Art has the power to present new perspectives, challenge old ideas, and highlight injustice. At other times, art reaffirms shared views and lifeways. This is just as true today as it was in the past. This online exhibit highlights how in Mesoamerica—a geographic and cultural zone that includes Belize, Guatemala and parts of Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador—rulers used art in these ways.
Mesoamerican rulers were responsible for keeping order in the cosmic and human realms. They used art to persuade followers of their right to govern by reinforcing shared ideas. At other times, they controlled the production and distribution of art to manage public opinion more directly. In other words, they used it as propaganda tool.
Below you will find art that speaks to the role of power, propaganda, and persuasion in validating rulership from the cultures of West Mexico, the Maya, and Mexica (Aztec).
One thing these cultures shared was the absence of depictions of individual leaders. Community seems to have been emphasized over individuality. In this region works of art may have been used as persuasive devices to create and reaffirm community connections.
Dance GroupSan Antonio Museum of Art
This ceramic figural scene is a perfect example of the concept of community, with four individuals dancing to music produced by the middle figure. As a community activity, a dance would reinforce membership in the group.
Religion was a major avenue used to build and reinforce community connections in West Mexico. The seven-lobed abstract shape in the center of this earthenware bowl may symbolize a cave.
Caves represent entrances to the Underworld, where people travel to after death. They are also places of creation as told in Mexica stories, one of which references a cave with seven chambers.
The shared association of caves with life and death would have created links among the people of West Mexico and beyond.
A practice several West Mexican cultures shared was the creation of shaft tombs. These human-made underground chambers consisted of long shafts that ended in open spaces. Many individuals were placed within a single tomb. They were accompanied by objects such as earthenware figures and vessels. Unfortunately, most shaft tomb objects in museums come from looted tombs making it hard to understand connections between specific objects and tombs.
Seated Female Nursing BabySan Antonio Museum of Art
Earthenware figures, like this female nursing a baby, are the most famous shaft tomb objects.
Is this woman a specific, known person whose likeness was copied? Does she represent the feminine ideal in West Mexican society? Is she a goddess or a human? These questions are unanswerable for now.
Male FigureSan Antonio Museum of Art
Statues that depict males were also common. This example may be of a soldier holding a weapon, perhaps a club.
Male Figure Male Figure (ca. 200 B.C.-A.D. 300) by UnknownSan Antonio Museum of Art
The painted clothing on the shoulders has a pattern known to represent jaguar spots in West Mexican art. Jaguars were symbols of authority and power throughout Mesoamerica, and the use of this pattern may symbolize these concepts here.
Early Maya art focused on deities who were worshiped during community gatherings at city centers. Starting around 100 BC, however, portraits of specific rulers and the royal court appeared on portable and immobile art.
Through the written record, the Maya preserved the names of individual kings, queens, and their accomplishments. Maya writing that has survived focuses on religion and the life of the royal court. This suggests that the royal court controlled act of writing.
Objects found in royal residences, ceremonial spaces, and burials generally are made by the most skilled artists, often using rare or exotic raw materials.
Such items rarely appear among the public, indicating elite control over specific types of art. These controls and biases indicate that Maya nobles used art as a propaganda tool, serving to validate rulers’ power and authority.
Platter with Vision Serpent (ca. A.D. 700-900) by UnknownSan Antonio Museum of Art
Maya rulers were responsible for maintaining open communication with supernatural entities. The central motif painted on this large shallow bowl shows one way this was accomplished.
Referred to as a vision serpent, the snake serves as a conduit between the human and spirit worlds. Its identifying features include a feathery body, a gaping mouth, and areas of flayed skin depicted as ovals filled with a cross-hatching pattern.
Emerging from the vision serpent’s mouth may be the Maya maize god, a major actor in the creation of the world. It would have been vital for a Maya ruler to demonstrate a connection to such an important deity.
The band of icons around the rim are known as pseudoglyphs, which are unreadable imitations of real glyphs. The bowl would have been valued for the scribal knowledge it displays despite the use of unreadable glyphs, because writing was restricted to the elite sector of society.
