The Murals of Cacaxtla

[ Pre-Columbian Studies ]

The Murals of Cacaxtla

The Power of Painting in Ancient Central Mexico

By Claudia Lozoff Brittenham

Presenting the first comprehensive art historical study of some magnificent Mesoamerican murals, this book demonstrates how generations of ancient Mexican artists, patrons, and audiences created a powerful statement of communal identity that still captures the imagination.

January 2015

Not yet published; available for pre-order


33% website discount price


8.5 x 11 | 320 pp. | 38 b&w illustrations, 6 maps, 15 b&w photos, 5 color illustrations, 271 color photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-76089-9

Between AD 650 and 950, artists at the small Central Mexican city-state of Cacaxtla covered the walls of their most important sacred and public spaces with dazzling murals of gods, historical figures, and supernatural creatures. Testimonies of a richly interconnected ancient world, the Cacaxtla paintings present an unexpectedly deep knowledge of the art and religion of the Maya, Zapotec, and other distant Mesoamerican peoples. Painted during a period of war and shifting alliances after the fall of Teotihuacan, the murals’ distinctive fusion of cosmopolitan styles and subjects claimed a powerful identity for the beleaguered city-state.

Presenting the first cohesive, art historical study of the entire painting corpus, The Murals of Cacaxtla demonstrates that these magnificent works of art constitute a sustained and local painting tradition, treasured by generations of patrons and painters. Exhaustive chapters on each of the mural programs make it possible to see how the Cacaxtla painting tradition developed over time, responding to political and artistic challenges. Lavishly illustrated, The Murals of Cacaxtla illuminates the agency of ancient artists and the dynamics of artistic synthesis in a Mesoamerican context, offering a valuable counterpoint to studies of colonial and modern art operating at the intersection of cultural traditions.

List of Illustrations and Tables




1. Cacaxtla in Context

The Acropolis and Its Paintings
Greater Cacaxtla-Xochitécatl
Diego Muñoz Camargo's Description of Cacaxtla
Problems of Evidence
Between Powerful Neighbors
Cacaxtla among the Epiclassic City-States
Art and Identity
Chaos Again

2. The Murals

Materials and Techniques

3. The Feathered Serpent and the Captive Stair: Polemics of Style

The Serpent Corridor

Feathered Serpents
Aquatic Borders
Feathered Serpents and Aquatic Borders
The Afterlife of the Feathered Serpent

The Captive Stair

Text and Image
A Foreign Style?
Reconsidering Captive Art

Polemics of Style

4. The Temple of Venus: Astral Bodies

Venus/Star Symbolism
Bilingualism and Polyvalence

5. The Battle Mural: Violence in the Plaza

Time and Inevitability
Patterns of Naming
The Dangers of Difference
The Battle Mural in Mesoamerican Context

6. The Red Temple: Maize in the Underworld

A Merchant God and His Wares

Painting Luxury

Of Maize, Cacao, and Men
Supernatural Landscape

7. Structure A: The Mountain of Sustenance

The Portico and Jamb Murals: A Portrait of the Altepetl

Guardians and Antecedents
Names and Dates
Duality and Difrasismo
Sustenance Mountain

Continuity and Change

Painted Earth: The Inner Mural
Later Interventions: Blood and Clay

Buried Paintings


Appendix: Radiocarbon Dates for the Cacaxtla Murals

A Review of Radiocarbon Dating and Reporting
Early Classic Radiocarbon Dates at Cacaxtla
Radiocarbon Dates Associated with Mural Painting
Chronology of the Cacaxtla Paintings





Every year on June 24, a bell tolls deep inside the hill of Cerro la Frontera. A great serpent lives in that hill, coiled around its treasure. For years, stories told in the neighboring village of San Miguel del Milagro, Tlaxcala, Mexico, were all that was known or said about the archaeological site that we call Cacaxtla today (Moise Ramírez Portillo, personal communication 2005; Delgado n.d.).

Things changed in September 1975, when the men of San Miguel del Milagro gathered to do their annual communal maintenance work in preparation for the festival of San Miguel Arcángel, the patron saint of the community. When the leaders of the work group did not arrive, the team decided to go "rascar" (scratch at the surface of) the mysterious neighboring hill instead of cleaning irrigation ditches (Delgado n.d.). They soon uncovered a painting in an astounding state of preservation, its colors brilliant and vibrant. This mural showed a man, his skin painted black, wearing an eagle costume and clutching a double-headed serpent bar, a symbol of rulership and authority (Figure 1; Abascal et al. 1976; Foncerrada 1976; López and Molina 1976).

The Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) sent a team of archaeologists, led by Diana López, for a brief season of excavations (López n.d.). New discoveries during this period caused excavations to be extended into a second season, and then a third. The first mural was found to be part of an extensive and enigmatic program of decoration of a two-room temple, named Structure A, one of two paired figures painted on the walls flanking the inner doorway. Additional murals adorned the jambs of that door (Figure 2), and a fifth mural, very poorly preserved, decorated the rear wall of the inner chamber (Figure 3). Days before the scheduled end of excavations, dislodged stones revealed yet another painting: the monumental Battle Mural, a gory scene of combat over twenty meters long (Figure 4; López de Molina and Molina Feal 1986:23). A mural in very poor condition was discovered on the southern periphery of the acropolis in the Cuarto de la Escalera: only the legs of two pairs of figures facing a central stairway were preserved (Figure 5; López de Molina and Molina Feal 1986:28, 39–41). In addition, a cache of paint fragments was found in a sunken patio, the Patio Hundido, which formed part of Cacaxtla's massive northern platform (see Chapter 7, Figures 308 and 309; López de Molina and Molina Feal 1986:22–23, 43; for more on the history of discovery and conservation at Cacaxtla, see González Hurtado 2013).

In the late 1980s, when a roof was built to cover the entire acropolis, four new paintings were discovered. The largest and most important was the Red Temple, a stairway where the walls were painted with an image of an old merchant god and his backpack in a supernatural landscape (Figure 6; Santana et al. 1990:331–334). Directly in front of the Red Temple murals, the Captive Stair displayed images of emaciated, almost skeletal, bodies, meant to be tread on in an enactment of humiliation and defeat; glyphs painted on the riser of the stair seem to name subjugated towns (Figure 7; Carlson 1991:50–51; G. Stuart 1992:130–133). Conquest was also the theme of a painting found in Pozo 11-A on the northern periphery of the acropolis, where an oval cartouche containing a human leg pierced by an arrow was painted directly on an adobe wall (Figure 8; Espinoza and Ortega n.d.; Moreno et al. 2005). A final painting complex, not far from the Red Temple, was named the Temple of Venus for the male and female figures painted on its interior pillars. Each of these blue-skinned figures wears a giant star or Venus symbol at its waist, and the male figure also has a scorpion's tail, a feature associated with celestial bodies in Mesoamerican astronomy (Figure 9; Baus 1990; Carlson 1991:19–26). What started as a single mural was revealed to be an entire painted city.

The principal problem which the paintings pose is one of style. In their naturalism and their emphasis on the human form as a real, corporeal entity, these murals strongly resemble Maya painting from southern Mexico and Guatemala, over 700 kilometers to the southeast (Figure 10; map in Figure 41; Abascal et al. 1976:23–49; Foncerrada 1976:12; Robertson 1985:297–299; Walling 1982:210–218). They are more like the paintings at Maya cities like Bonampak or Calakmul than they are like any other work of art known from Mesoamerica. Equally important, the Cacaxtla paintings are a far cry from the hieratic murals of Teotihuacan, 70 kilometers to the northwest, the dominant painting tradition in Central Mexico, even though they share some iconographic elements with these paintings (Figure 11). Yet there are also glimmers of knowledge of other Mesoamerican traditions, especially the art of the Gulf Coast and Oaxaca, which have led some scholars to declare the paintings cosmopolitan or eclectic (Foncerrada 1980:184; Kubler 1980:171–172; López de Molina 1977a:7).

Determining the identity of the Cacaxtla painters has been a principal preoccupation of most commentators. For many scholars, the explanation was simple: Maya painters had come to Cacaxtla to create these murals (Graulich 1990:110–111; Robertson 1985:298–302; Walling 1982:210–213). Other authors turned to the Olmeca Xicalanca, an ethnic group mentioned in association with the site by sixteenth-century chronicler Diego Muñoz Camargo, to explain both the hybrid style and the Maya associations of the paintings (Muñoz Camargo 1986:79–80; see Foncerrada 1980:186–188; Lombardo 1986:224; McVicker 1985:84, 98–99).

