Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico, Art of the Oaxaca region-The Mixteca-Puebla

  1. Art of the Mixteca-Puebla
The Tomb 7 from Monte Albán is one of the richest burial sites ever encountered in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The burial included hundreds of exotic objects made in precious materials. Top left: gold necklace. Bottom left: zoomorphic pendants. Top middle: Mictlantecuhtli pectoral with elaborate headdress (Ball game pectoral). Bottom middle: gold mask. Right: Pendant with dates. All artifacts in the Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca (Mexico).

The Mixtecs are considered one of the most extraordinary artisans of Mesoamerica during the Post-Classic period (1000-1697). They occupied the area of ​​Oaxaca to the valleys of Puebla and Tlaxcala (a complex known by archaeologists as the “Mixteca-Puebla”). In the art of goldsmithing Mixtecs created works of surprising delicacy as it can be seen among the numerous objects found in the famous “Tomb 7” of Monte Albán, a Zapotec tomb that the Mixtecs re-used: pectorals decorated with masks of deities, necklaces, rings, bracelets, nail protectors, fan handles, etc., all enhanced with tiny bells and other embellishments of exquisite taste. And the grecas* used to decorate the buildings of the archaeological site of Mitla appeared chiseled using the same sensibility that was applied to the gold objects.

The Palace of the Columns at Mitla, the second most important archaeological site in the state of Oaxaca (Mexico) and the most important site of the Zapotec culture. The site is located in the upper end of the Tlacolula Valley, in the Central Valleys Region of Oaxaca, specifically, in the modern municipality of San Pablo Villa de Mitla. While Monte Albán was most important as the political center, Mitla was the main religious center. The name Mitla is derived from the Nahuatl name Mictlán, which referred to the place of the dead or underworld.

These palaces of Mitla are characterized by the architectural use of large monolithic stones and their facades ornate with mosaic fretwork and geometric designs known in Spanish as “grecas” framed by panels (tableros). These decorative elements were part of the rich Zapotec architectural tradition that started in Monte Alban along with strong Teotihuacan influences. None of the fretwork designs are repeated anywhere in the Mitla complex. The fretwork found there is unique in all of Mesoamerica. The decorative element of the stepped greca represents for the pre-Hispanic plastic what the capital does for the Greek culture or the ogival arch for the Gothic art. It is a symbol that has been found from Arizona in the United States to Peru and Argentina in the south of the American continent.

The archaeological remains of Mitla are unique among other Mesoamerican sites because of the elaborate and intricate mosaic fretwork and geometric designs that cover tombs, panels, friezes and even entire walls. These mosaics (pictured above) called “grecas” in Spanish were made with small, finely cut and polished stone pieces fitted together without using mortar. No other site in Mexico has this feature.

The Mixtec artistic refinement is reflected in many aspects: delicate carvings on wood and bone, goblets and statuettes in rock crystal, elaborate mosaics in turquoise, shells, coral and other materials. Ceramics (which since Pre-Classical times have been a highlight in Pre-Hispanic Mexico due to its careful execution and the diversity of its forms) appeared now covered with a particularly fine ornamentation applied with maximum care. Some of the vessels are so precise and detailed in their execution that they look like pages torn from one of the famous “codices” or painted manuscripts found in this region, a series of manuscripts made on long regular strips of “amate” paper* or deer skin with stucco, which were carefully folded like a screen and that used to serve as archives and sacred books for the ancient Mexicans.

The Mixtec painter-scribes also excelled in the art of codex elaboration as can be seen in the few examples that have managed to survive the passage of time and the systematic destruction carried out as a result of the Spanish conquest.

Another examples of the craftsmanship of the Mixteca-Puebla art. Top left: Mixtec goblet in rock crystal (Museum of the Cultures of Oaxaca, Mexico). Top right: Mixtec rock crystal feline head, XV century AD. Bottom left: Turquoise mosaic mask, 1400-1521 AD. (British Museum, London). Bottom right: Skull covered with turquoise mosaic.


Mixteca-Puebla pottery and ceramics. Left: Cholula style Aztec-Mixtec turkey, 900-1521 AD. Top right: A skull in polychrome ceramic ware (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City). Bottom right: Clay tripod vessels with varied polychrome decoration and geometric designs.

Parallel to the Toltec cultural influence that marked the last centuries of pre-Columbian life with its militaristic and bloodthirsty seal, the Mixtecan artistic influence was heavily felt in ancient Mexico by greatly “softening” the “Toltec” hardship and rudeness that prevailed at the time. We know from many accounts of the conquest that the Aztec emperor Moctezuma had exclusively for his personal service the finest vessels made in Cholula, a city that had become the most renowned pottery producer as well as the most revered sanctuary in Mesoamerica. In addition, it is very likely that many of the jewels so admired by the Spaniards (and so highly pondered by the German painter Albrecht Dürer, 1471-1528) were made by Mixtec artisans although under the Aztec rule. In other words, the “good taste” was given at that time by the refined art of the Mixteca-Puebla, and therefore it is possible to speak of a mixture of Toltec-Mixtec influences in the last centuries that preceded the Spanish conquest during which the stylistic frontiers that had until then extended throughout many regions of Mesoamerica began to be erased.

The Mixtec Codex known as the Codex Zouche Nuttall (British Museum, London). This Codex is one of about 16 manuscripts from Mexico that are entirely pre-Columbian in origin. The codex actual name derives from Zelia Nuttall, who first published it in 1902, and Baroness Zouche, its donor. This Codex was probably made in the XIV century and includes 14 sections of animal skin measuring 19 by 23.5 cm. The Codex Zouche Nuttall is one of three that record the genealogies, alliances and conquests of several XI and XII century rulers of a small Mixtec city-state in highland Oaxaca, the Tilantongo kingdom, especially under the leadership of the warrior Lord Eight Deer Jaguar Claw.


The Codex Borgia or Codex Yoalli Ehēcatl includes ritual and divinatory content. It is believed to have been made before the Spanish conquest of Mexico, in what is now southern or western Puebla. The codex is made of animal skin folded into 39 sheets. Each sheet is a square measuring 27 by 27 cm, for a total length of nearly 11 mt. Since all but the end sheets are painted on both sides, it includes 76 pages or folios. The Codex is read from right to left and is named after the Italian Cardinal Stefano Borgia, who owned it before it was acquired by the Vatican Library. Left: Codex Borgia folio 14 is divided into nine sections for each of the nine Lords of the Night. They are accompanied by a day sign and symbols indicating positive or negative associations. Right: Codex Borgia folio 22.


Codex Borgia folio 56.


Amate paper: (in Spanish, from the Nahuatl). A type of bark paper that has been manufactured in Mexico since the pre-conquest times. It was used primarily to create codices. The Amate paper was extensively produced and used for both communication, records, and ritual during the Triple Alliance, it was manufactured using the bark of several species of trees of the genus Ficus (family Moraceae), collectively known as “fig trees”.

Greca: A Mesoamerican decorative freeze typical of the Mixtec site of Mitla that includes intricate mosaic fretwork and geometric designs. The geometric patterns of the grecas were made from thousands of cut, polished stones that were fitted together without mortar. The pieces were set against a stucco background painted red.