Tikal: Sacred Architecture

Works of Art


Between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D., Maya architects across the northern Petén designed short, broad temples with wide staircases flanked by enormous stucco masks. Plaster, made of burned and powdered limestone, was built up around stone armatures into elaborate deity faces. Temple E-VII-Sub, a pyramid with four stairways at Uaxactún, a smaller site near Tikal, had such stuccowork masks flanking the stairs. E-VII-Sub and the three other pyramids to its east formed a specific architectural pattern, perhaps one with astronomical associations.

The North Acropolis of Tikal consisted of numerous plaster-surfaced stone temples—eventually numbering more than 100—that were built and rebuilt on great stone platforms. The facades of the early temples were decorated with modeled and painted stucco that included huge masks flanking the stairs. The wide staircases provided a platform for ritual performances by Maya rulers, and the masks defined specific mythological connections. As the centuries passed, the structures of the North Acropolis were built ever larger and more massive. The temples became higher, their sacred precincts remote and impenetrable. They dominated the landscape of Tikal. Within the heart of the North Acropolis, the rulers were buried in vaulted tomb chambers with painted walls together with elaborate grave goods: elegant ceramics, jade ornaments, and other objects of bone, shell, obsidian, and pearl.

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2001


Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “Tikal: Sacred Architecture.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/maya2/hd_maya2.htm (October 2001)

Further Reading

Coe, William R. Tikal: A Handbook of the Ancient Maya Ruins. 2d ed.. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1988.

Harrison, Peter D. The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999.

Sharer, Robert J., with Loa P. Traxler. The Ancient Maya. 6th ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006.