The Meaning Behind Diego Rivera Grand Murals in Mexico City’s Palacio Nacional

Diego Rivera was a complicated man, though he is remembered today mostly for his awe-inspiring art. Photo: Courtesy

Diego Rivera was a prominent 20th-century Mexican painter most famous for his large-scale murals, controversial political beliefs, as well as being the husband of Frida Kahlo. 

The massive Diego Rivera mural at Palacio Nacional is located on the main staircase of the palace. It is jam-packed with symbolism. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The Palacio Nacional in Mexico City is home to some of Diego Rivera’s most famous murals. These murals depict the history of Mexico from the pre-Columbian era to the time of their creation in the 1930s.

Mexico City’s Palacio Nacional is impressive in its own right and sits adjacent to the Templo Mayor and Cathedral on Plaza de la Constitución. Photo: Courtesy

The most famous mural is the massive “Epopeya del Pueblo Mexicano” or “Mexico Through the Ages.” Divided into three main sections, it depicts Mexican historical eras. 

Women often take center stage in Rivera’s artwork, both as laborers and leaders. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

The left section shows the pre-Hispanic era and features scenes from many of Mexico’s great Mesoamerican capitals, including Tlatelolco and its grand market.

The Tlatelolco market scene is lively and depicts people from all walks of life engaging in commerce, with the capital of Tenochtitlan visible in the background. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Another striking scene depicting pre-Hispanic life is set in the city of El Tajin in the modern state of Veracruz. 

El Tajín is famous for its monumental pyramids and is believed to be the location of origin of the ceremony of the Papatntla flyers. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The center section shows the colonial era and highlights many of the excesses of the European settlers. 

The colonial period was a particularly difficult epoch in Mexico’s history, especially for indigenous peoples, and Rivera’s art does not shy away from this fact. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The section on the mural’s right depicts the post-colonial era and focuses on figures central to Mexico’s War of Independence and Revolution. 

Among the figures visible in this mural section are Francisco Madero and Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, but also more controversial figures like Maximilian I of Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In 1922, Rivera became a member of the Mexican Communist Party and even served on its Central Committee. As a result, figures like those of Marx and Lenin are familiar in his artwork, as are themes like strikes and the formation of workers’ unions.

Diego Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo, was also an ardent Communist, and her image can also be seen, along with that of her sister Cristina, in the same panel with Karl Marx. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

Rivera’s Communist ideology is a significant aspect of his life and artistic legacy. Still, it also caused friction and even the destruction of his work, as with the famous mural he painted in Rockefeller Center. 

There is also no denying that, like many Communists of his era, Rivera was an anti-Semite, which is an aspect of his legacy that lovers of his art wrestle with to this day. 

The image of Diego Rivera has become iconic in Mexico and can often be seen plastered as stencils or graffiti on city streets, as well as 500-peso bills. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Entrance to Palacio Nacional to see the murals is free, but you must first make an appointment at the ticketing center directly across the street. Tours are available in both English and Spanish. 

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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