dusk near Cuernavaca

dusk near Cuernavaca

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Sunday in the Park with Diego

A couple days ago I wrote about the famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera.  One of his best known murals was commissioned in 1947 for the dining room of the newly built Hotel del Prado.  The hotel was located across the street from the "Alameda Central", a large park in the heart of the city.  The park became the inspiration for Rivera's mural, which he entitled "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central".  In the painting, Rivera has portrayed a "Who's Who" of famous people from 400 years of Mexican history all promenading in the park.

When the painting was unveiled, it stirred one of those controversies that frequently surrounded Rivera's works.  One of the historical figures portrayed in the mural was Ignacio Ramírez, a well-known 19th century writer and journalist.  Ramírez was an atheist, and was portrayed holding a document with the words "God does not exist."  The archbishop of Mexico City refused to bless the opening of the hotel, and Rivera was asked to paint over the offending words.  The artist, who was himself an atheist, refused, and for nine years the mural was hidden from sight.  Finally, Rivera relented, saying that he did not need to hide behind the words of Ignacio Ramírez to affirm his atheism.

The Hotel del Prado was structurally damaged in the earthquake of 1985.  Fortunately, the mural was unscathed.  Before the hotel was razed (today a new Hilton Hotel stands on the site) the painting was transported across the street to a small museum which had been built on land that had also been cleared of earthquake damaged structures.  The famous painting can now be viewed in the "Museo Mural Diego Rivera".

The mural is fifty feet long.

Four figures dominate the center of the painting.

In the very center is a "Catrina", an elegantly dressed skeleton.  The boa that she wears around her neck is actually, Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god of pre-Hispanic Mexico.

To the right of the "Catrina" is the late 19th century engraver, José Guadalupe Posada.  It was Posada who invented the image of the "Catrina" as a satire on the vanity of the upper-class Mexican ladies of the era.  The "Catrinas" and "Catrines" (fashionable male skeletons) drawn by Posada would become the emblems of Mexico's "Day of the Dead" celebrations.  A later generation of Mexican artists, including Rivera, considered Posada's engravings to be a major influence on their artistic development.

To the left of the "Catrina" is a self portrait of Diego as a ten year old boy.

Behind him, is his wife, the artist Frida Kahlo.

If we go to the far left of the mural, we see some figures from Mexico's colonial past mingling with the crowd. 

To the far left, dressed in armor, is Hernan Cortés, the Spanish conquistador, who vanquished the Aztecs, and who built Mexico City atop the ruins of the Aztec capital.

Next to Cortés is Juan de Zumarraga, the first bishop of Mexico.

Below the bishop is one of the Spanish viceroys of the colony of New Spain... this particular viceroy was the one who laid out the Alameda Park.

The woman to the right is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun, scholar, and the foremost poet of colonial Mexico.

At the top a heretic is being burned by the Inquisition.  The western end of the Alameda was where the executions of the Inquisition were held.

Continuing to the right we come to some of the figures of Mexico's early history as an independent nation.

The fellow with the crown is Agustín Iturbide, who had himself declared the Emperor of Mexico, and ruled for a few short months.

Below Iturbide is Antonio de Santa Ana, the vainglorious and incompetent general who was repeatedly the President / Dictator of the country in the first half of the 19th century.  He is shown handing over the keys to half of Mexico's territory to General Winfield Scott, who led the American invasion of Mexico during the Mexican-American War,

In the crowd are the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian and his wife Carlota,  When the French invaded Mexico in the 1860s, Maximilian was put on the throne as a French puppet.  He ended his short reign before a Mexican firing squad.

Benito Juárez is Mexico's national hero.  He was a full-blooded Zapotec who became President of the country.  He passed a series of liberal reform laws, and fought against the French invasion.

Below Juárez is the atheist writer Ignacio Ramírez.  It was on the document that he is holding that Rivera wrote the controversial words "God does not exist."  You can see that the document has been painted over.  However, those who are familiar with the life of the writer know that "The Conference of Academy of Letrán" (written on the document) was the occasion when Ramírez uttered those words.

After the liberal presidency of Juárez, Mexico was ruled for nearly thirty years by the dictator Porfirio Díaz.  Although the Díaz era was one of stability and modernization, his oppressive rule brought on the Mexican Revolution.

During the Díaz dictatorship, the poor were even more downtrodden.  Here a policeman expels a peasant family from the park so that they will not be an annoyance to the "nice people".

During the Díaz years the country was opened to foreign investment (and exploitation), and foreigners enjoyed a privileged position.  Here a foreign couple is strolling through the park while their spoiled daughter sneers at the peasant child from the previous picture.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 swept away the Díaz dictatorship.  The struggle for liberty and equality also brought a decade of chaos and violence.

At the far right end of the mural, Rivera paints a scathing indictment of modern Mexico.  The ideals of the Revolution have been betrayed.  The wealthy make vast fortunes with the connivance of corrupt politicians and churchmen.

In this one painting, Diego Rivera has given us in a nutshell the history of his nation. 


  1. I am glad the paintings were not destroy, Diego Rivera's paintings were so details.
    I hope I be able to see them myself. Thank you for your post.
    Rahim Maarof

    1. Yes, it is very fortunate that the mural was not damaged in the earthquake. Thank you for visiting my blog, and for taking the time to comment.

  2. Great details and information about the people and events in the painting. Thanks for posting this Blog! It will help my students understand a lot more about what they will be seeing at a traveling exhibit of a reproduction of this masterpiece.

    1. I'm glad to have been of assistance to a fellow teacher!