Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Tenochtitlan: Templo Mayor

Thematic Essays

By Category

By Geographical Region & Time Period
By Department

The Templo Mayor (Main Temple) in Tenochtitlan, capital of the mighty Aztec empire, was located in the center of the city, where the most important ritual and ceremonial activities in Aztec life took place. Standing about ninety feet high, the majestic structure consisted of two stepped pyramids rising side by side on a huge platform. It dominated both the Sacred Precinct and the entire city. The twin pyramids symbolized two sacred mountains; the one on the left represented Tonacatepetl, the Hill of Sustenance, whose patron deity was Tlaloc, the ancient god of rain; the one on the right represented the Hill of Coatepec, birthplace of the Aztec war god Huitzilopochtli. The temple structures on top of each pyramid were dedicated to and housed the images of the two important deities. Access to these shrines was by means of broad staircases, flanked by balustrades. Pairs of large, expertly carved serpent heads were placed at their base, while closer to the top sculptures of figures holding standards displayed banners made of bright paper and feathers.


The seven major building phases of the Templo Mayor began with a simple structure, probably dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, built in 1325 when Tenochtitlan was founded. Subsequently the Templo Mayor grew enormously both in size and elaboration resulting in the impressive structure seen by the Spaniards in 1519. Reconstructions and enlargements of the temple were sometimes necessary because of flooding and the unstable lakebed on which it was built. Most often, however, successive powerful rulers enhanced the temple to celebrate their own coronations, to honor the gods, and to validate the power of the Aztec empire. The most spectacular expansion of the Templo Mayor took place in the year "1 Rabbit" (1454 A.D.) under the ruler Motecuhzoma I when impressive art works and architectural elements were added.

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

Dedication Stone
Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan, 1487
Serpentine; H. 34 5/8 in (88 cm)
CNCA—INHA,
Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City (II–3203)

This superbly carved relief sculpture records a specific event in Aztec History. It commemorates the completion of the last major enlargement of the Great Temple at Tenochtitlan. The dedication of the new sanctuary took place in the year "8 Reed" which corresponds to 1487 in the Christian calendar. The date glyph is prominently shown on the lower half of the block as a stylized reed with four concentric circles on either side. Above it are two profile male figures representing Aztec rulers. They are identified by their name glyphs behind their heads: Tizoc who ruled from 1481–1486 is on the left, his younger brother Ahuitzotl (r. 1486–1502) is on the right. According to historical sources the enlargement of the Main Temple was begun in 1483 by Tizoc and completed by Ahuitzotl. The rulers are dressed in ritual attire which includes triple-tasseled incense pouches held in Tizoc's left and Ahuitzotl's right hand. Dedication ceremonies of important buildings in Tenochtitlan required offerings to the Tlaloc Vessel
Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan, about 1470
Ceramic; H. 12 in. (30.5 cm)
CNCA—INAH
Museo de Templo Mayor, Mexico City (168829)

Most of the objects found in offering deposits at the Main Temple are associated with the rain god Tlaloc. Many depict the god himself while others have water connotations and are symbolically related to him. This vessel was discovered in an offering deposit in the main platform of the temple on the side dedicated to Tlaloc. It had been placed among numerous seashells, sawfish blades, and pieces of coral. The front of the vessel bears Tlaloc's face characterized by 'goggle eyes', a twisted serpent nose, and fanged mouth. Square ear ornaments with long pendants and a headdress are also worn.

Lidded Funerary Vessel with Serpent Ornament
Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan, about 1470
Ceramic; H. 13 1/8 in. (33.2 cm)
CNCA—INAH
Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City (253292)

The excavations of more than one hundred offering deposits at the Main Temple revealed thousands of objects that were not of Aztec manufacture. The majority of these 'foreign' items came to the imperial city from southern Mexico either as tribute or, perhaps, as part of trade or ceremonial exchange between rulers. This magnificently carved urn is one of a pair that were made on the Gulf Coast. The urns contained cremated human remains and small objects of valued materials such as the green stone serpent ornament. They were found in an offering placed near the Coyolxauhqui Stone at the foot of the stairway leading to the shrine of Huitzilopochtli. The relief panel on one side of the urn shows a male, bearded figure in fancy attire holding spears and a spearthrower.

Drawing of the Main Temple of Texcoco
Codex Ixtlilxochitl, fol. 112V
Mexican, 16th century
European paper, polychrome and metal leaf,
H. 12 1/4 in. (31 cm)
Bibliothèque Nacionale, Paris (65-71)

This drawing is of the Main Temple of Texcoco, a member of the Triple Alliance with Tenochtitlan. It was done as an illustration for a 1582 document, the work of Juan Bautista Pomar, a mestizo descendant of the Aztec rulers of Texcoco. La Relación de Texcoco, as the document is known, was written for the King of Spain and comments on many aspects of Precolumbian and early colonial Aztec culture, together with discussions of the Aztec gods. Because of the correspondence of architectural details with those given by early witnesses of the Main Temple of Tenochtitlan, the drawing is often considered to represent the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan as well as that of Texcoco. The twin temple shows a stepped, segmented pyramidal platform with two broad stairways on the front, each bordered by wide balustrades. At the summit rise twin temples, side by side, the left dedicated to the rain god of Tlaloc, and the right to Huitzilopochtli, the principal Aztec war god. The tall roof of Tlaloc's temple is de Aerial view of the excavated layers of the Templo Mayor.