History of Mesoamerica Art

Cultures of Mesoamerica

Mesoamerica was dominated by three cultures in the Pre-Classical (up to 200 CE) to Post-Classical periods (around 1580 CE): the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec.

Things to know about Mesoamerica Art

  • The Olmec individuals are known for uncommonly detailed jade figurines and colossal heads of rulers made of basalt.
  • Mayan culture accomplished a propelled arrangement of hieroglyphic writing, a modern calendar, and a beneficial system of art patronage.
  • The Mayan civilization rose rapidly. Although a lot of its art was lost to the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth century, many stone and wood sculptures that confirm the Mayan’s distinctive religious beliefs still survive.

Key terms

  • Stelae: Upright stone slabs or column commonly was bearing a memorial engraving or relief design, regularly filling in as gravestone. (Solitary: stela)
  • Jade: An ornamental rock with green and blue properties.
  • Mesoamerica: A pre-Columbian cultural region reaching out from the southern part of Mexico to a region that involves a few parts of the countries of Central America.
  • Hieroglyphic: A kind of writing comprising of hieroglyphs, a generally pictorial character of the Ancient Egyptian writing system.

Mesoamerica is a region in the Americas that reaches out from central Mexico to northern Costa Rica. Three cultures dominated the pre-Columbian history of Mesoamerica: the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations.

Olmec Culture

The Olmec civilization, which prospered from 1200–400 BCE, defines the Pre-Classical period; the Olmecs are commonly viewed as the forerunner of all Mesoamerica cultures including the Maya and Aztecs. Basically focused in the modern states of Tabasco and Veracruz in the Gulf of Mexico, the Olmec people are known for making a bounty of little and exceptionally detailed jade figurines. The figurines ordinarily display complex shapes, for example, human figures, human-animal composites of gods and divine beings, and animals like cats and birds. In spite of the fact that we don’t have the foggiest idea about the particular reason for these jade objects, their presence in some Olmec graves proposes they served a religious purpose notwithstanding being signs of riches and goods for trade.

Olmec jade figurine: Small holes were drilled around the edges so that this figurine could be worn on the body with twine.

The Olmec are likewise known for building massive stone sculptures, huge numbers of which were found at La Venta in the modern Mexican territory of Tabasco. Produced using basalt rock from the Tuxtla Mountains toward the north, the Olmec used this rock to make alters, stelae, and colossal heads. Each head is rendered as an unmistakable individual and is thought to resemble an Olmec ruler. Every ruler’s character is represented in the particular headdresses that decorate the sculptures’ heads.

Olmec Colossal Head: Heads made from basalt boulders weighed anywhere between 6 and 50 tons.
Olmec Colossal Head: Heads made from basalt boulders weighed anywhere between 6 and 50 tons.

Mayan Culture

Mayan culture peaked during the Classical time frame (ca. 200–900 CE) and included complex organization of huge agricultural communities controlled by monarchs. They build monumental pyramids, sanctuaries, royal residences, and administrative structures in densely populated cities in southern Mesoamerica. The Maya had the most developed hieroglyphic writing in Mesoamerica and the most advanced calendrical system. In Mayan culture, we likewise see one of the earliest systems of art patronage. Kings and queens employed full-time artist in their courts, a large number of whom signed their work. It’s consequently obvious that the most well-known motifs in Mayan art are mortal rulers and supernatural beings.

Mayan relief sculpture from Palenque, Mexico: The Mayans were among the most advanced cultures of Mesoamerica. Most of their art represents of mortal rulers or mythic deities.
Mayan relief sculpture from Palenque, Mexico: The Mayans were among the most advanced cultures of Mesoamerica. Most of their art represents of mortal rulers or mythic deities.

In Palenque, Mexico (a prominent Mayan city in the Classical period), the ruler Lord Pakal commissioned a gathering of enormous structures that remains on high ground in the town. One of those building, the Temple of the Inscriptions, is a nine-level pyramid that is 75 feet high. The layers of the structure most likely reflect the Mayan conviction that the underworld had nine levels. Engravings line the back wall of the temple, giving the building its name.

Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico: The Temple is one of four structures commissioned by the Maya ruler Lord Pakal.
Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico: The Temple is one of four structures commissioned by the Maya ruler Lord Pakal.

Aztec Culture

Mayan civilization was in decrease when of the Spanish Conquest in the early sixteenth century, and by then the Aztecs controlled quite a bit of Mexico. The rise of the Aztec was speedy. When a migratory people, they showed up in the Basin of Mexico in the 13th century where they in the end settled on an island in Lake Texcoco; they called their new home Tenochtitlan. In just a couple of centuries, the Aztecs forcefully expanded their territory and changed Tenochtitlan into a capital so fabulous that the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes commented on its beauty on the way to attack the city in November 1519.

Metalwork was a specific skill of the Aztecs. Sadly, not very many examples of their trademark little gold and silver objects endure. At the point when the Spanish arrived, most were dissolved down for cash. Stone sculpture and wood figurine fared much better during the Conquest. Aztec sculpture, a large portion of which appeared as human figures carved from stone and wood, were not religious idol as one would suspect. Rather than containing the spirit of a god, stupendous sculptures were made to “feed” the gods with blood and valuable objects so as to keep the gods, who lived somewhere else in the temples, happy. These sculptures are the wellspring of stories told by Spanish conquistadors of huge sculptures splattered with blood and encrusted with jewels and gold.

15th century CE vase representing Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, storms and agriculture : The vase is from the glittering Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.
15th century CE vase representing Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, storms and agriculture : The vase is from the glittering Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.

Colossal Heads of the Olmec

The Olmec culture of the Gulf Coast of Mexico delivered the first significant Mesoamerican art and is especially known for the creation of colossal stone heads.

Things to know about the Colossal Heads of the Olmec

  • The Olmec constructed enormous cities with ceremonial centers. They likewise made little sculpture and figurine from numerous sorts of material. Using immense basalt boulders transported from mountains in another region, the Olmec created in at least 17 sculptures of human heads.
  • The landmarks are thought to represent to Olmec rulers in view of their unmistakable facial highlights and adornment.
  • The heads date from between of 1500 and 400 BCE.
  • The main case of a colossal head found in a region outside the Olmec’s space is at Takalik Abaj in Guatemala.

Key terms

  • Olmec: Ancient pre-Columbian individuals living in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in generally the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco.
  • Ears pools: Cylindrical earrings that pierce the earlobe.
  • Pre classic period: Also known as the Formative period, dating generally from as early as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE.

The First Major Mesoamerican Art

The art of the Olmec, which rose during the pre-classic period along the Gulf of Mexico, was the main significant Mesoamerican art. Over the swampy coastal areas of the modern Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco, the Olmec constructed ceremonial centers on raised earth hills. These centers were filled up with objects produced using materials including jade, clay, basalt, and greenstone. The majority of these objects were figurines or sculpture that looked like both human and animal subjects.

Fish Vessel, 12th–9th century BCE: Olmec art frequently featured animal as well as human subjects.
Fish Vessel, 12th–9th century BCE: Olmec art frequently featured animal as well as human subjects.

While Olmec figurines are found richly in sites all through the Formative period, fantastic works of basalt sculpture, including colossal heads, alter, and seated figures are the most unmistakable component of this culture. The immense basalt rocks for the huge sculptures were quarried at far off destinations and transported to Olmec centers, for example, San Lorenzo and La Venta. The colossal heads run in range from 5 to 12 feet and depict adult males wearing close-fitting caps with chin straps and large, round earspools . The fleshy faces have almond-shaped eyes, level, wide noses, thick, projecting lips, and downturned mouths. Each face has a particular personality, recommending that they speak to specific people.

These huge basalt boulders were transported from the Sierra de los Tuxtlas Mountains of Veracruz. When initially showed in Olmec centers, the heads were orchestrated in lines or groups; notwithstanding, the technique used to transport the stone to these sites stays unclear. Given the huge load of the stones and the labor required to transport them over enormous distances, it is probable that the colossal portraits represent powerful Olmec rulers.