Yet the Cacaxtla murals are a firmly local product. They correspond to different stratigraphic levels and are the work of numerous artists (Brittenham 2008:127–224, 2013). They provide evidence of an extended painting tradition―a cohesive and unified body of work created by generations of artists who shared similar training, background, and artistic goals. The Cacaxtla paintings may look strikingly Maya at first glance, but closer examination reveals substantive originality in style, technique, and iconography. In spite of the human scale and proportions of the painted figures and their naturalistic colors, the Cacaxtla paintings privilege uniformity of line and color deployed in a shallow pictorial space, just like many works of Central Mexican art both before and after. Their materials and techniques, as much as their style, are a synthesis of different Mesoamerican painting traditions, perfectly adapted to local conditions. At the same time, the murals demonstrate a sophisticated knowledge of Maya art and religion, as well as an awareness of the broader Mesoamerican world. It is likely that Maya artists played a role in the creation of the Cacaxtla painting style, but the paintings that we see today are the result of a complex process of interpretation and assimilation, where Maya painting practice was integrated with local materials, technologies, aesthetics, and iconographic concerns. The Cacaxtla painting tradition may have drawn on foreign inspiration, but it was transformed into a symbol of local identity.

Sixteenth-century accounts give a sense of profoundly local conceptions of identity, what James Lockhart has termed "micro-ethnicity" (1992:14–17, 27, 115). Identification with a community or city-state (altepetl in Nahuatl, cah in Maya, tayu in Mixtec, queche in Zapotec), if not an even smaller lineage-based unit within the community, was far more important than the broad linguistic or religious groups that we tend to identify today (see also Berdan 2008; Brumfiel 1994; Brumfiel et al. 1994; Hirth 2003a; Marcus 1983a; Restall 2004; Schroeder 1991:119–153, 205–222; Umberger 2008). Guided by these sources-.and by the paintings themselves―I am inclined to imagine identity at Cacaxtla as fiercely local in focus, centered first and foremost on the altepetl itself.

The art of Cacaxtla thus challenges the elision of style and ethnicity that has frequently characterized Mesoamerican studies and documents the role of art in negotiating social upheaval. Rather than blindly adhering to an ethnic style, the artists of Cacaxtla selected elements of different artistic traditions and blended them to create a unique local style appropriate to the political and social conditions of the tumultuous Epiclassic period between AD 650 and 950. Following the collapse of Teotihuacan, artists and patrons at Cacaxtla created and used this distinctive art style to distance themselves from their former imperial allies, actively associating themselves with the alternative political model of the exotic and wealthy Maya city-states to the south. Art was used to craft a visible identity for the city and, through this public performance of identity, to define the nature of Cacaxtla society. The Cacaxtla paintings offer an unequalled opportunity to examine the construction of identity in ancient Mesoamerica, and the ways that art was used to articulate both commonality and alterity. They reveal the fluid and constructed natures of both "style" and "ethnicity"―neither term exists apart from individual judgments and classificatory acts, and both may have been understood very differently by ancient Mesoamericans―and cause us to interrogate the circular ways that both style and ethnicity are defined in the archaeological record (the literature is vast; see especially Barth 1969; Dean and Leibsohn 2003; Elsner 2003; Hodder 1982, 1990; S. Jones 1997; Kaufmann 2004:43–103; Neer 2005, 2010:6–11; Pasztory 1989. Other classic studies include Ackerman 1962; Ginzburg 1998; Gombrich 1968; Kubler 1985 [1970]; Lang 1987; Prown 1980; Schapiro 1994 [1953]; I. Winter 1998).

The traditional account of Mesoamerica, convenient for textbooks and survey courses, museum labels, and academic fields of study, has emphasized neat (but not precisely commensurate) units of culture: Olmec, Teotihuacan, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, Gulf Coast, West Mexico―a combination of ethnic, linguistic, regional, and imperial categories, with one extremely powerful multiethnic city-state thrown in for good measure. These units may not correspond especially well to the way that ancient Mesoamericans categorized themselves (see, e.g., Sahagún 1950–1982:book 10, chapter 29, 165–197; see also Berdan 2008; Brittenham n.d.a, n.d.b; Brumfiel 1994; Brumfiel et al. 1994; Restall 2004; Umberger 2008). Each group lived fairly isolated from the others, the story goes, apart from the exceptional moments―Olmec exchange, Teotihuacan expansion, Aztec imperialism―when cultures came into contact. Scholars emphasized the differences between these cultures, their religions, and their art styles, with a special focus on "Maya exceptionalism"―the ways that the Maya surpassed all of their Mesoamerican cousins in artistic refinement and cultural achievement.

