After a morning at the Metropolitan Cathedral, which forms the northern side of Mexico City's huge central square, the Zócalo, I went to the Palacio Nationale, along the square's eastern side. This is the official presidential complex, and much of it is open to the public. It's been the seat of ruling power in Mexico City since the Aztec times; the palace was begun around 1520 by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés after his conquest of the city, on the exact site where Moctezuma II lived and ruled, and incorporates much of the Aztec building material in its construction.
Here I am on the second level, having climbed the main staircase. Below is the view down into the central courtyard, where the first recorded bullfights in New Spain took place.
The proportions and elegance of the building alone would be reason enough to visit. But I was like many who come here to see something else: the huge murals by Diego Rivera which decorate the main stairwell and northeastern half of the second colonnade level. When I walked in, I really couldn't believe my eyes. The murals are much larger and more extensive than I expected, and how astounding is the story they tell.
The first set of murals are arranged in a tryptich in the main stairwell. Above, you are looking to the south.
This is the largest panel, at the top of the stairwell on the western wall. (I apologize, but there was a tremendous glare from the bright sun.) This panel tells the story of the Spanish conquest, the role of the church, the treatment of the Indians, and the Inquisition.
A detail of the upper right portion of the western wall. I think some of the best painting and composition is in this section, though every single painting was extremely impressive.
The northern panel shows the Aztec civilization before the coming of Cortes and the Spanish. A detail of the lower far right is below, showing the powerful monumentality of Rivera's figures.
Opposite, on the southern wall the mural depicts 20th century political history, the struggle of the workers, and the Revolution. The figure at the top is Karl Marx, and you can see Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo, behind the woman in red in the bottom center.
The amount and quality of painting inthe stairwell is pretty staggering, but as you leaving it and move around the colonnade to the north, you find another series of large murals that tell the story of Mexico City, beginning with the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, built on an island in Lake Texcoco in 1325, and almost completely destroyed by the Spanish in 1521.
You can see the volcanoes that still ring the city in the distance. Rivera has been accused of glorifying the Indians; here he does acknowledge their practice of human sacrifice by showing blood on the pyramid steps. Along with everything else, the main pyramid of the Aztec city was razed and the Spanish cathedral built on the same spot, just a few steps from where I was standing. It was only in the last quarter of the 20th century when its ruins were discovered; now the Templo Mayor can be visited as an archaeological site, just to the north of this building.
The hallway murals continue, showing aspects of Aztec culture like the distillation of mescal, the collection of rubber, and the making of bark cloth.
You can see Rivera's signature in the very top center of the image above.
For the study of masterful mural-painting, I can't imagine a more brilliant place than this. Each of these hallway paintings tells a story through powerful forms, masterful composition, and perspective that leads the eye into the middle distance and into the deep space of the background. I was in awe, not only of Diego Rivera's skill, but his vision -- and for the sheer volume of his achievement on these walls, which represents only a fraction of his life's work.
It was also very moving to me to see public art like this in a presidential palace, telling a story that anyone can understand, as unvarnished as any literature. (Just imagine, for a moment, what stories a parallel work would have to include in the U.S. capitol, or the White House, and how that might change America's national narrative.)
One of the aspects of Mexico City that impressed me the most was how present its entire history was, everywhere we went, and no matter who we talked to. It is something that unites the people, and of which they all seem to be proud. While I was viewing these murals, a large school group also came, with a teacher who talked to them in front of each painting. This public art -- and these are only a small portion of the murals which decorate this city -- must play an important role in the consciousness of the people, and must also affect their whole idea not only of what art is and can be, but of who they are.
I think this is something Rivera intended to show them. After spending hours looking at the people in these murals, I walked out into the crowded streets -- and there they were.