subpagesAmantecayotlAztecEx-convento San Miguel Arcángel, HuejotzingoJosé Guadalupe PosadaLa VentaMayaSan Agustín, AcolmanSan Francisco de Asís, San Andrés CalpanSan Miguel Arcángel, IxmiquilpanTeotihuacanTikalVeracruz


The term "Mesoamerica" refers to a geographical area occupied by a variety of ancient cultures that shared religious beliefs, art, architecture, and technology that made them unique in the Americas for three thousand years – from about 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1519 – the time of European contact.

Mesoamerica is one of our planet's six cradles of early civilization. Many aspects of the ancient cultures of Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and México continue to the present and several of these cultural inventions and traits have spread throughout the world.

Was it stone age? Neolithic? Bronze Age? None of the above. European and Mesopotamian chronologies do not apply.
Identify a distinctive Mesoamerican philosophical and religious outlook as manifested in painting, sculpture, architecture, ceramics and textiles.

An icon is an intercessor between you and the gods.

Demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which pre-Columbian, colonial and modern Mexican art, as well as Chicano art have been employed historically, politically and socially to express ideals, values, and beliefs.

Cultural elements common to all Mesoamerica: monumental architeture; ball couts; sacred geogrpahy and landscape; shared vision of cosmology; 260- or 265-day calendar; hieroglyphic wiriting or pictogrpahic writing; codices; art characteristics of olmec culture. Art characteristics include: creation myths, cosmology, divine kingship, stone carving, were-jaguars, shamanism, transformation.

Mesoamerican terrain

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Early Formative
OlmecSan Lorenzo
Central MexicoChalcatzingo
ZapotecSan Jose Mogote
MayaNakbe, Cerros
Middle Formative
OlmecLa Venta, Tres Zapotes
Central Mexico
ZapotecMonte Alban
MayaEl Mirador, Izapa, Lamanai, Xunantunich, Naj Tunich, Takalik Abaj, Kaminaljuyu, Uaxactun
Late Formative

Writing, calendar systems

Gulf CoastEpi-Olmec culture
Central Mexico
West Mexico


Hieroglyphic writing; calendar, codex-style painting.

Central Mexico
MayaTikal, Palenque
Early Post-Classic
Central Mexico
MayaChichen Itza
Late Post-Classic
Central Mexico

Cultural innovations

Material culture

Jade was treasured: link

Hummingbird Day
Jaguar Night
Frog Rain
Cobalt blue Ocean


Teosinte (maize)
Squash Stone squash: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/deep-roots-of-aztec-sculpture


Human arrival

Paleo-Indian era

Archaic era

Formative era

Also known as the Preclassic era.
The first major Mesoamerican art style, that of the Olmecs, emerged during the Formative/Preclassic period. In the swampy coastal areas of he present-day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco, the Olmecs cleared farmland, drained fields, and raised earth mounds on which they constructed ceremonial centers. These centers probably housed an elite group of ruler-priests supported by a larger population of farmers who lived in villages of pole-and-thatch houses. The presence at Olmec sites of goods such as obisidian, iron ore, and jade that are not found in the Gulf of Mexico region but come from throughout Mesoamerica indicates that the Olmecs participated in extensive long-distance trade. They went to great lengths to acquire jade, which they used for ceremonial objects and prized more than gold. p 398

The Olmecs are not believed to have had a written language.

San Lorenzo and La Venta are two substantial Olmec sites that contributed features that endured throughout Mesoamerican history.
San Lorenzo inhabited 1200 - 900 BC
abandoned by 400 BC
The earliest Olmec ceremonial center was San Lorenzo. It had a ball court and monumental sculpture and architecture; these features endured as important features of later sites belonging to other cultures.
La Venta inhabited 1000 - 400 BC Built on high ground between rivers, La Venta had a large earth mound (known as the Great Pyramid) that was over 100' high, and a large open field (possibly a ball court). The site was organized along a north-south axis defined by long. The symmetrical north-south axis, characterized later monumental and ceremonial architecture throughout Mesoamerica.
Olmec religious beliefs have been inferred from their descriptive artwork and architecture.
The Olmec universe had three levels: sky, earth surface, and underworld. A bird monster ruled the sky. The earth surface itself was a female deity -- apparently La Venta's principal deity -- the repository of wisdom and overseer of surface water as well as land. The underworld -- ruled by a fish monster -- was a cosmic sea on which the earth surface, including its plants, floated. A vertical axis joining the three levels made a fourth element. p 399
Olmec religion reflected a shift from hunting and gathering, to agriculture.

At the beginning, Olmec religion centered on a shaman (a priest or healer) who consumed psilocybe and metamorphosized into an animal spirit, gaining spiritual and prophetic insight. Olmec sculpture and ceramics depict humans as they transform into an animal form.

Agriculture brought a new religious current that co-existed with the shamans. As society grew to rely heavily on rain and sun patterns, a new priest class formed that created rituals to control these natural forces.

The Olmecs are famous for their monumental basalt sculpture.

The huge basalt boulders that they carved were quarried from distant sites and transported to San Lorenzo, La Venta and other centers.

Twelve colossal heads were found at San Lorenzo; all had been mutilated and buried about 900 BCE. At La Venta, 102 basalt monuments have been found. The colossal heads range from 5 to 12 feet, and weighing from 5 to more than 20 tons, are a highlight of Olmec art. The heads are adult males wearing what may have been ballgame attire: close-fitting caps with chin straps and large, rounded earspools (cylindrical earrings that pierce the earlobe). Their fleshy faces feature strong epicanthal folds (almond-shaped, asiatic eyes); flat, broad noses; thick, protruding lips; and downturned mouths. Each face is naturalistic and unique, indicating that the heads may represent indivudals.