Olmec Head No. 3 from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan 1200-900 BCE.: Olmec colossal heads are believed to be depictions of powerful rulers.
Olmec Head No. 3 from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan 1200-900 BCE.: Olmec colossal heads are believed to be depictions of powerful rulers.

The discovery of a colossal head at Tres Zapotes in the nineteenth century prodded the first archeological investigations of Olmec culture by Matthew Stirling in 1938. Seventeen affirmed models are traced to four sites inside the Olmec heartland on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Most colossal heads were sculpted from round rocks, yet two from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan were re carved from massive stone thrones. An extra monument at Takalik Abaj in Guatemala is a throne that may have been carved from a colossal head. This is the main known model from outside the Olmec heartland.

Dating the monuments stays difficult on account of the development of numerous from their original context before archeological investigation. Most have been dated to the Early Pre classic (or Formative) period (1500–1000 BCE) with some to the Middle Pre classic (1000–400 BCE) period. The littlest gauges six tons, while the biggest is evaluated to gauge 40 to 50 tons, despite the fact that it was abandoned and left incomplete close the source of its stone.

Teotihuacan

At its tallness, Teotihuacan was perhaps the biggest city on the planet with a population of 200,000. It was an essential focal point of commerce and manufacturing.

Things to know about Teotihuacan

  • The name Teotihuacan means Gathering Place of the Gods.

Key Terms

  • taludtablero: A design characteristic of Mayan architecture at Teotihuacan in which an sloping talud at the base of a building underpins a wall like tablero, where decorative painting and sculpture are generally positioned.

Located about 30 miles northeast of present-day Mexico City, Teotihuacan encountered a time of fast development in the millennium CE. By 200 CE, it developed as a significant center of commerce and manufacturing, the main large city-state in the Americas. At its stature somewhere between of 350 and 650 CE, Teotihuacan secured almost nine miles and had a populace of around 200,000, making it perhaps the biggest city in the world. One explanation behind its dominance was its control of the market for top notch obsidian. This volcanic stone, made into apparatuses and vessels, was traded for extravagance things, for example, the green feathers of the quetzal bird, used for holy crowns, and the spotted fur of the jaguar, used for stylized ceremonial garment.

Ceremonial center of the city of Teotihuacan, Mexico, Teotihuacan culture, c. 350-650 CE.: View from the Pyramid of the Moon down the Avenue of the Dead to the Ciudadela and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. The Pyramid of the Sun is at the middle left. The avenue is over a mile long.
Ceremonial center of the city of Teotihuacan, Mexico, Teotihuacan culture, c. 350-650 CE.: View from the Pyramid of the Moon down the Avenue of the Dead to the Ciudadela and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. The Pyramid of the Sun is at the middle left. The avenue is over a mile long.

The people of Teotihuacan worshiped deities that were conspicuously like those worshiped by later Mesoamerican people, including the Aztecs, who dominated central Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Among these is the Rain or Storm God (lord of fruitfulness, war, and sacrifice), referred to the Aztecs as Tlaloc, and the Feathered Serpent referred to the Maya as Kukulcan and to the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl.

Teotihuacan’s foremost monuments incorporate the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, and the Ciudadela (Spanish for fortified city center), a huge indented court surrounded by temple platform. The city’s principal religious and political center, the Ciudadela could accommodate a get together of in excess of 60,000 people. Its focal point was the pyramidal Temple of the Feathered Serpent. This seven-layered structure displays the taludtablero construction that is a sign of the Teotihuacan architectural style. The sloping base, or talud, of every stage supports a vertical tablero, or entablature, which is surrounded by frame and filled up with sculptural design. The Temple of the Feathered Serpent was expanded a few times, and as was characteristic for Mesoamerican pyramids, every extension totally enclosed the past structure like the layers of an onion. Archeological excavation of this temple earlier-phase tableros and a stairways balustrade have uncovered painted sdaeh of the Feathered Serpent, the goggle-eyed toward Rain or Storm God, and reliefs of aquatic shells and snails. The flat, angular, abstract style, typical of Teotihuacan art, is in marked differentiation to the curvilinear style of Olmec art.

