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  • Claudia Brittenham

Pre-Columbian site in Tlaxcala, central Mexico. It flourished c. 250 bcec. 950 ce and is notable for its wall paintings (in situ).

1. Introduction.

The ruins of Cacaxtla lie in the hilly uplands between Tlaxcala and Puebla, c. 100 km east of Mexico City, on ancient routes of communication between the Central Highlands and both the Gulf Coast region and the Southern Highlands of the Mixteca. Only portions of the site have been excavated, and its history is not yet fully understood. Archaeological evidence indicates human occupation since the Late Pre-Classic period (c. 300 bcec. 250 ce), with intense occupation during the Classic period (c. 250–c. 900 ce). The site had a longstanding relationship with the neighboring hill of Xochitecatl. Pottery, traces of talud–tablero architecture, and residential structures suggest that Cacaxtla may have had ties to Teotihuacan during the early part of the Classic period (c. 200–c. 500 ce).

Very different cultural affiliations are indicated by the surface ruins, which date from the Late Classic period (c. 600–c. 900 ce) and into the Early Post-Classic period (c. 900–c. 1050 ce), a time of instability and strife in the Central Highlands. Located on a defensible hilltop, the Cacaxtla acropolis grew taller over the centuries, layering new construction over old. In its final phases, the acropolis was lined with outward-facing porticos, while the interior was divided into three parts: a central Great Plaza bordered to the north and south by elite residential, administrative, and religious complexes, organized around more private courtyards. Defensive trenches and walls were added late in the building sequence. The wall paintings for which the site is famous have been attributed to c. 650–c. 950 ce. They have a distinctive local character but also reflect strong external influences, including other Central Highland, Southern Highland, and Maya styles.

2. Wall paintings.

Six major paintings have been discovered to date at Cacaxtla, and more likely lie in the unexcavated sections of the acropolis. Several of the existing paintings show traces of modifications and repairs, evidence of the time depth of the painting tradition; many were carefully buried underneath fine earth when they were covered by new construction. This reverential treatment has contributed to the excellent state of preservation in which the paintings find themselves today.

The earliest painting yet unearthed is the Serpent Corridor, a narrow passageway where the lower part of each wall is painted with a feathered serpent lying atop an aquatic border where lively sea creatures fill compartments separated by diagonal dividers. Another painting, the Captive Stair, covers the step leading up from the South Plaza into the Serpent Corridor. A series of toponyms are painted on the riser of the step, and the tread is decorated with sprawling and emaciated bodies, likely representing war captives. The viewer is rendered complicit by this painting, offered the choice to step on these images of suffering bodies.

The Red Temple complex later incorporated both paintings. A stairway was built over the Serpent Corridor, and the feathered serpent and aquatic border repainted to ascend the stair. The walls of the stairway and the extension of the east wall onto the landing were painted with a scene of an old merchant god moving through a supernatural landscape, against a red background. The old merchant god, richly dressed in finely woven textiles, jaguar pelt, and jade jewelry, stands next to his backpack (cacaxtli), laden with luxury goods. A cacao tree grows in front of him, and on the walls flanking the stair are maize plants with human heads for the ears of maize, with outsize toads and other strange creatures moving between them. The scene relates commerce and agriculture, the two poles of the Mesoamerican economy, and casts both as practices with supernatural overtones, which take place in the underworld before the creation of the present era. The old merchant god displays notable similarities to God L, the Maya god of trade and the underworld, while the maize plants resemble the Maya Maize God, at the same time illustrating widely held Mesoamerican beliefs about the relationships between humans and their principal foodstuff. The very location of the paintings, connecting the small South Plaza below the principal level of the site to an elite compound above, suggests both the location of the underworld and the trader’s journey from the hot lowlands to the Central Mexican highlands.

Another early painting bordering the South Plaza lies within the Temple of Venus, where the twin interior pillars of a small two-room structure are painted with a standing male and female figure. Each wears a distinctive five-lobed white ornament at the waist, a symbol associated with Venus in the Mesoamerican world; pointed star signs border each pillar. The male figure also has a scorpion tail, another attribute associated with Venus in Mesoamerica.

