Mexican murals reveal art’s power

Art historian Claudia Brittenham studies how painting defined ancient culture

More than a thousand years ago, Cacaxtla was a small city-state in present-day Mexico, home to a modest acropolis with palaces, temples, and several small pyramids.

Yet within the walls of this seemingly unassuming site are a series of enormous and magnificent murals. Epic battles, images of gods and religious worship, and scenes of trade were brought to life in rich hues of red, yellow, blue, and brown.

Since the discovery of the first two murals at Cacaxtla in 1975, archaeologists and art historians have debated the identity of the artists, and the political implications of the images themselves. Who created these astonishingly complex images? Were they the work of one artist or many? And what meaning did the paintings have to the residents of Cacaxtla?

Claudia Brittenham, associate professor in art history, has been studying the Cacaxtla murals since graduate school, shuttling back and forth between Chicago and Mexico and poring over the paintings in minute detail.

“One of the great joys of being an art historian is that a lot of my research looks a lot like other people’s vacations. I go to archaeological sites, I take lots of pictures, I sit, and I look at things, I take notes,” she says. “Then I go home and I look at the pictures again and again and again.”

Her years of research culminated in The Murals of Cacaxtla: The Power of Painting in Ancient Central Mexico (University of Texas Press), which proposes new answers to the paintings’ puzzles.

For Brittenham, the Cacaxtla murals demonstrate the power of art to help a community understand itself. She thinks the murals were essentially aspirational—the residents created paintings that depicted a thriving, fearsome, cosmopolitan community, because that is how Cacaxtla wanted and needed to see itself.

“What ended up being so interesting at Cacaxtla,” Brittenham says, “was the richness of the different ways people were using art and the different kinds of claims that art was making about political identity.”

The mystery of the painters

Cacaxtla rose to power during a tumultuous period in early Mesoamerica. The city-state of Teotihuacan—once the dominant power in the Valley of Mexico—collapsed suddenly and violently around A.D. 600. In the chaotic period that followed, smaller powers like Cacaxtla began to crop up. Although Cacaxtla was the seat of a small state in the Puebla Valley, it never attained the power of Teotihuacan or the Maya civilization to the south.

For that reason, the murals at Cacaxtla present scholars with a puzzle. The paintings “look tremendously like Maya art 400 miles to the south. They didn’t look like anything else that anyone was doing in Central Mexico before, during and after that time period. How is it that people are making art that looks so foreign, so exotic, so distant, at this relatively minor place?”

For a time, the dominant answer among art historians was that the people of Cacaxtla didn’t create the paintings. Scholars proposed that a group of Maya artisans must have come to Cacaxtla and painted the murals.

That theory seemed more satisfying during the years scholars thought there were just two murals at Cacaxtla. But in the 1980s, archeological excavations revealed additional murals that upended the initial understanding of the site.

The new paintings posed the first major challenge to the “imported Maya artist” theory. When she began to study Cacaxtla, Brittenham encountered another: the feet.

The Battle Mural is among the largest of the surviving murals, some 60 feet wide and six feet tall. In gory detail, it depicts a military force from Cacaxtla fighting against soldiers from different areas.

But the longer she studied the mural, the more Brittenham began to notice how little the figures resembled one another. In particular, “the feet were totally different. The hands were totally different. In one painting with aquatic borders, the fish in the borders are totally different.”

One artist drew flat, puffy feet with only one toe visible. Another painstakingly painted every toe. By carefully examining these small details, Brittenham came to believe that as many as ten artists may have worked on the piece—a much larger number than one would expect if a traveling group of Maya artisans had painted the Battle Mural.

What’s more, the stratigraphy of the site suggested that the paintings weren’t all created at the same time. Brittenham thinks that the murals were most likely painted over time between 600-950 A.D. It seemed very unlikely that outside artists could have returned year after year to paint new murals.

Only one solution made sense: homegrown artists from Cacaxtla developed their own style of painting, and passed that tradition down to other artists over time.

The murals’ resemblance to Maya artwork belied a more complicated story. “It’s local,” Brittenham says. “The more you know to look, the less the artwork at Cacaxtla looks like anything else. It’s its own mix, just like everywhere creates its own mix of different traditions.”

Art as aspiration

Judging by its murals, Cacaxtla was a powerful state with a fearsome army, a thriving economy and a cosmopolitan cultural life.

And indeed, the residents of Cacaxtla seem to have had contact with Maya culture and other regional powers through trade, and their artwork reflects that awareness. One mural about trade, for example, features feathers of tropical birds and chocolate—items found in the Maya regions of present-day Mexico and Guatemala, but nowhere near Cacaxtla.

Still, Brittenham thinks this off-the-beaten track city was also engaging in some wishful thinking: “I’ve always gotten the sense that Cacaxtla is never as rich or as cosmopolitan as it claims,” Brittenham says.

Instead, she believes the murals may have been a hopeful, idealized portrayal of life in Cacaxtla—a way for the community to reassure itself of its own importance.

“If you had only the archaeology, you might say, ‘Well, these murals say these people are important. They must be important!,’” Brittenham argues. “This is one of the challenges of art. It can make claims that are about aspiration rather than reality.”

Yet this is also what gives art its singular power. “We sometimes have a terrible habit of thinking of art as though it’s somehow separate from life, as if it’s decorative and not an essential thing,” Brittenham says. “In the pre-modern world, that’s not true. All art is political and the art can be an active agent in creating a sense of community.”