Temple of the Feathered Serpent, the Ciudadela.: Detail of pyramid, showing the alternating talud base and vertical tablero (left).
Temple of the Feathered Serpent, the Ciudadela.: Detail of pyramid, showing the alternating talud base and vertical tablero (left).

The Decline

At some point in the seventh century disaster struck Teotihuacan. The ceremonial center burned and the city went into a lasting decline. All things considered, its impact proceeded as different centers all through Mesoamerica and as far south as the good countries of Guatemala acquired and changed its symbolism throughout the next several centuries. The site was never altogether abandoned as it stayed a legendary pilgrimage center. The much later Aztec people (c. 1300-1525 CE) loved the site as where they accepted the gods made the sun and the moon. Truth be told, the name “Teotihuacan” is really an Aztec word meaning “Gathering place of the Gods.”

Art of the Maya

Mayan art incorporates a wide variety of objects, authorized by rulers, that depicts scenes of both elite and everyday society.

Things to know about Art of the Maya

  • Maya blue was a distinctive color preserved for centuries due to its unique chemical composition; unfortunately, the technique involved in producing it has been lost.
  • The Maya carved stone portraits of their rulers as memorials.
  • There is an especially strong tradition of painting and sculpture in Mayan culture. Often sculpture was painted with distinctive dyes and techniques characteristic of the Maya.
  • Much Mayan art was commissioned by rulers to accompany them to the Underworld.

Key Terms

  • Stele: As stone slab placed vertically and decorated with inscriptions or reliefs. Used as a grave marker or memorial.
  • Maya blue: A unique bright azure pigment manufactured by cultures of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, such as the Maya and Aztec. Made from a combination of a particular kind of clay, indigo, and vegetable dye.

Mayan Portraiture

Strong cultural impacts originating from the Olmec custom and Teotihuacan added to the advancement of the Mayan city center and the way of life’s Classic artistic tradition. The most sacred and magnificent building of Mayan cities were built in enclosed, centrally found regions. The Maya held dramatic ritual inside these highly sculptured and painted environments. For instance, the excellent pyramids of Copan and Tikal are among the most impressive building the Maya erected; each contains sculpted portraits that glorified the city’s rulers.

Stele H in the Great Plaza at Copan represents one of the city’s foremost leaders, 18-Rabbit, who ruled from 695-738 CE. During the ruler’s long rule, Copan arrived at its most prominent physical extent and breadth of political impact. On Stele H, 18-Rabbit wears an elaborate headdress and ornamented kilt and sandals. He holds over his chest a double-headed serpent bar, symbol of the sky and of his supreme power. His features, although idealized, have the quality of a portrait similarity. The Mayan elite, similar to the Egyptian pharaohs, would in general have themselves depicted as eternally youthful. The dense, deeply carved ornamental details that frame the face and figure stand practically away from the main stone block and wrap over the sides of the stele. The stele was originally painted, with leftovers of red paint visible on many stelae and building in Copan.

Stele H portraying the ruler 18-Rabbit. Great Plaza at Copan, Honduras. Made of stone, 11′ 9″ high.  : Although a powerful ruler, 18-Rabbit eventually was captured and beheaded by a rival king.
Stele H portraying the ruler 18-Rabbit. Great Plaza at Copan, Honduras. Made of stone, 11′ 9″ high. : Although a powerful ruler, 18-Rabbit eventually was captured and beheaded by a rival king.

Clay Sculpture

Numerous little clay figures from the Classic Mayan time frame stay in existence. These free-standing object show parts of everyday Mayan life. As a group, they are remarkably life-like, cautiously expressive, and even comic at times. They represent a wider range of human types and activities than usually depicted on Mayan stelae. Ball players, women weaving, older men, dwarves, supernatural being, and passionate couples, just as extravagantly attired rulers and warriors, include probably the biggest group of surviving Mayan art. A large number of the empty figurines are likewise whistles. They were made in ceramics workshops and painted with Maya Blue, a dye extraordinary to Mayan and Aztec artists. Little clay figures found in burial sites was made to accompany the Mayan dead on their inescapable journey to the Underworld.

