Toltec Art, Sculpture and Architecture

The Art of the Toltec Civilization

Coatepantli. Photo by Christopher Minster

The Toltec civilization dominated Central Mexico from its capital city of Tula from about 900 to 1150 A.D.. The Toltecs were a warrior culture, who dominated their neighbors militarily and demanded tribute. Their gods included Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca and Tlaloc. Toltec artisans were skilled builders, potters and stonemasons and they left behind an impressive artistic legacy.  

Motifs in Toltec Art

The Toltecs were a warrior culture with dark, ruthless gods who demanded conquest and sacrifice.

Their art reflected this: there are many depictions of gods, warriors and priests in Toltec art. A partially destroyed relief at Building 4 depicts a procession leading towards a man dressed as a feathered serpent, most likely a priest of Quetzalcoatl. The most iconic piece of surviving Toltec art, the four massive Atalante statues at Tula, depict fully-armored warriors with traditional weapons and armor, including the atlátl dart-thrower.

The Looting of the Toltec

Unfortunately, much Toltec art has been lost. Comparatively, much art from the Maya and Aztec cultures survives to this day, and even the monumental heads and other sculptures of the ancient Olmec can still be appreciated. Any Toltec written records, similar to the Aztec, Mixtec and Maya codices, have been lost to time or burned by zealous Spanish priests. In about 1150 A.D., the mighty Toltec city of Tula was destroyed by invaders of unknown origin, and many murals and finer pieces of art were destroyed.

The Aztecs held the Toltecs in high regard, and periodically raided the ruins of Tula to carry off stonecarvings and other pieces to be used elsewhere. Finally, looters from the colonial period to the modern day have stolen priceless works for sale on the black market. In spite of this persistent cultural destruction, enough examples of Toltec art remain to attest to their artistic mastery.

Toltec Architecture

The great culture that immediately preceded the Toltec in Central Mexico was that of the mighty city of Teotihuacán. After the fall of the great city in about 750 A.D., many of the descendants of the teotihuacanos participated in the founding of Tula and the Toltec civilization. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Toltecs borrowed heavily from Teotihuacan architecturally. The main square is laid out in a similar pattern, and Pyramid C at Tula, the most important one, has the same orientation as the ones at Teotihuacán, which is to say a 17° deviation towards the east. Toltec pyramids and palaces were impressive buildings, with colorfully painted relief sculptures adorning the fringes and mighty statues holding up the roofs.

Toltec Pottery

Thousands of pieces of pottery, some intact but mostly broken, have been found at Tula. Some of these pieces were made in far distant lands and brought there through trade or tribute, but there is evidence that Tula had its own pottery industry. The later Aztecs thought highly of their skills, claiming that Toltec artisans "taught the clay to lie." The Toltecs produced Mazapan-type pottery for internal use and export: other types discovered at Tula, including Plumbate and Papagayo Polychrome, were produced elsewhere and arrived at Tula through trade or tribute.

The Toltec potters produced a variety of items, including pieces with remarkable faces.

Toltec Sculpture

Of all of the surviving pieces of Toltec art, the sculptures and stonecarvings have best survived the test of time. In spite of repeated looting, Tula is rich in statues and art preserved in stone.

  • Atalantes: perhaps the best-known surviving piece of Toltec art are the four Atalantes, or stone statues, which grace the top of Pyramid B at Tula. These tall human statues represent high-ranking Toltec warriors.    
  • Chac Mool: Seven complete or partial Chac Mool style statues were found at Tula. These sculptures, depicting a reclining man holding a receptacle, were used for sacrifices, including human sacrifices. Chac Mools are associated with the cult of Tlaloc.
  • Relief and Friezes: The Toltec were great artists when it came to reliefs and friezes. One excellent surviving example is the Coatepantli, or "Wall of Serpents" of Tula. The elaborate wall, which delineated the sacred precinct of the city, is richly decorated with geometric designs and carved images of snakes devouring human skeletons. Other reliefs and friezes include the partial frieze from building 4 at Tula, which once depicted a procession towards a man dressed as a plumed serpent, probably a priest of Quetzalcoatl.


    Charles River Editors. The History and Culture of the Toltec. Lexington: Charles River Editors, 2014.

    Cobean, Robert H., Elizabeth Jiménez García and Alba Guadalupe Mastache. Tula. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2012.

    Coe, Michael D and Rex Koontz. 6th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008

    Davies, Nigel. The Toltecs: Until the Fall of Tula. Norman: the University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

    Gamboa Cabezas, Luis Manuel. "El Palacio Quemado, Tula: Seis Decadas de Investigaciones." Arqueologia Mexicana XV-85 (May-June 2007). 43-47

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    Minster, Christopher. "Toltec Art, Sculpture and Architecture." ThoughtCo, May. 29, 2017, Minster, Christopher. (2017, May 29). Toltec Art, Sculpture and Architecture. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "Toltec Art, Sculpture and Architecture." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2018).