Murals of Cacaxtla; millenary images that guard the past of Mesoamerica

The study of these murals has found multiple styles and influences from the Mayan region, the Gulf Coast, Oaxaca, Teotihuacan, Cholula, and Xochicalco.

Murals of Cacaxtla; millenary images that guard the past of Mesoamerica
Murals of Cacaxtla. Photo: Secretaria de Cultura

In 1975, inhabitants of the town of San Miguel del Milagro, located in the municipality of Nativitas, in Tlaxcala, found by accident, while working the land, part of a mural painting that depicted the face of what today is called a "Birdman". Surprised, they reported their discovery to the parish priest of the community, who in turn informed the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) of the discovery.

Since then, a series of excavations have begun that have uncovered Cacaxtla, an important pre-Hispanic ceremonial complex whose relevance is emphasized by the presence of murals that are more than a thousand years old and well preserved.

Cacaxtla Archaeological Zone

Its name comes from the Nahua word cacaxtli, which refers to a basket carried on the back to transport goods and is associated with traders. Its name was assigned because commerce was one of the most important activities of its inhabitants since the discoveries in the area allow us to conclude that Cacaxtla was an important commercial center in Mesoamerica, and therefore maintained an important relationship with other regions.

This city was populated by Olmec-xicalancas groups that came from the south to settle in the region of the Valle Poblano Tlaxcalteca. The period of splendor of the site occurred between the years 600 and 900 of our era, after the decline of Teotihuacan.

In Cacaxtla, a style of construction present in other places of Mesoamerica can be appreciated, which consisted of building one building over another that had been built previously. In this way, the site has different construction stages that were developed over 300 years. Precisely this form of superimposed construction, which made a new building cover the previous one, allowed the preservation of the oldest constructive stages and the murals that were there.


The murals, which represent one of the most outstanding elements of Cacaxtla, were found in different areas of the area known as the Great Basement; that is, the great platform on which various buildings currently called the Building of the Columns, The Palace, Building A, The Stairwell, Building F, the Temple of Venus and the Red Temple were built. The Great Basement, which has seven stages of construction, was modified over time according to the needs of the inhabitants, so that the spaces that make up the Basement, as well as some murals, were not made at the same time.

Murals of the Temple of Venus

The mural paintings located in the so-called Temple of Venus are the oldest. These murals are located represented on two pillars; they are two figures that represent a priest and a priestess, both have blue skin, their arms are arranged upwards, they carry a necklace and they are on a red background standing on a watery border. In these murals, the presence of two glyphs of Venus located in the waist of each one of the figures stands out and they are conformed of an eye surrounded by half a blue ring and five white glares.

The figure on the northern pillar is male and is represented with a scorpion tail with a black stinger, a symbol present in Mayan iconography; likewise, in his left hand, he carries a glyph of Venus, and on his elbows protrudes what appear to be blue feathers. The other character is feminine and has ankle decorations, jaguar clothing, and is surrounded by five-pointed stars; however, the head and arms are intelligible due to the deterioration of the painting. The repeated appearance of the glyph related to Venus is the reason why space is named the Temple of Venus.

Battle Mural

One of the most outstanding murals due to its size is the so-called Battle Mural, which dates back to approximately 650-700 AD. It shows two groups of characters appearing in battle, one of them is represented as the dominant one and is related to the ancient inhabitants of the Central Highlands, while the other, which is represented as the subdued one, is apparently of Mayan origin.

The dominant group wears jaguar skins and carries spears; while the defeated ones wear headdresses, jewels and are represented wounded and mutilated. Recent analyses of the iconography of this mural indicate that the scene depicted in it is not related to warlike activities but a ritual sacrifice in honor of the God of corn.

Man-bird and Man-jaguar

This group of murals is located in Building A of the ceremonial complex and is at the entrance of a double room where two characters were depicted, one of them wearing a jaguar skin and holding spears from which water flows; while the other is dressed in feathers and carries a bundle wrapped around a snake from which blood flows. Both are standing on a snake and are accompanied by glyphs and symbols; in addition, they are surrounded by an aquatic border where various animals were represented. It is estimated that these murals were made after 700 A.D.

Mural of the Red Temple

This mural, located at the side of the ascending staircase of the Red Temple, depicts a scene where an old man is represented wearing earrings, bracelets, a necklace, sandals, mittens, and jaguar skin, and a headdress. On his back, he carries a cacaxtli containing a turtle shell, plants, and other objects. In addition to man, corn plants have been shaped whose cobs have human faces with characteristics considered to be Mayan. The scene is surrounded by an aquatic border and birds, a toad, and other lake animals are also represented.


For the realization of most of the murals, five tones were used (oxide red, ochre yellow, Maya blue, smoke black and white of lime), which could be mixed to obtain as a result secondary colors. The pigments used are minerals of local origin, such as lime, coal, hematite, and goethite. The blue in the murals is the so-called "Maya blue", which is obtained from a palygorskite-based clay that was dyed with indigo. The study of these murals has found multiple styles and influences from the Mayan region, the Gulf Coast, Oaxaca, Teotihuacan, Cholula, and Xochicalco.