Mesoamerican Art

Introduction

Summary

Summary of Mesoamerican Art
architecture stepped pyramids (notably El Castillo), palaces, ball courts
sculpture colossal heads (Olmec), figures, stelae
painting pottery decoration, wall paintings, illumination

General Features

Mesoamerican civilization began with the Olmec culture, which provided the cultural foundation of all subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations (see History of Pre-colonial Meso/South America). The Olmec are therefore known as the mother culture of Mesoamerica, and basic familiarity with Olmec art serves as familiarity with Mesoamerican art generally.

The other most notable Mesoamerican culture (in terms of art history) is the Maya. Though not the most powerful civilization of the region, the Maya are widely considered to have lifted Mesoamerican art and architecture to its greatest heights.

Main Article

Architecture

While little remains of Olmec architecture, many buildings of later Mesoamerican civilizations have survived. Mesoamerican architecture culminated in the Maya city-states, largest of which was Tikal, in present-day Guatemala. A typical Mesoamerican city was constructed around a central rectangular plaza (open public space) framed by large buildings, including stepped pyramids; larger cities might feature multiple plazas.H556,H560

The stepped pyramid is the greatest form of Mesoamerican architecture. Like the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, Mesoamerican pyramids served mainly as platforms for temples; internal chambers, if present, were small. Mesoamerican pyramids were generally made of stone, allowing them to weather the elements far better than their brick ziggurat cousins. The most famous of all Mesoamerican structures is El Castillo, the great central pyramid in the Maya city of Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Olmec Pyramid
Olmec Pyramid
Ruins of Tikal
Reconstruction of Tikal
Pyramid at Tikal (with temple)
Replica of a Mayan Temple
El Castillo, Chichen Itza

The Mesoamericans also built grand palaces (residential/administrative complexes) using mainly post-and-beam construction, with the occasional corbel arch (see Corbelling). (True arched construction never emerged in the pre-colonial Americas.) Mesoamerican palaces have the same massive, richly carved aesthetic as the stepped pyramids.

Ruins of a Mesoamerican Palace
Ruins of a Mesoamerican Palace
Ruins of a Mesoamerican Archway

Apart from pyramids, the best known Mesoamerican building type is the ball court. This structure housed the infamous Mesoamerican ball game, in which players attempt to direct a ball through a stone hoop without using their hands. The court consists of a flat playing surface flanked by sloping walls, with stone hoops mounted along the top of each wall.

Ruins of a Mesoamerican Ball Court
Hoop at a Mesoamerican Ball Court

Sculpture

Mesoamerican sculpture is typically quite stylized (see Realism vs. Stylization), with simplified, curvilinear shapes. As in traditions of sculpture throughout the world, human and animal figures are common, as are hybrid creatures. Humans are often depicted with elaborate headdresses and jewellery.

Olmec art has survived chiefly in the form of small figures and vessels sculpted from stone and clay. The most famous Olmec works, however, are the colossal heads: enormous stone busts which stand over six feet high.H556

Olmec Figures
Olmec Stele
Colossal Head

One of the principal forms of Mesoamerican sculpture is the stele (plural stelae): an upright stone slab carved in relief. Stelae were fashioned by many civilizations as religious and civic monuments, often displaying the portraits and deeds of deities or human rulers. Stelae were a common feature of Mesoamerican plazas.H560

Mesoamerican sculpture culminated under the Maya, who worked extensively in stelae, figures, vessels, and architectural sculpture.

Maya Architectural Sculpture
Maya Architectural Sculpture
Maya Stele
Maya Stele
Maya Figure
Maya Figure
Maya Bird Vessel
Maya Vessel with Relief Decoration

Painting

Painting, a relatively fragile art, survives in far less abundance than architecture or sculpture. Nonetheless, Mesoamerican painting has been discovered in the form of murals, pottery decoration, and illuminated manuscripts.13 (Mesoamerican manuscripts are written on pages of tree bark.)

Maya Mural
Maya Painted Pottery
Maya Illuminated Manuscript
1 - "Sumerian and Babylonian art", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
2 - "Egyptian architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
3 - "Persian art and architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
4 - "Mesopotamian art and architecture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
5 - "Iranian art and architecture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
6 - "Islamic art and architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
7 - "Islamic art and architecture", Encarta. Accessed July 2010.
8 - "South Asian arts", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
9 - "Indian art and architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
10 - "Indian art and architecture", Encarta. Accessed July 2010.
11 - "Chinese art", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
12 - "Chinese architecture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
13 - "Pre-Columbian art and architecture", Encarta. Accessed July 2010.
14 - "Pre-Columbian art and architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
15 - "African art and architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
16 - "African art and architecture", Encarta. Accessed July 2010.
17 - "Mosque of Djenné", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
18 - "African art", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
19 - "North American Native art", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
20 - "Native American art", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
21 - "Aboriginal art", Encarta. Accessed July 2010.
22 - "Oceanic art and architecture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
23 - "Oceanic art and architecture", Encarta. Accessed July 2010.
24 - "Oceanic art", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
25 - "States of Sub-Saharan Africa, 1000-1500", Encarta (David Northrup). Accessed July 2010.
26 - "Mosque", Encarta. Accessed July 2010.
27 - "Islam", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
28 - "Islamic arts", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
29 - "Taj Mahal", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
30 - "African architecture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
31 - "Mask", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
32 - "Hopewell culture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
33 - "Cahokia Mounds", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
34 - "Pottery", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
35 - "Huari", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
36 - "Western Africa", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
37 - "Quillwork", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.