The Art of El Tajin

Sculpture at the South Ballcourt
Sculpture at the South Ballcourt. Photo by Christopher Minster

The people of the ancient city of El Tajín were great artists. Unfortunately, little of their art survives. The city was abandoned for centuries and now only some sculptures and a handful of paintings remain. Their art clearly shows influence from the Teotihuacan civilization and often has to do with themes related to the ballgame and other religious rituals.

The City of Storms

In the local language, a "Tajín" is a powerful spirit who has power over the wind, rain and storms.

According to legend, the city of El Tajín was home to twelve of these spirits. After the decline of Teotihuacán around 650 A.D., El Tajin was one of several cities that stepped into the vacuum of power (others were Xochicalco, Tula and Chichen Itza). From about 800 to 1200 A.D., El Tajin dominated the Gulf Coast region of present-day Mexico. The builders there were talented architects who added cornices and niches to their pyramids. They were devout worshipers of Quetzalcoatl and avid players of the ancient Mesoamerican ballgame.

Art at El Tajin

Nearly all of the art from the El Tajín culture that has survived consists of sculptures and other public art. Some paintings and ceramics survive as well. El Tajín's sculptors were masters of bas-relief sculpted murals, which they used to adorn their important structures and ballcourts. They also created three-dimensional sculptures, carving statues out of stone and making art out of a sort of plaster they had developed.


Bas-Relief Sculpture

By far, the majority of the works of art which survive at El Tajin are bas-relief sculptures and friezes. These were uses to adorn the buildings and ballcourts of the city. They are typically square or rectangular and depict deities and scenes, some of them quite intricate.

The Sculptures of the Pyramid of the Niches

The stately Pyramid of the Niches once featured a series of bas-relief sculptures.

According to archaeologist José García Payón, there may have been as many as twenty of them, although only eleven have been discovered to date. Carved of sandstone, these scenes are all roughly the same size: approximately 1.2 meters square. These have a "frame" of wavy designs which intertwine around one another. Each scene depicts one central human-like figure: these are believed to represent gods and mythical stories: for example, two of the scenes show a central figure, seated, with plumed serpents on each side: this could represent Venus circling the sun.

The South Ballcourt

The friezes of the South Ballcourt rank among the most important pieces of Tajín art to survive. The people of El Tajín were keen players of the ancient ballgame - seventeen courts have been discovered there so far - and the South Ballcourt was the most important one.

The bas-relief sculptures of the South Ballcourt were carved into massive stones embedded into the structure of the walls and buildings that defined it. The walls were undoubtedly built first, and then the scenes were sculpted into them. There are six sculpted scenes: three each in the north and south walls of the court. In addition, there is a sculpted depiction of the God of Death on each of the four corners.

The scenes show gods, ballplayers and priests. There are scenes of sacrifice, showing that sacrifice was likely part of the ritual of the game. In one of the scenes, there is a man with a dog's head: this is probably a representation of Xólotl, twin brother of Quetzalcoatl and patron of the ballgame. The two central scenes are topped by a frieze in which a leering or roaring god looks out at the viewer: he has two bodies, which recline to either side of the central face.

The North Ballcourt

Like the South Ballcourt, the North Ballcourt has six scenes sculpted into the walls. These are in the same relative positions, indicating some sort of importance to the game or to ritual. The sculptures on the North Ballcourt are less complicated than the others; there are fewer figures interacting with one another. Their meaning is also less clear, as they seem to represent deities and are not directly about the ballgame.

In one, plumed serpents surround a seated man; in another, a bird-god rises from the water. The corner sculptures are topped with a frieze dedicated to the same leering god who appears over the center images of the South Ballcourt.

The Columns of El Tajin

To the north of the city of El Tajin, the city's rulers looked down upon their subjects from the mighty Building of the Columns. At one time, three grand columns of about one meter diameter supported the roof. These columns were finely carved with bas-relief scenes. These scenes, which were carved once the columns were built, show the governors and rulers of the city. They are meant to be seen from one angle: the scenes and story do not go all the way around the pillars, but rather there are different scenes visible depending on from what angle you are viewing the column.

The individual who appears the most on the columns is Thirteen Rabbit, one of the more distinguished rulers of the city.

One scene shows his coronation as he receives his badges of office, including a string of jade beads and a handful of feathers. Other scenes include battles, ballgames and rituals such as burning bundles of cane stalks, which was done every fifty-two years at the end of each calendar cycle. There are some women in the scenes, a rarity in the art of El Tajín.

Three-dimensional sculpture

The most famous three-dimensional sculpture at El Tajín is the "Dios Tajín" or "Storm God" unearthed decades ago in front of Building 5. It is essentially a massive triangular stone carved on all three sides: It depicts a godlike figure holding lightning bolts in his hands. On its forehead is a figure which could be interpreted as a sprouting plant. 

In the Tajin Chico district, which was once a residential area for the city's elite, the builders and artists used a sort of mortar or plaster to build elaborate, heavy ceilings (which have long since fallen) and lifelike sculptures of human forms. The feet of some fine sculptures and a fairly well-preserved sculpture of a human head survive and are now in the on-site museum.

Painting at El Tajin

The artists of El Tajín were also very skilled painters, although unfortunately only a few examples remain. Bits and pieces of murals survive on several buildings and pyramids, but the best preserved are the ones on Building 11 and Building I in Tajín Chico.

Building I has the most famous preserved paintings at the site, because part of the building was preserved because the debris from another building covered it. The interior of Building I features a series of bright paintings, including a frieze of zoomorphic creatures seen in profile.

The main colors are green, blue and yellow. The finely detailed paintings, many of which show aquatic scenes and characters, were meant to be seen up-close, which implies that this building was not a public one but rather a private residence for the city elite.

Ceramics at El Tajin

Like other ancient civilizations, the people of El Tajin created a great deal of ceramics and pottery, most of it utilitarian in nature. Relatively few intact pieces have been discovered in El Tajín. There is one sort of ceramic found at El Tajin especially worthy of mention. Some pots were finely made and feature bas-relief decorations. None of these have been found intact, and there are relatively few even in pieces. The scenes on these pots, which stood on three stubby legs, are similar to the stories of Thirteen Rabbit on the columns at the Building of the Columns.

When the South Ballcourt was excavated, hundreds of figurines, about 12 centimeters long, were discovered. These figurines feature prominent noses and phalluses. Many of them were broken in half at the waist, implying that they were "sacrificed" at the ballgame in a ritual.  


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Minster, Christopher. "The Art of El Tajin." ThoughtCo, Apr. 4, 2016, Minster, Christopher. (2016, April 4). The Art of El Tajin. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The Art of El Tajin." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 12, 2017).