Templo Mayor and Its Symbolism

Templo Mayor and Its Symbolism

This part of the exhibition is devoted to the wealth of extraordinary artifacts excavated from the most significant religious building in Tenochtitlan, the great Templo Mayor. When the Aztecs founded their capital, they built a temple. Between 1325 and 1521, each Aztec ruler added a new outermost layer to the temple out of respect to the gods and to ensure that his reign would be immortalized within the great stone structure. This imposing structure lay at the ritual heart of the city. It was here that public rituals, including human sacrifice, took place. Like most buildings of the time, the Templo Mayor was covered in stucco, a type of plaster, and painted. Large sculptures further decorated the building.

Recognizing its importance to the Aztec people, after the conquest the Spanish quickly dismantled the Templo Mayor, and reused some of the stone in their construction of a cathedral, which still occupies one side of Mexico City’s main square (or zócalo) today. They also recorded their awe upon seeing this amazing building.

In 1978 workers carrying out routine maintenance work on electric-lighting equipment uncovered a large circular sculpture that was identified by archaeologists as a representation of the dismembered body of Coyolxauhqui, goddess of the moon. This find led to the eventual unearthing of the Templo Mayor’s long-buried foundations. During the excavation, it was discovered that the preceding versions of the pyramid complex had been preserved intact with each subsequent ruler’s rebuilding, and so archaeologists were able to identify seven different layers, peeling each away like an onion skin. Over 100 sacrificial deposits or offerings containing more than 6,000 objects have been discovered built into the structure.

The excavations of the Templo Mayor also yielded objects from older Mesoamerican cultures that the Aztecs had held in high regard. The exhaustive range of offerings suggests that the Aztecs created the Templo Mayor as a model of everything that could be found in the universe, both past and present. The organization of the four-sided temple structure is also thought to reflect the Aztec worldview, in which the earth is understood to be a disk, surrounded by water and divided into four quarters.


The most prestigious military societies or orders were those of the eagle and the jaguar. These warriors wore either eagle or jaguar costumes. This life-size sculpture represents an eagle warrior. It is one of a pair that was found flanking a doorway to the chamber where the eagle warriors met, next to the Temple Mayor. The eagle was the symbol of the sun, to whom all sacrifices were offered. This is one of the finest examples of large, hollow ceramic sculptures ever found in the Valley of Mexico.

View + Discuss

1. The eagle is one of the greatest predators in the skies. To the Aztec it represented the strength and bravery essential to a warrior. What characteristics do you associate with eagles?

2. How do you imagine the jaguar warrior costumes looked? What characteristics would a jaguar warrior possess?

Eagle warrior
Aztec, ca. 1440–69
Fired clay, stucco, and paint,
170 x 118 x 55 cm
Museo del Templo Mayor, INAH,
Mexico City 10-220366
Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías

Further Explorations

Choose another animal and design a costume that utilizes its characteristics. What traits would this costume lend to its wearer?

On View

This presentation, comprised of selected materials from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Archives, pays homage to the first Frank Lloyd Wright–designed structures in New York City.

Works & Process

Photo: Petrus Sjövik

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