Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico, Art of the Gulf of Mexico-El Tajín and La Huasteca
Further north of the great central area of Veracruz is El Tajín, the city dedicated to the god of rain and thunder, the cultural and religious metropolis of the Totonac people during the Classic period from 600-1200 AD. This is the place where the art of this whole region culminates, with the erection of numerous buildings whose ornamentation was frequently enhanced by friezes decorated with the aforementioned “interlaced volutes“. And if these buildings lack the monumentality and solemnity of Teotihuacan or Monte Albán, they present instead a cheerful, light and elegant appearance. The platforms, stairways and the pyramids’ bases have local variants of “tableros” topped with a high beveled cornice and perforated with deep niches (or are adorned with large designs with grecas or other geometric motifs in strong relief). By capturing the rays of the sun, these architectural elements become animated, producing a particularly vivid game of lights and shadows.
The most representative example of this architecture is undoubtedly the famous “Pyramid of the Niches” whose deep niches sum up, along with the gateway to the sanctuary, a total of 365 in a symbolic relation with the days of the solar calendar. This harmonious building, in which the horizontal and vertical elements combine in a very pleasant way, stands out among the other constructions of the ceremonial center. The light color of the stones of the Pyramid of the Niches stand out over the deep green of the background jungle of the surrounding hills covered with the lush vegetation of the fertile Totonac region, a tropical area that witnessed the origins of the cultivation of vanilla, a plant of the Orchid family belonging to the genus Vanilla.
Having for some time survived the tremendous collapse of the Classical Mesoamerican world, El Tajín was in turn abandoned along with other Totonac cultural centers such as Las Higueras where excellent remains of mural painting have been discovered revealing little known aspects of the Classic Totonac culture. And the cities that would later rise in this region during the centuries before the Spanish conquest were far from having the splendor exhibited by El Tajín. This is the case of Cempoala, the last Totonac capital, a vassal city of the Aztec empire and first to ally with Hernán Cortés when the Conquistador finally landed in what would be later known as the Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz…
Finally, within this brief panorama of the Mesoamerican art is the Huasteca region located in the extreme north of the Gulf of Mexico and whose most important cultural development seems to have been occurred during the Post-Classic period (1000-1697), with a rich production of clay statuettes of particularly harmonious proportions. Although not as monumental, the Huasteca architecture presents however interesting basements with semicircular floor plans and rounded edges. In contrast, some of the Huasteca sculptures stand out for their flattened surfaces and clean lines. Such is the case of the so-called “Huastec Teenager”, another of the jewels of the National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico City.