Death in the History of Mexico

A tour of the collection of the Museo Nacional de la Muerte

By National Museum of Death

Nail-through-skull calavera by AnónimoNational Museum of Death

Pre-Hispanic Era

The cultures of ancient Mexico were heterogeneous, but they shared common roots of religious fervor which included polytheism, human sacrifice and cannibalism as an indispensable part to explain and make sense of the universe's workings.

Life and death, Anónimo, From the collection of: National Museum of Death
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For these inhabitants of the Pre-Hispanic world, the funerary cult occupied a place of primary importance.

Edible dog, Anónimo, From the collection of: National Museum of Death
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The artistic pieces that are conserved were designed as ofrendas to accompany the dead to the world beyond.

Codex Serna by Genaro LópezNational Museum of Death

The nahuas depicted their calendar with the use of skulls.

Miquiztli, sixth day of the month.

Miccailhuiltontli, the ninth month, when the fiesta of the little dead is celebrated; and Hueimiccailhuitlo, the tenth month, when the great festival of the dead is held.

Skull for use in rites by AnónimoNational Museum of Death

Tzompantli has two forms, a monument with rows of skulls: an architectural construction with stone skulls...

Calavera by AnónimoNational Museum of Death

...or with the heads of those who have been sacrificed to honor the gods.

Christ by AnónimoNational Museum of Death

New Hispanic Period

After the conquest, evangelists introduced Catholicism, banned human sacrifices, cannibalism, cremation, and demonized all the Pre-Hispanic gods.

Funeral rites of Don Ildefonso Núñez by Montes de OcaNational Museum of Death

They used the manuals to teach the believers how to arrive with a sin free soul and reach a good death. Death of a character from a privileged social status was a show.

Cenotaph to Don Francisco Javier Lizarra, M. Rodriguez, From the collection of: National Museum of Death
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Funeral rites of Don Ildefonso Núñez by Montes de OcaNational Museum of Death

According to funerary books, the event turned into a pompous funerary celebration with popular attendance.

Cenotaph to Don Francisco Javier Lizarra by M. RodriguezNational Museum of Death

The funeral procession left Cathedral to a temple or convent where masses were celebrated and a stone in honor of the deceased was placed.

The skeletons, bones and tibias were the basic decoration.

Fandango, merry dance by AnónimoNational Museum of Death

Independent Mexico

Free of religious education, the poorest people started to visit their dead on the Day of the Dead; cemeteries became the epicenter of folk festivals and pilgrimages, with gastronomic, alcoholic, musical and sexual excesses.

Death mask of Benito Juárez by AnónimoNational Museum of Death

Liberals in power changed the religious sense of the colonial funerary rituals for an heroic and patriotic feeling.

This gave way to worship national heroes through public tributes to the mortuary remains, masks and monuments.

Little Pío the child martyr by AnónimoNational Museum of Death

The tradition of portraying dead children came from Spain. They were painted as "little angels" and the wealthy families commissioned this kind of oil paintings.

As photography became accessible to all social strata, portraits recognized under the ritual of "the death as a girl" were more common.

Having a photo with dead children dressed in white or as saints became popular, and they were also decorated with flowers and crowns, alone or in company.

The travails of purgatory by José Guadalupe PosadaNational Museum of Death

Death in the graphic arts

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the mock funeral oration, false epitaph, dialogue between imaginary dead and invented will were used with satirical purposes to criticize current governments, as a history of the satirical verses that became known as " calaveras", which were published in newspapers and magazines as cartoons.

The Eiffel Tower by Manuel ManillaNational Museum of Death

In the popular engraving one of the renowned artists was Manuel Manillo, over whom José Guadalupe Posada built his great work.

The seven vices by José Guadalupe PosadaNational Museum of Death

When Posada got into the world of calaveras, his art reached great heights. No one as he captured the historial moment of the party in the cemeteries.

ExLibris by Julio RuelasNational Museum of Death

Then there was the vision of Julio Ruelas, which was tragic, obsessive, morbid, dark, true to European fashion, and preferred by artists, writers and aristocrats.

The Maiden and Death by Roberto MontenegroNational Museum of Death

Contemporary period

Intellectuals and artists built the idea that all Mexicans had preferential treatment with death, which caused no fear and that they celebrated its arrival.

Tree of death by AnónimoNational Museum of Death

The Mexican people have taken these visions of death and have represented it their own views through folk art found in every community, town and city in the country.

Alebrije [highly coloured Oaxacan-Mexican folk art sculpture] by Pedro LinaresNational Museum of Death

Mexicans have death as their own and the ability to review it from the proposals of Mexican folk artists confronts us to this unique and personal reality that challenges us ...

Portrait of a little angel by AnónimoNational Museum of Death

...raises questions and allows us to live this "significant experience" proposed in the National Museum of Death.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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