Ballplayer, Maya, from Jaina Island, Mexico, 700-900CE. Painted clay, 6.25″ high: Maya Blue is a pigment that has proven virtually indestructible, unlike other dyes and paints that have largely disappeared over time.
Ballplayer, Maya, from Jaina Island, Mexico, 700-900CE. Painted clay, 6.25″ high: Maya Blue is a pigment that has proven virtually indestructible, unlike other dyes and paints that have largely disappeared over time.

Painted Vases

The Maya painted clear narrative scenes on the surfaces of cylindrical vases. A typical vase design depicts a royal residence scene where an enthroned Mayan ruler sits surrounded by courtiers and attendants. The figures wear basic undergarments, turbans of wrapped material and feathers, and black body paint. These painted vases may have been used as drinking and food vessels for respectable Maya, however their last destination was the tomb, where they went with the deceased to the Underworld. They likely were commissioned by the deceased before his demise or by his survivors, and were once in a while sent from distance sites as funerary contributions.

Detail of Enthroned Maya lord and courtiers, cylinder vase, from Motul de San Jose region, Guatemala, c. 672-830 CE : Ceramic with red, rose, orange, white, and black on cream, 8″ high.
Detail of Enthroned Maya lord and courtiers, cylinder vase, from Motul de San Jose region, Guatemala, c. 672-830 CE : Ceramic with red, rose, orange, white, and black on cream, 8″ high.

Architecture of the Maya

The Maya had complex architectural programs. They built imposing pyramids, temples, palaces, and administrative structures in densely populated cities.

Things to know about Architecture of the Maya

  • The Maya grouped large architectural structures at the centers of major cities.
  • Pyramids and temples were used for religious purposes and built by rulers as memorials to themselves.
  • Administrative structures such as the Palace demonstrate the sophistication of Maya architecture and technology.
  • Maya architecture is ornate and elaborates, incorporating bas- relief, sculpture, and painted murals on the interiors and exteriors of structures.
  • The Mesoamerican ball game was a central part of ancient Mesoamerican cultural, religious, and political life.
  • The cities of Palenque and Chichen Itza, both in Mexico, contain iconic examples of Mayan architecture from the Classical and Postclassical periods.

Key Terms

  • Roof comb: In a Mayan building, a masonry wall along the apex of a roof built above the level of the roof proper. Roof combs support the highly decorated false facades that rise above the height of the building at the front.
  • Mansard roof: A roof with four sloping sides that becomes steeper halfway down.
  • Aqueduct: An artificial channel for conveying water, typically in the form of a bridge supported by tall columns across a valley.
  • Bas-relief: A kind of sculpture in which shapes are carved so that they are only slightly higher than the flat background.
  • Balustrades: A kind of low wall placed at the sides of staircases, bridges, etc., made of a row of short posts topped by a long rail.

The Mayan civilization rose during the late Preclassic period (250 BCE-250 CE), arrived at its top in the southern low lands of Guatemala during the Classic period (250-900 CE), and moved to northern Yucatan during the Postclassic period (900-1521 CE).

Architecture in Palenque

In Palenque, Mexico, a noticeable city of the Classic period, the major buildings are assembled on high ground. The central group of structures incorporates the Palace (perhaps an authoritative and ceremonial center just as a residential structure), the Temple of the Inscriptions, and two other temples. The vast majority of the structures in the complex were commissioned by a powerful ruler, Lord Pakal, who ruled from 615 to 638 CE, and his two sons, who succeeded him.

Palace (right) and Temple of the Inscriptions, tomb-pyramid of Lord Pakal (left) : Palenque, Mexico. Mayan culture, late 7th century.
Palace (right) and Temple of the Inscriptions, tomb-pyramid of Lord Pakal (left) : Palenque, Mexico. Mayan culture, late 7th century.