The Olmec develped the first Mesoamerican calendars.

The individual nature of Olmec artistic depictions suggests that the Olmecs were preoccupied with commemorating rulers and historical events. This would have been a driving force in developing calendars. The first calendars appeared c 600 - 500 BC in areas with strong Olmec influence.

By 200 CE, forests and swamps began to reclaim Olmec sites.

Their enduring influence was strong in Maya and Teotihuacan sites that emerged at the same time that Olmec civilization declined.

Classic Mesoamerica


Post-Classic era

Colonial era

Virgin of the Apocalypse
New Spain
Encomienda - Encomendero
Indigenous place glyph
Catholic orders that first came to Mexico: Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians
Convento (mission Churches/monasteries)
Atrium or Atrial Cross
Open chapel
Passion of Christ
Feather mosaic
Cristos de Cana
Last judgment

Colonial Art

The Colonial period begins with the conquest by Cortez in 1521 and ends with Mexico's independence from Spanish Bourbons in 1821.

Spaniards renamed Tenochtitlan as "Mexico City" and rebuilt it as the capital of Nueva Espana (New Spain). In 16th century New Spain, native masons, sculptors and painters constructed and decorated the newly introduced European-style buildings. Pre-Conquest temples were partially dismantled in order to provide building materials. Newly founded churches were built on the old foundations. These structures were visual metaphors to cover up indigenous beliefs with the veneer of Christianity.

Intermingling of native style with Christian imagery is referred to as tequitqui -- European forms reconfigured into something uniquely Mexican.

Occasionally, native workers incorporated pre-Conquest religous symbols and traditional imagery into Christian buildings. A number of buildings contain indigenous dates and/or place glyphs. Native artists interpreted European concepts through familiar Mesoamerican visual vocabulary. Pre-Conquest aesthetics and techniques can be recognized in the reproduction of European motifs.

Cortez granted his soldiers encomiendas (land grants) which granted an entire town and its indigenous population to an encomendero.

Codex Selden
Mixten screenfold on deerskin. Relating the genealogy of one prominent family, featuring the Six Monkey story.

Codex Duran
Incorporates European perspective and modeling. Features the Premonitory comet. Moctezuma, the lord of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, climbs atop an observatory and sees a blazing comet, an omen of death. After the Spanish conquest, native Mexica interpreted the comet as an omen of the European invasion.

La Malinche
Translator for Cortes who allegedly betrayed her own people.

La Noche Triste,
Lienzo de Tlaxcala

Florentine Codex

Codex Vaticanus

Codex Monteleone

Franciscan missionaries landed in Mexico with Cortes in 1519 and were active from the start in evangelizing the native people of the former Aztec empire.

After the Spanish Conquest, they set up schools to instruct the children of the native elites as well as workshops to turn indigenous artistic efforts away from idolatry and toward the celebration of Christian rites. A popular art adapted to Christian evangelism was the indigenous amantecayotl.

Types of buildings

In Vice-Regal New Spain (Colonial Mexico) stylistic elements from European architecture were combined in unique and creative ways not found anywhere else. Forms are modified and adapted to accommodate both the skills and the creative imagination of native craftsmen. Regional flavor is reflected in the various schools of art and architecture that spring up throughout the colony. Local materials, particularly the different types of stone used in construction, add to distinctive regional variety. In literature concerning colonial churches and monasteries, structures are commonly identified simply by the name of the town where they are built.

Conventos were a type of residence.

In 16th century Mexico, a convento was a residence for missionary friars, oriented towards the community. The term is often used more broadly for the entire mission complex including buildings and lands associated with the convento.

Atrium with four posas and atrial cross were arranged in a quincunx pattern.

Plateresque 15th - 16th century artform of Spain meaning in the style of the silversmith. Spanish platero means silversmith. Plateresque style is characterized by carved plants, feathery fluting, and a capital crowned by acanthus leaves.
Alfiz A rectangular molding or frame surrounding an arch. This is a Mudéjar (Moorish) element. Mudéjar is a Spanish architectural style based on Moorish or Islamic forms, often emphasizing geometric patterns. Many Mudéjar elements are found in Mexican architecture. A famous example is the Church of Santiago, Angahuan, Michoacan, Mexico (c 16th century) -- the carving is unique to Mexico, copied from Spanish or Flemish pattern books and transformed into something unlike anything found anywhere else in the world.
Atrium Cross
Cloister walk
Friar's cell
Open chapel
Amantecayotl Nahua word for arte plumario in Spanish, feather mosaic in English.
Significant sites
Ex-Convento de San Miguel Arcángel Huejotzingo
Chapel of the Indians Located in the Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico, the atrial cross resembles the pre-Conquest Mixtec world tree as seen in the Codex Vindobonensis.
Ex-Convento de San Agustin Acolman Located at San Agustin de Acolman, the c 1550s atrial cross has a Tequitqui Madonna, whose native sculptor outlined the figure with sharp, undercut edges. Virgin and child appear as flattened figures, almost as if they had been made with a cookie cutter, protruding from a flat background. The cross itself is shown as both a person and a cross, and has blood spurting.
There is a colonial atrium cross with an obsidian mirror, a reference to Tezcatlipoca's obsidian mirror.
Ex-Convento de San Andres de Calpan

Baroque era

Mexican Baroque
Plateresque style
Solomonic columns Also called Salomonica, Solomonic columns have a spiral shaft sometimes decorated with vines. They were introduced into popular use by GIanlorenzo Bernini when he designed St Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Imagenes de vestir
Churrigueresque style
Purist style
Imagenes de Vestir
Churrigueresque style
Purist style
Popular Baroque
Angeles Balbainas