Teotihuacan Murals: Description & Examples

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

Teotihuacan is one of the largest and richest archaeological finds in Mesoamerica. Although there is no written history of this complex, ancient civilization, the story of Teotihuacan is told in its many, richly rendered murals.

Teotihuacan: A Description of a Civilization

Like other ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, Teotihuacan is one of complexity, beauty, and mystery. The obvious attention to detail in city planning, construction, and decoration imply that the people of this city-state were highly intelligent and inventive. However, no written documentation of their history exists so far as archaeologists and historians know.

A photo of the ruins of the Teotihuacan city complex.
Teotihuacan city complex

Teotihuacan contains many examples of artistry including pyramidal structures, pottery, and statuary. However, the most striking aspect of Teotihuacan artwork are the murals which decorate the various temples, dwellings, and other structures found in and around the city.

These murals are of such beauty, complexity, and chromatic diversity they are considered the most likely source of understanding Teotihuacan culture and society. In this lesson, we will examine various murals that have been unearthed at Teotihuacan and describe these works. Additionally, we will examine the significance of the murals in totem and strive to understand their meaning to the people of Teotihuacan and today.

The Murals of Teotihuacan

Coined The City of the Gods, Teotihuacan is considered a major cultural and political center of ancient Mesoamerica. This is evidenced by not only its place within the history and landscape of the area, but also in its representations of society, religion, and culture in the murals recently unearthed.

Mural art is a mainstay of many civilizations across the world, decorating the walls of caves, houses, palaces, and temples alike. They were often used, aside from decoration, as consistent and persistent reminders of the values of the religion and culture of Teotihuacan. However, the most striking aspect of the murals themselves is the design and chromatic attributes of the paintings.

The murals are not only ubiquitous throughout the design and architecture of Teotihuacan, they are well preserved and offer an abundance of representations from abstract to realistic and from deeply ceremonial to entertaining. This offers modern viewers an excellent collection of scenes of everyday life within the Teotihuacan culture.

The murals are composed of an ancient pigment and plaster mixture called a fresco. This mixture is not only beautiful and flexible, but archival in nature. This archival quality accounts for the good condition of the frescoes which have survived for thousands of years.

Although there are many murals, interpretation of the various styles and pictorial displays can be difficult. However, as with other Mesoamerican cultures, religious, natural, and cultural motifs appear to play a part. Scholars disagree to a great extent concerning what the interpretations of each category might be, but at least broad categories can be identified and explored.

Religious Murals

Religion and religious imagery composes a great deal of the murals and other art forms found in Teotihuacan. This is not unusual for Mesoamerican people groups of the first through third centuries CE. What is unusual is the sheer abundance of examples of this art.

In fact, there are numerous depictions of various religious figures and symbols throughout the Teotihuacan area. One prime example of this is the figure called the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan. This figure is present in several murals and appears to be the patron goddess of the city and great Teotihuacan area.

Of course, there are other religious figures and themes including the ubiquitous winged serpent god Quetzel. However, the Great Goddess appears to take center stage as a life giving and sustaining figure among the Teotihuacans.

The Great Goddess of Teotihuacan. Notice the great tree overshadowing the people who draw sustenance from the goddess.
Great Goddess of Teotihuacan

Natural Murals

The many natural murals arrayed upon the walls of Teotihuacan depict various scenes from the surrounding area including mountains, rivers, and other landscapes. However, the most marked examples of natural murals are the ones depicting agriculture and the wildlife of the area.

The line between religion and nature in Teotihuacan culture is not always clearly delineated. This is true for many ancient cultures and religions worldwide. Nature was a source of provision, power, destruction, and comfort, all of which tended to be associated with gods and goddesses who could provide these things in one form or another.

However, the main thrust of the murals encompassing natural subject matter seemed to include motifs that were more benign and straightforward. One example is the mural of the jaguar. This particular fresco depicts the animal realistically with its teeth and claws bared. The image, while projecting power, is simple and seems to relate a first person view of the creature as seen in nature rather than a spiritual image or one of destructive power.

A Teotihuacan jaguar mural. The jaguar is depicted as seen in real life as a natural phenomenon.
Jaguar mural

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