histories, and maps of New Spain through the 1580s, some still created in the Nahua or a hybrid style, but by 1600, the elite tradition of native art and architecture had ceased in Mesoamerica.


Miguel Covarrubias, Indian Art of Mexico and Central America (1957).

Michael D. Coe, America's First Civilization: Discovering the Olmec (1968).

Richard F. Townsend, State and Cosmos in the Art of Tenochtitlán (1979).

Esther Pasztory, Aztec Art (1983).

George Kubler, The Art of Ancient America, 3d ed. (1984).

Mary Ellen Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica (1986).

Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art (1986).

Michael D. Coe, The Maya, 4th ed. (1987).

Michael Kan, Clement Meighan, and H. B. Nicholson, Sculpture of Ancient West Mexico: Nayarit, Jalisco, Colima (1989).

Linda Schele and David Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Boone, Elizabeth Hil. Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

Clark, John E., and Mary E. Pye, eds. Olmec Art and Archaeology in Mesoamerica. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

de la Fuente, Beatriz. Pre-Columbian Painting: Murals of Mesoamerica. Milan: Jaca Books, 1999.

Guernsey, Julia. Ritual and Power in Stone: The Performance of Rulership in Mesoamerican Izapan Style Art. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.

Milbrath, Susan. Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Miller, Mary Ellen. Maya Art and Architecture. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999.

Pasztory, Esther. Pre-Columbian Art. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

                                    Mary Ellen Miller