Precolumbian Art and Art History

ART 347 Mesoamerican Art

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Chichén Itzá

The site of Chichén Itzá flourished during the Terminal Classic period, between AD 800 - 948, and was strategically located at the center of the political landscape in Yucatan. The art of Chichén Itzá, like much of the art of the Terminal Classic and Early Postclassic periods, is rendered in an international style that blends both Maya and Central Mexican characteristics and iconography. The name Chichén Itzá, which means "mouth of the well of the Itzá," may refer to the cenote, or natural limestone sink hole filled with water, which is linked to the site center by a 900-foot long path called a sak beh or "white road." Offerings were made anciently to the sacred cenote, including gold repoussé disks, gold eye rings and mouthpiece, beads, gold and copper bells, arrowheads, pottery, knives, jades, copal resin, textiles, and baskets.

Dominating the northern precinct of the site is the huge Castillo, a radial pyramid whose northern stairway is flanked at the base by carved feathered serpent balustrades.

To the east of the Castillo is the Temple of the Warriors. At the base of this pyramid and stretching to the south is a colonnaded gallery of square stone columns, carved on all four sides, which depict warriors, priests, and captives. Two huge feathered serpents frame the door to the temple at the top of the pyramid. In front of the temple stands a chac mool holding a sacrificial plate on his stomach. The corners of the structure are marked with long-nosed creatures that may represent the Principal Bird Deity.

Dominating the northwest corner of the site is the Great Ballcourt, the largest in Mesoamerica and approximately the size of a modern football field. Two parallel buildings with long benches form the central alley of the I-shaped playing field. At the centers of the walls that define the playing alley are rings that were decorated with the body of an undulating feathered serpent.

Each of the benches of the ballcourt contains three long, carved panels that repeat a similar scene. The east central panel depicts two groups of ballplayers marching toward the center of the scene, garbed in regalia that is associated with both the ballgame and warfare.

At the center of the panel is a scene of ballcourt decapitation sacrifice. On the left, the victorious player grasps the head of his victim, while in front of him sits the ball marked with a skull. To the right kneels the victim, whose neck spurts seven streams of blood: six in the form of snakes and one in the form of a squash vine. This imagery conjured not only a clever pun in a Mayan language, but also referenced the notions of sacrifice, rebirth, and creation.

Several temples were placed on the walls surrounding the ballcourt: the small North Temple at the northern end, the larger South Temple to the south, and the two-story temple on the eastern side of the ballcourt that consisted of the Upper and Lower Temples of the Jaguar.

The Lower Temple of the Jaguar, which opened to the outside of the ballcourt, was associated with the themes of creation, the foundation of the city, and the right to perform warfare. Between the columns flanking the entrance to the temple sat a jaguar throne. Inside, the temple contained an elaborate, polychromed mural whose registers were formed by the undulating bodies of twisted serpents, marking the scene as a supernatural place of creation.

Register B of the mural depicts a central figure that wields a yellow disk, which may represent the same kind of gold disk that was dredged from the cenote. He wears rings around his eyes that recall those recovered from the cenote, as well as those that appeared on the headdress from the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan. Wrapping around the disk in his hands, as if emerging from it, is an enormous feathered serpent, which also recalls the imagery of Teotihuacan.

The Upper Temple of the Jaguar, which stood above the Lower Temple and opened onto the playing alley, contained a series of murals recording the wars of conquest that established Chichén Itzá's power and right to rule within the region. The scenes depict battle preparations, warriors engaged in fighting, and supernatural warriors or ancestors floating above the scene in sun-disk-shaped cartouches. The supernatural context for these scenes of conquest is enhanced by the imagery over the west central door of the temple.

The jambs of the doors depict warriors carrying atlatls. The wooden lintel immediately above depicts two ancestral beings in sun-disk cartouches. Above them is another reclining individual, garbed in the jade costume of the Maize God, from whose belly emerge two snakes. At the very top, a tiny scene depicts a sacrificial rite in which a priest performs a heart extraction. From the open chest cavity of the victim emerges a serpent. Such imagery conceptually weaves together themes of sacrifice, rebirth, and the justification for warfare.

These same themes are echoed in the end wall panels of the South Temple, which stood at the southern end of the huge ballcourt. On the bottom of these panels, a figure costumed in the jade skirt of the Maize God is seated in a posture that recalls that of chac mools. From the nose or mouth of this figure emerges a serpent that curls upwards and opens its mouth to emit the figure of the warrior above.

A similar theme is repeated on the columns framing the central doorway of the North Temple, which overlooked the northern end of the playing alley. In this rollout drawing of one of the round columns from the temple, jade-skirted individuals are once again reclining in the position of a chac mool. Symbolizing the birth of warfare are the flint-bearing serpents that emerge from the stomachs of the figures. Above, blossoming squash vines entwine around two columns.


Coggins, Clemency C. and Orrin C. Shane III. 1984. Centote of Sacrifice: Maya Treasures from the Sacred Well of Chichén Itzá. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Lincoln, Charles E. 1994. "Structureal and Philological Evidence for Divine Kingship at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico." In Hidden Among the Hills: Maya Archaeology of the Northwest Yucatan Peninsula, Acta Americana 7, edited by Hanns J. Prem, pp. 164-196. Bonn: Verlag von Flemming.

Looper, Matthew G. and Julia Guernsey Kappelman. 2000. "The Cosmic Umbilicus in Mesoamerica: A Floral Metaphor for the Source of Life." In Journal of Latin American Lore 21 (1): 37-42.

Schele, Linda and Peter Mathews. 1998. "Chichén Itzá: The Great Ballcourt." In The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs, pp. 197-255. New York: Scribner.

Wren, Linnea, Ruth Krochock, Erik Boot, Lynn Foster, Peter Keeler, Rex Koontz, Walter Wakefield. 1992. "Maya Creation and Recreation: The Great Ballcourt at Chichén Itzá." Manuscript prepared in conjunction with the 1992 Advanced Seminar of the Texas Meetings on Maya Hieroglyphic Writing.