At the same time, there has always been an awareness of the shared aspects of Mesoamerican culture―the 260-day divinatory calendar, the ballgame, maize agriculture―the very things that allow the definition of Mesoamerica as a culture area (Kirchhoff 1943). Alfredo López Austin and Leonardo López Luján refer to a "núcleo duro," or shared core of Mesoamerican heritage, which encompasses practice, myth, religion, and cosmology (1996:62–63). By stressing underlying similarity rather than nuanced difference and incorporating contemporary ethnographic data, scholars have revealed shared ideas and images extending as far back as the Olmec and as far north as the American Southwest (e.g., Graulich 1997; López Austin 1990, 1997; Martin 2006a; M.E. Miller and Quilter 2006; Taube 1983, 1986, 1995, 2001). With this broad comparative approach, the Mesoamerican world looks increasingly cohesive―and the Maya are fully part of it.

New tools of analysis, such as stable-isotope studies, are also showing ancient migration and assimilation to be far more common than we had previously supposed (e.g., Price et al. 2000, 2010; White et al. 2002, 2007; White, Spence et al. 2004; White, Storey et al. 2004; see also Michael Smith 2007:591–596). While it has been customary to think about Mesoamerican ethnic groups as monolithic blocs, mounting evidence for ancient mobility suggests that the realities could be more complex. City-states could be multiethnic, and the gulf between elites and commoners could prove more decisive than ethnic, linguistic, or geographical ties (Brumfiel 1994; Lockhart 1992:20–28, 96– 110; Pohl n.d.; Restall 2001:353–376, 2004:68–78; Taube 1994:244). People were on the move throughout Mesoamerica, both within and between regions, both in times of stability and times of turmoil, for reasons as diverse as trade, pilgrimage, conquest, or resettlement. Extensive contact between different regions of Mesoamerica was the norm, not the exception.

The art of Cacaxtla makes Mesoamerican exchange of ideas visible and thus helps us see it elsewhere in the Mesoamerican artistic record. We find artists constantly copying, borrowing, misunderstanding, adapting, reinterpreting, transforming, and naturalizing foreign ideas and forms, using them to craft successful and distinctive visual identities for their respective city-states (see Michael Baxandall's comments on the problem of "influence," 1985:58–60, cited in a Mesoamerican context in Pasztory 1989:30–31). Guided by a growing literature on artistic synthesis in both colonial Latin American situations (e.g., Cummins 2002; Dean and Leibsohn 2003; Gruzinski 2002; Harris 2000; Leibsohn 2009; Magaloni 2004a; J. Peterson 1993, 1995; Reyes-Valerio 2000) and other contexts around the world (e.g., Burger 1992:128–214; Feldman 2006; Flood 2009; Fromont 2011, n.d.), it is increasingly possible to understand these appropriations of foreign tradition as significant artistic and intellectual achievements in their own right, imaginative and creative acts of interpretation.

In the end, the identity of the painters is only part of the puzzle of the Cacaxtla painting tradition. These paintings required deliberate choices by patrons at Cacaxtla, who commissioned, paid for, and authorized the use of public spaces for these murals. The audiences for the paintings were diverse and undoubtedly understood the murals in varying ways. While some sophisticated travelers and collectors may have recognized the Maya and Mesoamerican allusions in the murals, for many, the Cacaxtla paintings may have been recognizable only as a distinctive local style, "the way that we paint here." But for all audiences, the power of the Cacaxtla paintings depended on viewers' ability to see style as well as subject, to respond, however unconsciously, to that elusive and ineffable quality of a work of art that allows it to be associated with other works (Hodder 1990; Neer 2005; I. Winter 1998).

The Cacaxtla paintings mobilize discourses of style and ethnicity, but should not be constrained by them. What is more important is how these paintings created sacred spaces, enriching life within the acropolis. That the murals mattered deeply to the citizens of Cacaxtla is indicated by their painstaking burial, so different from the treatment of works of art in other media, which were battered, dismantled, and discarded with little ceremony (see Chapter 7; Brittenham 2009). The way that paintings were singled out for special attention guides this book's focus on the murals of Cacaxtla as crucial documents about the community.

