Masterpieces of the Art and Architecture of Mexico

From the Aztecs to Frida Kahlo, this trip takes you on a whistle stop tour of the history of art and architecture in Mexico.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Smarthistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture

 El Tajin, Mexico

You are surrounded by huge stone pyramids and platforms. This is the center of El Tajin, one of the great cities of ancient Mesoamerica.

This society, Classic Veracruz Culture, may have been established as early as 100 C.E.—the same time that the ancient Roman Empire, across the Atlantic, had reached its greatest extent.

But the Classic Veracruz Culture would outlast ancient Rome and thrive until around 1200 C.E. El Tajin is well known for having 17 ballcourts.

Pyramid of the Niches

The Pyramid of the Niches is the best known structure here. Originally, a temple would have stood at the top of its seven steps. The Pyramid was coated with plaster and painted red. There are 365 niches on the pyramid that were painted black.

Structure 5

To the left of the Pyramid of the Niches is another large structure. Here the steps have given way to a smoother slope. Niches can be found here too, in the sides of the lower platform. Niches are a common feature throughout El Tajin.


In the distance, you can see a narrow strip of green grass surrounded by raised stone ramps. This is a ball court. The game may have had important religious meaning and in some cases may have decided political questions.

National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

As you look around you will see menacing deities, enormous serpent heads, and a couple of oversized rattlesnakes. We are in the galleries devoted to the Aztecs (or Mexica as they called themselves).

By the time that the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in 1519, the Aztecs had created the largest and most powerful empire in Mesoamerica. The Spanish set out to destroy the Mexica culture by ending its political and religious traditions, and by destroying its books, buildings, and artwork.

Calendar (Sun) Stone, 1502-20

We are looking at the most famous Aztec artifact—the Sun Stone, which tells of the creation of the Fifth Sun (the present era) according to Mexica cosmology. It would have originally been painted bright red and yellow.

Coatlicue (Snakes Her Skirt)

This is Coatlicue (pronounced, koh-at-lee-kway) or Snakes-Her-Skirt. She was the mother of the patron god of the Mexica. Her skirt is made of braided rattlesnakes, tied with a belt made of two additional snakes and with a human skull in the place of the buckle.

Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan, National Palace, Metropolitan Cathedral

If we look down to the left we see the ruins of the Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan (pronounced, ten-Oh-ch-Teet-lon). To the right, we see the largest cathedral in the Americas, Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven.

Between them you can just make out, in the distance, the enormous National Palace (look for the red awnings) and to its right, the central square of Mexico City, the Zócalo (look for the large white tent).

Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan (Mexico City)

We are looking down at the ruins of the most important temple in the Aztec Empire, the Templo Mayor. After 1521, the Spanish destroyed the Aztec temples and built houses and churches above them. The Templo Mayor is now a museum.

Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City

We have turned right and are looking towards the front of the Metropolitan Cathedral. The church subsumes the smaller original church that Hernán Cortés, the Spanish Conquistador, ordered constructed atop the Aztec sacred precinct, using stones from the Aztec temples.

Franz Mayer Museum, Mexico City

We are in the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City, a museum dedicated to decorative art and design. It is a beautiful and intimate museum that brings together painting, sculpture, furniture, and many other objects without the artificial divisions that so often isolate objects that were meant to co-exist.

For example, in this area we see pictures hanging beside textiles, chairs, a table, a desk, and chests.

Virgin of Guadalupe, late 17th century

In the 16th century, the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared to a man named Juan Diego and her image was imprinted inside his cloak. This cloak, with its miraculous image, now hangs in the Basilica of Guadalupe. This beautiful replica is inlaid with mother-of-pearl shell.

Diego Rivera, Frozen Assets, 1931-32

We are in beautiful intimate museum that houses the art collection of Dolores Olmedo.

The collector turned her home, near the edge of Mexico City, into a museum displaying hundreds of pre-Hispanic (before the Spanish conquest in 1521) objects, as well as works of art by two important Mexican artists of the 20th century, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera—who were married.

This room is filled with paintings, drawings, studies, and prints by Rivera including historical subjects with important political themes.

Frozen Assets

Here we see New York—a city of skyscrapers, but also a city that suffered during the Great Depression. Rivera enjoyed the patronage of wealthy American capitalists like the Rockefeller family, but was a socialist committed to the plight of poor and the disempowered.

Frozen Assets (top)

The top of the painting shows Manhattan’s skyline. Many of these buildings were either newly finished or under construction when the painting was produced. Just below the cranes, the mood changes — hundreds of people crammed together in a subway station wait for the train. 

Frozen Assets (bottom)

Below the roof we see hundreds of homeless  people. A single uniformed figure stands guard. Below we see a cutaway revealing the mechanical piping and wiring of the city. Below that, Rivera shows us a bank vault where the wealthy count their money.

Frida Kahlo at the Museo Dolores Olmedo

We are in a gallery filled with paintings and drawings by Frida Kahlo, an artist and the wife of Diego Rivera. Kahlo painted many self-portraits throughout her lifetime.

The second image from the left is The Mask, 1945.  It looks like there are eye holes cut into the canvas. These holes, however, are not real holes — they are instead paint. They make us think of the canvas as an actual mask that the artist could look through.

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait with Small Monkey, 1945

Kahlo surrounds herself with a monkey, a dog, and a pre-Hispanic ceramic figure. Her hair and clothes are in the style of the indigenous people of Mexico. This isn’t just a rendering of Kahlo’s face, the subject is much more about her emotional, political, and social identity.

Siqueiros at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

We are standing on the campus of the largest university in Latin America, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), in Mexico City. Mexico became world renown for its great mural painters in the early 20th century, particularly David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco. 

Their art often celebrated the Mexican Revolution and the strength of workers against the oppressive structures of the ruling elite in large public murals such as those found here on campus.

Siqueiros, Mexican History or the Right for Culture

In this mural we see multiple hands and a set of dates that mark turning points in Mexican history. In 1520, the Spanish defeated the Aztecs. Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1810. 1857 marked the ratification of Mexico’s constitution and the Mexican Revolution began in 1910.

Juan O'Gorman, Mosaic, Central Library

One of the most recognizable murals can be seen across the lawn on the central library building. This mural, which covers nearly the entire façade, tells the story of the history of Mexico and was designed by the building’s architect, Juan O'Gorman.

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