Robin Urton: dimensional paintings on glass


MesoAmerican Art

The colossal stone heads found at Olmec sites in southern Veracruz and Tabasco are the oldest known monuments in Prehispanic Mexico. No one knows for certain whether they are portrayals of their rulers or gods, or why they were dragged over 60 miles to the Gulf coast of Mexico- where they were unearthed centuries later. Their Asiatic features adds some validity to the idea that the ancient Americans may have originally descended from Asians who crossed the Bering Strait thousands of years ago.

Olmec culture is the foundation of all subsequent civilizations of Mesoamerica. Influence of its religion, symbolic language, and architectural layouts are evident in later civilizations such as the Teotihuacan, Mayan, Toltec and Aztec cultures.

Olmec Head,8' tall, 1500-300 B.C.E.




The Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan (360 - 650 C.E.)

The largest and oldest pyramids in the Americas are those at Teotihuacan, the "City of the Gods". The building of the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon coincides with the period of Roman Empire. They are joined by a long path called the "Avenue of the Dead", where later Mexicans believe that the Teotihuacanos buried their kings. Of the two pyramids, the Pyramid of the Sun is the tallest (over 200 feet), and was built over a natural cave. It is possible that the ancient culture believed that their ancestors emerged from this cave.

Fifteen smaller pyramids are arranged symmetrically around the walls of the immense quadrangle. Another structure outside of this quadrangle was built later, during the classic period. It is known as the Feathered Serpent Pyramid.


Carved details on the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, Teotihuacan

The Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent derives its name from the sculptures which cover the structure. A feathered serpent carrying a headdress is surrounded by water imagery, including white shells of many different species. There are 366 of these heads, covering all 4 sides of the pyramid. It is possible that they were related to the 366 days of their calendar.


The Mayans

The Mayans represent the highest achievements of Precolumbian culture, and is the best-known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica. Originating in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C.E., the Mayans rose to prominence around 250 C.E. in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras.

Known for their intelligence, they excelled especially in the areas of architecture, sculpture, painting, mathematics, and astronomy. While Europe was still in the Dark Ages, the Mayans had the most accurate calendar in the world. Their writing was based on a hieroglyphic system, but most of their codexes have been lost to the later invasions of the Spanish. The few that survive have allowed archeologists to learn about their rituals and beliefs.



Cylindrical Tripod Vase with Effigy Cover
Guatemala, Central Lowlands, Maya, 300-400

The art of the Maya is principally the art of the ruling elite. Vessels were made to honor and commemorate once living rulers and to venerate their gods and ancestors.These objects are full of symbolism regarding the afterlife. Much of the pottery found in Maya tombs were made especially to accompany the soul on its journey through the underworld.

The Vase at left depicts the "Pauahtuns", the directional world-bearers who steadied the earth above the Maya underworld. It may have contained ashes, or possibly food for the deceased.

The face of a king is incised on the surface of the conch shell trumpet, at right. An inscription names its owner, and the portrait on the shell is thought to be the ancestor who was summoned when the trumpet was used in a bloodletting rite.


 Incised Conch Shell Trumpet
Guatemala, Maya, about 250-400



Mayan Architecture:

Deep within the jungles of Mexico and Guatemala and extending into the Yucatan peninsula lie the mysterious temples and pyramids of the Maya. Without metal tools, beasts of burden or even the wheel they were able to construct vast cities across a huge jungle landscape with an amazing degree of architectural perfection and variety.




Located in Chiapas, Mexico, Palenque is one of the Maya civilization's greatest ruins. Although the earliest occupation of the site dates to about 100 BC, it becomes a major population center only at about 600 C.E. and all construction at the site has ceased by about 800 C.E. The Palenque Palace was constructed over a period of several hundred years by several rulers,and is richly decorated with delicately sculpted scenes depicting rituals, ceremonies and deities. It was the residence of the king, and also a place for worship. The building's platform supports 15 structures dedicated to different ritual ceremonies. Located underneath the south end of the Palace are several subterranean chambers that indicate earlier occupation of the Palace.


Palenque Palace (foreground) and Temple of Inscriptions


Inside the Temple of Inscriptions is the tomb of the most famous Palenque ruler: Pacal, who assumed power in 603 C.E. at the age of 12 and ruled for 68 years until his death in 683. His tomb contains a sarcophagus which is covered by a richly-sculpted slab of white limestone.

Weighing five tons, this slab depicts the story of death and rebirth of the ruler. It depicts Pacal falling into jaws of the terrestrial monster (death) on his way to the Underworld (rebirth). The sides of the sarchophagus depict Pacal's ruling ancestors.



Temple of the Giant Jaguar, 870 C.E.


Tikal was a primary city of the Maya. At least 10,000 people lived within the city, which covers six square miles. Their maps reveal 3000 separate constructions, including temples, palaces, shrines, residences, ballcourts, terraces, and plazas. The heart of Tikal was the Great Plaza, which is surrounded by the two largest temples, and to the north is a cluster of temples known as the North Acropolis. Especially notable within this cluster is the Temple of the Giant Jaguar, named after a motif on one of its lintels. It towers 145 feet, and tombs are beneath and inside the structure. In addition to the buildings and monuments, 100,000 tools, ceremonial objects and personal ornaments have been unearthed in Tikal.



Castillo, with Chacmool Yucatan, Mayan, 9th-13th century

Chichen Itza

One of the greatest of the Mayan sites and the most fully restored is the huge site of Chichen Itza. Many structures here relate to the Mayan's intense interest in astronomy. South of the Castillo is a strange round building known as the Carocal, which was probably used as an observatory. Several of its windows point towards the equinox sunset and the southernmost and northernmost points on the horizon where Venus rises.

The Observatory at Chichen Itza


"The Nunnery" at Chichen Itza was given its name because of its resemblance to convents in Spain. They were probably the living quarters of the elite Mayans. Located in the southern group of ruins, it contains some of the best preserved structures at Chichen Itza. Every square foot of wall has reliefs and paintings decorating it.


Next: Prehistoric Art