On this painted bowl, groups of three solid black circles forming an inverted triangle, lines of small black dots, and groups of slashes are symbolic of the jaguar.
Jaguars have long been admired for their agility, intelligence, and prowess as the apex predators of the tropical forest, so it is not surprising that rulers sought to associate themselves with the jaguar’s attributes. They wore jaguar pelts and adorned thrones and war banners with them. They also ordered objects to be decorated with jaguar motifs.
Bowl with Abstract Designs (ca. A.D. 750) by UnknownSan Antonio Museum of Art
Interspersed with the jaguar symbols are cacao seeds that appear as painted black ovals with one or two orange lines.
Chocolate is made from cacao, a plant native to Mesoamerica. The Maya made a cacao beverage they consumed during ceremonies that solidified royals’ relationships within and between major centers. Since it was rare, the Maya elite class controlled its consumption.
Pair of Shell and Jade Pendants (ca. A.D. 500-600) by UnknownSan Antonio Museum of Art
Maya royalty wore unique clothing and adornments that made them visually stand out from the rest of society. They commissioned or controlled the production of much of their clothing and adornments, including items like this pair of carved shell pendants with jade inlays.
The Maya noble class also restricted access to raw materials, especially those that were rare or held special significance. Marine shell and jade are prime examples of these kinds of materials.
Marine shell was generally considered a rare material, making it highly valued by the Maya. It represented a watery place, specifically the Maya Underworld, where one goes after death before transitioning into a revered ancestor.
The shell pendants were carved into the likeness of the Underworld deity, known as God N. An elderly deity, artist-scribe, and patron of rain and thunder, he plays an essential role as a bearer of the universe.
Pair of Shell and Jade Pendants (ca. A.D. 500-600) by UnknownSan Antonio Museum of Art
God N is often depicted wearing a headdress made of a net-like textile.
With only one known natural source in all of Mesoamerica, jade was also a valued material. The Maya linked jade and its green color with fertility and rebirth. The use of jade here may reference God N’s role as a patron of rain and its importance in sustaining the earth.
In Maya art, individuals who wear deer headdresses most often include hunters, warriors, and ballplayers, all of which hold special status due to their unique skills. The portly male portrayed in this figurine, however, does not possess the physique or adornments typical of such individuals, who are usually depicted with spears, war banners, or ballgame gear.
The figure may instead represent a rare depiction of an ajk’uhuun, a priest or guardian responsible for performing religious acts and conducting scribal duties.
Ceremonies performed by these priests/guardians supported efforts to maintain order within the cosmos by appeasing deities. Their assumed writing and reading skills would have aided rulers in many ways, one of which was to immortalize and praise the feats of kings and queens.
This colorful, animated three-dimensional stucco portrait head is an excellent example of a decorative architectural element. The red, black, and blue pigments conjure visions of vibrant buildings within Maya urban cities.
The individual portrayed here is unknown, but they wear earrings shaped like those commonly worn by Maya royalty and deities. The segmented band across the forehead acted as support for a missing headdress. Information to identify this individual and their role in Maya society would have been captured within details of the headdress.
Maya rulers were the primary architects of the cities they governed. Control over the material resources and labor involved in the construction of the cities likely demonstrated a ruler’s managerial power.
The Mexica (Aztec)
In 1325, the Mexica founded the city of Tenochtitlan on an island in Lake Texcoco, a large body of water located in the Basin of Mexico. Over time, they developed a multi-city empire through warfare and alliance building.
The supreme leader of the empire was the Huey Tlatoani, who lived in Tenochtitlan. The depiction of rulers in Mexica art is rare, with less than a dozen known examples. This may have been due to indirect governance strategies. Once a city was conquered and folded into the Mexica empire, the local ruler (tlatoani) was allowed to stay in place so long as tax and tribute was paid to senior rulers, especially the Huey Tlatoani.
Running alongside the state economy of tax and tribute was a market economy, in which most objects deemed art today were purchased. Participation in this system was based on purchasing power and resulted in nobles and commoners consuming similar types of objects. Only a few objects and raw materials were restricted for use by the noble class Thus, art in the Mexica empire worked as a persuasive device to build and maintain local and long-distance alliances.
