Art of the Toltec Empire: Artists, Sculpture & Architecture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What kind of art and architecture did people create in early Mexico? The works of some cultures reflected war, gods and sacrifice. In this lesson, learn about the art and architecture of the Toltec Empire.

Where Was The Toltec Empire?

Sometimes, ancient cultures become legendary. The powerful Aztecs of Central America held the Toltecs, an earlier culture, in very high esteem. But who were the Toltecs?

The Toltec Empire was a civilization found in central Mexico beginning around the 10th century. From roughly 900 to around 1100 AD, the Toltecs ruthlessly defeated surrounding cultures and briefly amassed great power, controlling most of present-day Mexico. They might have developed from an earlier group of people who migrated from northwestern deserts into central Mexico, to an area called Culhuacan in the Valley of Mexico. However, even today, many details of their culture are a mystery.

Toltecs worshiped a series of gods who demanded sacrifices, including human sacrifices. Deities included Quetzalcoatl, a god who was sometimes also said to be a Toltec leader. There was a Toltec ruler with that name, but scholars aren't sure if he was a person who became deified, or if he took his name from the god. Quetzalcoatl's symbol was a serpent with quetzal feathers, the quetzal being a bird with bright green wings.

The Toltec capital was a city called Tula, referred to as Tollan by the Aztecs, an imposing urban area with a population of more than 30,000 people. It was located around 50 miles north of present-day Mexico City. At this site, skilled Toltec builders and stone masons created a governmental and ceremonial center for their culture.

Architecture Of The Toltec Empire

Toltec architecture at Tula included pyramids, large palaces, and dense urban housing. The Aztecs wrote of Tula's great beauty and impressive character, but today it's difficult for us to know how it looked. Not much of it remains. Tula was burned by invading cultures in the 12th century, and the Aztecs later took stones and sculptures from the ruins for their own complexes.

Remains of large Pyramid C at Tula
architectural remains at Tula

Tula was laid out with limestone structures built around a central plaza or square. The largest building was a stone pyramid later given the name Pyramid C. Unfortunately, today it's little more than a ruin. Better preserved is a slightly smaller pyramid given the name Pyramid B.

Pyramid B was a step-pyramid, built of a series of horizontal platforms, each a bit smaller than the one below it. Pyramid B had a great colonnade, or columned hall, leading up to it. Other structures included flat-roofed temples with square-columned halls, additional pyramids, two ceremonial ball courts and many colonnades, all around the central plaza. People lived in rectangular houses, five of them often clustered in a complex.

Art Of The Toltec Empire

Toltec artists were skilled at metalwork, weaving and ceramics. But possibly the most impressive Toltec art was stone sculpture, much of it adorning the architecture at Tula. Impressive relief carvings, where figures stood out slightly from the surface while still being attached to it it, lined the interior colonnades.

Example of stone carving at Tula
stone carving at Tula

Murals included scenes of warfare; images of dangerous animals like jaguars, wolves and rattlesnakes; and images of sacrifice, including eagles eating human hearts. One large carving, called the Wall of Serpents, depicts snakes devouring human skeletons, surrounded by geometric designs. It's not art for the faint of heart! Some of these carvings were once colorfully painted.

Two important kinds of freestanding figural stone sculpture were found at Tula. One form, called a chacmool, was of a life-size reclining stone warrior. The figure lay on its back, with its elbows down, head turned and knees up. The figure held a vessel into which offerings for the gods would be placed. Some scholar think chacmool figures originated with the Toltec, but they were also found at Chichen Itza, a Mayan site to the east.

Example of a figure called a chacmool
example of a chacmool

Another large type of sculpture was called an atlante. Atlantes were found at the top of Pyramid B. They were 15-foot tall free-standing human figures carved from single chunks of a rock called basalt. It's thought that they once supported a roof structure above them.

One of the free-standing atlante figures on top of Pyramid C
Atalante at Pyramid B

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