Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico, Art of the Gulf of Mexico-El Tajín and La Huasteca

An aerial view of the archaeological site of El Tajín located in the highlands of the municipality of Papantla in modern-day state of Veracruz (Mexico).
  1. El Tajín

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.

Top: On the vertical walls of the South Ballcourt of El Tajín were sculpted several panels that remain almost intact and that represent with great detail how the ball game was played, including ceremonies, sacrifice and the response of the gods. The northeast panel (pictured here) shows that the game has finished and one of the participants is about to be sacrificed by decapitation. The three central figures are all dressed in the garments and symbols used during the ballgame. The figure to be sacrificed has his arms held back by the one on the left. The figure on the right holds the sacrificial knife. The interlaced volute decoration is evident in the frieze below the panel. Bottom: The ornate niches and chiseled cornices of El Tajín are a distinctive hallmark of its architectural style.

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.

Frontal view of the Pyramid of the Niches with its monumental staircase. This building was mostly built with carefully cut and crafted flagstones. Originally, the pyramid was covered in stucco which served as the base for dark red paint, while the niches were painted in black in order to deepen the shadows of the recessed niches. The pyramid has seven stories and its ritual function wasn’t primarily astronomical. It has been proposed that the deep niches imitate caves, which in Mexico have long been considered to be passageways to the underworld where many of the gods reside.
Top: rear side view of the Pyramid of the Niches from a nearby building. Bottom: a side view of the Pyramid of the Niches.

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…

Three different examples from the mural paintings at Las Higueras. The archaeological site of Las Higueras is dated from the Late Classic Period (ca. 600-900 AD.), and is located in the coast of the Gulf of Veracruz near the Colipa river (Mexico).
The archaeological site of Cempoala in Veracruz is located in the Úrsulo Galván Municipality (state of Veracruz, Mexico). This site was inhabited mainly by Totonacs, Chinantecas and Zapotecs, and was one of the most important Totonac settlements during the Post-Classical period. Today’s remains of the site were at its time the most important political-religious center of the city. The structures at Cempoala were built with river stones, joined with mortar and flattened with the lime produced from burning shells and snails, by using these last elements the buildings shone from far away as if they were built in silver.
  1. La Huasteca
Sculpture from La Huasteca culture. Depicted here are some deities related to Tlazolteotl, the Aztec Goddess of filth and carnal sin, they collectively date from 900-1521 AD. (British Museum, London).

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.

A Huastec statue of a man wearing a decorated headdress, a necklace, and a skirt, ca. 1300-1500 AD. found in Tampico (Tamaulipas, Mexico) and now housed at the Louvre Museum (Paris).
A Huasteca “Life-Death” figure front (left-life) and back (right-death), ca. 900-1250. It was found at San Luis Potosi in Northern Veracruz state (Mexico). This sculpture was made in sandstone with traces of pigment (Brooklyn Museum, New York).
The famous Huastec “adolescent” believed to represent a young priest of Quetzalcoatl or the deity itself (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City). One of the most delicate pieces of ancient Mexico, the Huastec adolescent was found in Tamuin, San Luis Potosi. This masterpiece of the Huastec sculpture shows a young man completely naked, who discreetly covers his body with the filigree of an imaginative tattoo, his skull is deformed and from his back hangs a squatted figurine with his head completely turned up-and backwards.