Bordering the Great Plaza in the central portion of the site, the Battle Mural represents a bloody conflict, represented at nearly life size. The battle scene covers over 20 m of a talud–tablero wall that is bisected by a stairway. The forty-nine participants depicted can be divided into two groups, both of which stand out from the vivid turquoise blue background: the victors, armed with spears, knives, and round shields, stand in a variety of aggressive poses. They are simply dressed, some with jaguar-skin jerkins or accessories, and wear headbands with short feathers. Each is given a name or title by a glyphic compound placed near his head. The vanquished are almost all prone, dead, or horribly wounded; they are naked and unarmed but wear elaborate headdresses in the form of birds’ heads with long trailing feathers, and rich ornaments such as jade pectorals, nose bars, and other accessories. Only two sumptuously clothed “bird” warriors remain standing, in attitudes of apparent resignation close to the center of the wall painting on either side of the stairway. Their costume, of skirt and pointed poncho or quechquemitl, suggests that these figures may be represented as female. This very public painting likely represents a historical conflict, rendered so as to make victory seem inevitable. While visible, the Battle Mural framed all activities which took place in the Great Plaza, the most public space of the acropolis. It was covered by new construction not long after it was painted.

The portico paintings of Structure A are very different in character. These paintings frame the doorway into the inner room of a two-room temple above and to the east of the Battle Mural, and were available to a much more restricted audience. Here, figures dressed in bird and jaguar costumes stand in peaceful coexistence, in statuesque poses. On the north side of the doorway, a figure dressed in a jaguar suit stands on a jaguar serpent; on the south side of the doorway, a figure dressed in an eagle costume stands on a feathered serpent. These may be the dual rulers, or perhaps the patron deities of the city. Both figures look towards the doorway, whose entrance is painted as if it were the mouth of a mountain, so that the aquatic borders framing the scenes appear to be rivers flowing out of the mountain. Thus, the entire painting represents the term altepetl, or “water-mountain,” the Nahuatl word for a city-state, its government and territory. Maize grows out of the mouth of the mountain, and the two smaller figures painted on the broad doorjambs as one passes through the doorway also have associations with maize and maize deities. In its focus on duality, and its representation of elements associated with the rainy season in the north and the dry season in the south, the mural anticipates the program of the Aztec Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan, centuries later (see Mexico City, §I).

The Structure A murals have one of the most complex histories of modification of any of the murals at Cacaxtla. Another painting, likely earlier than the portico paintings, lies on the back wall of the inner room; it was covered with mud at some point during the building’s history and is now in very poor condition due to the erosion of the wall on which it was painted. The area bordering the doorway of the portico murals was also later covered by clay reliefs, each showing a seated figure inside a cave. Areas of the portico and jamb murals were later highlighted with a bright and runny red paint. This history of updating, combined with the careful burial of the paintings beneath a layer of fine earth, points to their importance for the inhabitants of Cacaxtla.

The Cacaxtla wall paintings have been admired for the fidelity and individuality of their depiction of the human figure, as well as for their compositional dynamism. Both aspects represent a break with the artistic conventions of the Central and Southern Highlands, and are exceptional even by Maya standards. They are eclectic, revealing a harmonious blend of influences from many parts of Mesoamerica: Teotihuacán, Xochicalco, the Gulf Coast region, Oaxaca, the Maya region, and other areas. The formal style of the wall paintings is closest to the Maya tradition, for example as at Bonampak, but the painting technique is distinctively local, using nopal cactus gum as a binder. Most glyphs derive from Teotihuacan, although there is also a stylistic link with glyphs at Xochicalco; other glyphs, and some of the numerals, display Mixtec or Zapotec influence.

Because of this cosmopolitan style, the Cacaxtla murals have sometimes been attributed to the Olmeca–Xicalanca, a group mentioned in some 16th-century ethnohistorical sources. Little is known about them, but tradition places their origin in the southeast Gulf Coast region, and they are thought to have had extensive contacts, especially through trade, with the Central Highlands. However, other scholars believe that the Cacaxtla murals are a local tradition, which deliberately incorporated Maya style, just as previous generations at Cacaxtla made art which affiliated them with Teotihuacan. After the collapse of Teotihuacan in the 6th century ce, artists and patrons at Cacaxtla turned their attention south, where the Maya city-states were still flourishing, incorporating elements of Maya style into a distinctive local painting tradition which continued even after the collapse of the Maya city-states.

For discussion of Mesoamerican wall painting see also Mesoamerica, Pre-Columbian, §VI.


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