Mexico's art, architecture, politics, and religion were inextricable for more than 3,000 years. The Maya were perhaps the most gifted artists in the Americas, producing fantastically lifelike stone sculptures, soaring temples clad in colors we can only guess at today, and delicately painted pottery. The Spanish conquest in A.D. 1521 influenced the style and subject of Mexican art, yet failed to stamp out its roots.

Pre-Hispanic Forms

Nowhere is the interplay of religion and art more striking than in Mexico's renowned pyramids, which were temples crowning a truncated platform. Maya structures also served as navigation aids, administrative and ceremonial centers, tombs, astronomical observatories, and artistic canvases.

Circular buildings such as Chichén Itzá's El Caracol and Palenque's observatory tower aided Maya priests' astral calculations, used primarily for astrological divination but stunningly accurate by modern astronomical standards. Chichén Itzá's El Castillo itself is a massive calendar, with four staircases of 91 steps, equaling the 365 days of the solar year when the central platform step is added. The stairways also divide the nine terraces of each face of the pyramid into 18 segments, representing the Maya calendar's 18 months; the 52 panels on the terraces symbolize the 52-year cycle, when the solar and religious calendars converge. Architects aligned the temple precisely to produce the equinox phenomenon of the stairway's shadow snaking down a corner of the pyramid to join a giant serpent's head at the bottom.

Though ancient architecture shows a variety of influences, building one pyramid on top of another was a widespread practice. Chichén Itzá's strong Toltec influence, with its angular, stepped profiles, emphasizes war and human sacrifice; Uxmal's refined and more purely Maya geometry, including the beautifully sloped and rounded Temple of the Magician, incorporates the varied elevations of the Puuc hills.

The unjustly overlooked Edzná in Campeche state displays roof combs and corbeled arches resembling those of Palenque and giant stone masks similar to Guatemala's Petén style. The alternating vertical and sloping panels of Toltec and Aztec architecture surfaces also in Dzibanché, a partially excavated site that opened in the early 1990s near Laguna de Bacalar in southern Quintana Roo.

The true arch was unknown in Mesoamerica, but the Maya devised the corbeled arch (or Maya arch) by stacking each successive stone to cantilever beyond the one below, until the two sides met at the top in an inverted V.

The Olmec, who reigned over the Gulf coastal plains, are considered Mesoamerica's parent culture. Little survives of their pyramids, which were built of clay. We still have their enormous sculptural legacy, from small, intricately carved pieces of jade to the 40-ton carved basalt rock heads still found at La Venta, Tabasco (some of which are displayed in the Parque-Museo La Venta in Villahermosa).

More intact later cities, built of stone, give us a better glimpse of ancient Maya art, but their exuberant color is all but lost. The stones originally were covered with a layer of painted stucco that gleamed red, blue, and yellow through the jungle foliage. Most of the fantastic murals that adorned their buildings are also lost to time, though surprisingly well-preserved fragments have been found at Bonampak and Ek Balam. Vestiges also remain at Mayapán, and Cobá.

Artisans also crafted marvelous stone murals and mosaics from thousands of pieces of fitted stone, adorning facades with geometric designs or figures of warriors or snakes. Uxmal, in fact, evidently had not a single mural; all its artistry is in the intricate stonework.

Murals and stone carvings were more religious or historical than ornamental in purpose. Deciphering the hieroglyphs -- rich, elegant symbols etched in stone or painted on pottery -- allows scholars to identify rulers and untangle dynastic history. Michael Coe's Breaking the Maya Code traces centuries-long efforts to decode Maya script and outlines recent breakthroughs that make it possible to decipher 90% of the glyphs. "Cracking the Maya Code," a Nova program based on Coe's book, is available for viewing on or on DVD.

Good hieroglyphic examples appear in Palenque's site museum. Several stelae, the large, free-standing stone slabs where the Maya etched their history, are in place at Cobá. Calakmul is known for its many stelae, and good examples are displayed in Mexico City's Museum of Anthropology and the archaeology museum in Villahermosa.

Spanish Influence

The Spaniards brought new forms of architecture to Mexico; in many cases they razed Maya cities and reused the limestone to build their Catholic churches, public buildings, and palaces. In the Yucatán, churches at Izamal, Tecoh, Santa Elena, and Muna rest atop former pyramids. Indian artisans recruited to build the new structures frequently implanted traditional symbolism, such as a plaster angel swaddled in feathers, reminiscent of the god Quetzalcóatl; they determined how many florets to carve around church doorways based on the ancient cosmos's 13 steps of heaven and nine levels of the underworld.

Spanish priests and architects altered their teaching and building methods in order to convert native populations. Church adornment became more explicit to combat the language barrier; frescoes of Biblical tales were splashed across church walls, and Christian symbols in stone supplanted pre-Hispanic figures.

Remnants of 16th-century missions, convents, monasteries, and parish churches dot almost every Yucatecan village. Examples worth visiting include the Mission of San Bernardino de Sisal in Valladolid; the cathedral of Mérida; the vast atrium and church at Izamal; and the retablos (altarpieces), altars, and crucifixes in churches along the Convent Route, between the Puuc Hills and Mérida.

Porfirio Díaz's 34-year rule (1877-1911) brought a new infusion of European sensibility. Díaz commissioned imposing European-style public buildings and provided European scholarships to artists who returned to paint Mexican subjects using techniques from abroad. Mérida is a veritable museum of opulent, European-style buildings constructed during the Díaz years; the most striking are the Palacio Cantón, now housing the Regional Anthropology Museum, and the Teatro Peón Contreras.

The Advent of Mexican Muralism

The Mexican revolution that rent the country from 1910 to 1920 gave rise to a new social and cultural era. In 1923, as one way to reach the illiterate masses, Diego Rivera and other budding artists were invited to paint Mexican history on the walls of the Ministry of Education building and the National Preparatory School in Mexico City. Thus was born Mexico's tradition of public murals.

The courtyard and History Room of the Governor's Palace in Mérida display 31 works of Castro Pacheco, the Yucatán's most prominent muralist. Though he painted on large panels rather than directly on the walls, he aligned with other great muralists in his affinity for strong colors and the belief that art is meant for public enjoyment, not just private collectors. Pacheco's murals are a chilling depiction of the bloody subjugation of the Yucatán, including the Popol Vuh legend, a jaguar with fierce warriors in headdresses, a Maya henequén worker's hands, and portraits of such heroes as Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the martyred Yucatecan governor who instituted agrarian and other reforms.

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