Temple of the Inscriptions

The Temple of the Inscriptions is a nine-level pyramid that arises to a tallness of around 75 feet. The back to back layers presumably mirror the conviction, current among the Aztec and Maya at the time of the Spanish victory, that the underworld had nine levels. Priest would climb the lofty stone staircase on the outside to arrive at the temple on top, which reviews the sort of pole and-cover houses the Maya despite everything work in parts of the Yucatan today. The roof of the temple was topped with a peak known as a roof comb, and its facade everything holds quite a bit of its stucco sculpture. Inscription line the back wall of the outer chamber, giving the temple its name.

Temple of the Inscriptions (tomb pyramid of Lord Pakal) : Palenque, Mexico, 7th century
Temple of the Inscriptions (tomb pyramid of Lord Pakal) : Palenque, Mexico, 7th century

The Palace

Across the Temple of Inscriptions is the Palace, a complex of a few nearby building and courtyards built on a wide artificial terrace. The Palace was used by the Mayan aristocracy for bureaucratic functions, entertainment, and ritual ceremonies.

Various sculptures and bas-relief carvings inside the Palace have been conserved. The Palace’s generally unusual and unmistakable element is the four-story tower known as the Observation Tower. In the same way as other different buildings at the site, the Observation Tower shows a mansard roof. The Palace was furnished with various huge baths and saunas which were provided with new water by an unpredictable water system. A water channel built of incredible stone blocks with a six-foot-high vault diverts the Otulum River to flow underneath the main plaza.

The Palace’s Observation Tower with mansard roof : Palenque, Mexico, late Classic period
The Palace’s Observation Tower with mansard roof : Palenque, Mexico, late Classic period

Architecture in Chichen Itza

As the focal point of Maya civilization moved northward in the Postclassic period, a northern Maya group called the Itza rose to prominence. Their chief center, Chichen Itza, (Yucatan State) Mexico, which signifies “at the mouth of the well of the Itza,” prospered from the ninth to thirteenth centuries CE, in the long run covering around six square miles.

El Castillo

One of Chichen Itza’s most prominent structures is El Castillo (Spanish for the castle), an enormous nine-level pyramid in the center of a huge plaza with a flight of stairways on each side leading to a square temple on the pyramid’s summit. At the spring and fall equinoxes, the setting sun throws an undulating, snake like shadow on the stairways, forming bodies for the snake heads carved at the base of the balustrades.

El Castillo (the Castle) : Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. 9th-13th century.
El Castillo (the Castle) : Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. 9th-13th century.

The Great Ball Court

The Great Ball Court northwest of the Castillo is the biggest and best protected court for playing the Mesoamerican ball game, a significant game with ritual affiliations played by Mesoamericans since 1400 BCE. The equal platforms flanking the main playing territory are each 312 feet in length. The walls of these platforms stand 26 feet high. Rings carved with interweaved feathered snakes are set high at the highest point of each wall at the center. At the base of the inside wall are slanted benches with sculpted panels of groups of ball players. In one board, one of the players has been decapitated; the injury heaves streams of blood through wriggling snakes.

Toward one side of the Great Ball Court is the North Temple, otherwise called the Temple of the Bearded Man (Templo Del Hombre Barbado). This little brick work building has detailed bas-relief carving on the inward walls, including a center figure with decorative carvings that look like facial hair. Incorporated with the east wall are the Temples of the Jaguar. The Upper Temple of the Jaguar ignores the ball court and has an entrance protected by two enormous segments carved in the natural feathered snake motif. At the passageway to the Lower Temple of the Jaguar is another Jaguar throne like the one in the inner temple of El Castillo.

The Great Ball Court, Chichen Itza, Mexico Late Classic period, 551′ x 230′: The modern version of the Mesoamerican ball game is called Ulama and is similar to racquetball.
The Great Ball Court, Chichen Itza, Mexico Late Classic period, 551′ x 230′: The modern version of the Mesoamerican ball game is called Ulama and is similar to racquetball.

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