Recent years have witnessed a renaissance in Cacaxtla studies. Andrés Santana Sandoval's long-awaited El santuario de Cacaxtla (2011) offers a summation of his decades of work at the site, while Mari Carmen Serra Puche and Jesús Carlos Lazcano Arce's Vida cotidiana XochitVida cotidiana Xochitécatl-Cacaxtlaeacute;catl-Cacaxtla (2011) presents the findings of an important regional archaeological project focused on residential areas and aspects of daily life. Finally, the volumes of the Proyecto La Pintura Mural Prehispánica en México devoted to Cacaxtla (Uriarte and Salazar 2013) amasses a wide range of innovative and interdisciplinary perspectives on the murals of Cacaxtla, along with magnificent illustrations, and will be an indispensable resource for anyone interested in the site. From the moment of their discovery, the Cacaxtla paintings have been the focus of excellent article-length studies (e.g., Abascal et al. 1976; Escalante 2002; Graulich 1990; Kubler 1980; McVicker 1985; Nagao 1989; Robertson 1985), many of them anthologized in several important volumes, including Cacaxtla: El lugar donde muere la lluvia en la tierra (Lombardo et al. 1986), Mesoamerica after the Decline of Teotihuacan (Diehl and Berlo, eds. 1989), Cacaxtla: Proyecto de investigación y conservación (1990), and the Memorias del Primero Coloquio Internacional Cacaxtla a Sus Treinta Años de Investigación (2007; Uriarte and Salazar 2013 is the latest addition to this category). Yet the paintings have received surprisingly little monographic attention since Marta Foncerrada de Molina's study of Structure A and the Battle Mural, posthumously published as Cacaxtla: La iconografía de los olmeca-xicalanca (Foncerrada 1993). The Cacaxtla paintings call out for a unified narrative that moves beyond focused stylistic and iconographic concerns to tell a larger and more cohesive story of the painting tradition at the city.

While the paintings have often been considered in the order in which they were discovered, this book will present the murals in the order in which they were created, allowing a discussion of the development of the Cacaxtla painting tradition over time. We will see how artists and audiences engaged with the works of the past and incorporated them into new compositions, and we will consider the interrelationships between different painting complexes. By studying the paintings in the order in which they were created, we can explore how generations of artists, patrons, and audiences invented, experienced, and refined a mural tradition, how they created public art that continues to capture the imagination today.

This book begins by introducing the ancient city of Cacaxtla in Chapter 1, situating it in the broader geopolitical context of Epiclassic Mesoamerica. Chapter 2 briefly introduces the materials, techniques, and chronology of the Cacaxtla paintings (more detail about chronology may be found in the Appendix). The remaining body of the text devotes a single chapter to each of the major painting complexes at Cacaxtla, exploring the architectural context, history, and meaning of each mural program. Chapter 3 begins with two of the earliest known murals, the Serpent Corridor, which preceded the Red Temple, and the Captive Stair at its feet, and shows how their juxtaposition makes important claims about the nature of the Cacaxtla painting tradition. The polyvalent murals of the Temple of Venus are the subject of Chapter 4, and Chapter 5 examines the violent and disturbing Battle Mural, the most public of the Cacaxtla paintings. Chapter 6 presents the murals of the Red Temple stairway, exploring the ways that they emphasize the interdependence of agriculture, trade, and warfare. Chapter 7 rounds out the discussion of the Cacaxtla murals with an examination of the murals of Structure A, which mobilize familiar discourses of style and duality to forge a profound statement of civic identity. Throughout, the Cacaxtla murals are revealed to be a powerful and creative endeavor of artistic synthesis.

Cacaxtla reveals the absolute centrality of art in the ancient world. Its citizens turned to painting to navigate political tensions, embody religious tenets, and contextualize daily life. This is a history of the Cacaxtla murals. The goal is to examine the paintings on their own terms, not solely as documents about ethnicity, interregional exchange, or Mesoamerican cosmopolitanism, but also as powerful artistic statements in their own right. They are the result of dogged experimentation with materials and techniques, striking compositions of color and form, brilliant encapsulations of complex cosmologies in dualistic opposition, powerful and durable images of great significance to their community and its leaders. The paintings are not mere documents of a reality now long past; they are also polemics and aspirations, media through which a community envisioned and crafted its future.


Chicago, Illinois

Brittenham is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago. She is the coauthor, with Mary Miller, of The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak and the coauthor, with Stephen Houston and colleagues, of Veiled Brightness: A History of Ancient Maya Color.

"This book will make a major and lasting contribution to the study of Mesoamerican art. . . . I am confident it will be consulted and referred to widely and will be regarded as a methodological benchmark. Although it focuses on a particular set of questions and accompanying answers that reveal the complex links between the [Cacaxtla] paintings, their patrons, artists, and meanings and a wide range of other Mesoamerican sites, imagery, styles, and cultural themes, the breadth of knowledge and intellectual inquisitiveness and sophistication it displays support rating it favorably with, and perhaps higher than, some other key monographs in the field."
―Jeff Karl Kowalski, Professor of Art History and Distinguished Research Professor, Northern Illinois University