Maize Goddess (Chicomecoatl)San Antonio Museum of Art
Depicted in this stone statue is Chicomecoatl (Seven Serpent), the Mexica goddess of dried or harvested corn.
She holds two ears of corn in each hand.
She wears an amacalli or multi-tiered crown that would have been made of paper and decorated with rope and rosettes.
Throughout Mesoamerica, corn deities were worshipped for the sustenance they offered and as symbols of fertility. During the dry season, the festival Huey Tozoztli was held in honor of Chicomecoatl. Women dressed as the corn goddess would bless corn seeds for the upcoming planting season. Such events were likely sponsored by Mexica nobles and would have reinforced the important contribution of the general populace through their participation in the ceremony.
The Mexica built temples in honor of Chicomecoatl and would have placed statues of the deities inside these structures. This demonstrated direct planning of architectural centers by rulers, as well as their efforts to maintain vital connections to the divine world.
Female holding childSan Antonio Museum of Art
This ceramic figurine depicts a female figure wearing the typical ensemble and braided hairstyle of Mexica women.
Female holding childSan Antonio Museum of Art
The small figure she holds duplicates her appearance and may represent a doll or a child. This dualism suggests the work’s connection to reproduction and concepts of continuity.
The skirt worn by the figure has an intricate woven or stamped pattern, the design of which may have added value to it since Mexica used lengths of cloth as a form of currency and tribute.
The figurine is mold-made, which allowed for quick mass production. It is commonly found among households of the general populace and thus represents a shared belief system that contributed to sustained community bonds.
Mexica temples were places of public and private worship. Rulers would ascend the central staircase wearing their finest regalia to perform ceremonies at the top of the temple stairs in view of the public. Private ceremonies took place within the temples. The restricted access to this space reinforced the special position and abilities of rulers.
This small ceramic model of a Mexica temple is unusual because of the round structure at the top of the staircase. Most models show square buildings, but round temples have been documented among the Mexica. One such pyramid is dedicated to the wind god, Ehecatl.
Model of PyramidSan Antonio Museum of Art
The temple model is only 2 1/2 inches tall, which indicates it was likely a religious icon used in household rituals and perhaps obtained as a souvenir of an event or place. It appears to have functioned as a whistle, thus linking it to concept of wind.
An important way rulers retained their status was to hold feasts that included elaborate meals, entertainment, and gift-giving. These events displayed the wealth that Mexica rulers amassed through the tribute system and developed social or political debts with the guests.
Types of food consumed during feasts included meat stews, tamales, tortillas, a chocolate drink, and pulque (a fermented beverage made from the sap of the maguey plant). From rulers to commoners, the same type of vessels for feasts. There are only a few ceramic types that are associated exclusively with elites.
Drinking Cup (ca. A.D. 1350-1520) by UnknownSan Antonio Museum of Art
This goblet could have once held beverages such as pulque.
Polychrome BowlSan Antonio Museum of Art
This multicolored tripod bowl could have held stews, tamales, or tortillas. There are rattles in each of the feet which would have made for festive sounds during feasts.
Mexica rulers commissioned the creation of fine objects from artisans throughout the empire. This mosaic mask is an example of such a piece.
This mask possibly was made by Mixtec artisans from the Valley of Oaxaca, an area famous for the production of turquoise mosaics. Turquoise was available in a few areas within Mesoamerica and was more common in the American Southwest. Both Mixtec and Mexica rulers would have relied on their established political networks to obtain the Southwestern turquoise. The exclusion of turquoise objects from households of the general populace demonstrates controls over production and/or distribution.
Whether the rulers of West Mexican, Maya, and Mexica societies relied on the art of persuasion to reinforce shared ideas or controlled art to manage its message their goals were the same - to lead and unite people. The rulers within each culture however used different approaches to meet these goals, demonstrating the interplay between art and various governing strategies.
This story is based on research of permanent collection of Art of the Americas before 1521 by Dr. Bernadette Cap, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Thanks is extended for feedback on this story provided by Lucía Abramovich Sánchez, Elda Silva, and Lindsy Rymers of the San Antonio Museum of Art.