Manuel Vilar, Tlahuicole

Manuel Vilar, Tlahuicole, the Tlaxcaltecan General, Fighting in the Gladiatorial Sacrifice, 1851, plaster, 216 cm high (Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City); a conversation between Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker


Spanish-born sculptor Manuel Vilar created a plaster cast of Tlahuicole, the Tlaxcaltecan General, Fighting in the Gladiatorial Sacrifice in 1851 while working at the the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City, the first art academy in the Americas. This sculpture was the first at the Academy to explicitly depict the pre-Hispanic past. Vilar used the Neoclassical style (which was based on Greco-Roman art) to portray a heroized warrior from Mexica and Tlaxcalan history.

Tlahuicole was a warrior who was captured by the Mexica (Aztecs) during a flowery war against Tlaxcala. He was forced to fight, but successfully defeated the many warriors tasked with battling him. He was pardoned and was then asked to join the Mexica army. Tlahuicole refused to fight for the Mexica, and instead accepted that he would die in ritual sacrifice.

At the time Vilar created this plaster cast other artists, authors, and historians (among others) were beginning to look to the Mexica past (and more broadly the pre-Hispanic past) in new ways to help to forge a Mexican identity in the mid-to-late 19th century. The subject of Vilar’s idealized Tlahuicole was not necessarily intended to be an accurate depiction of past events, but was an appropriation of the Indigenous past to aid in shaping what was occurring in the 19th century. Vilar and other academic artists after him often looked to the historical Indigenous past rather than turn to contemporaneous Indigenous people and stories. Using the visual language of Neoclassicism was also a way to “classicize” the Indigenous past—what art historian James Oles notes was one way of “‘civilizing the barbarian’ (in the same way that such words as ‘pyramid’ and ‘stela’ classicized pre-Hispanic ruins).” [1] This became more common in the nineteenth century after 1860.

Vilar’s sculpture was never cast in bronze as he had intended.


[1] James Oles, Art and Architecture in Mexico (London: Thames and Hudson, 2013), p. 172


Additional resources:

Read about the Academy of San Carlos

Learn more about this sculpture on the Google Arts and Culture project

Ray Hernández-Durán, The Academy of San Carlos and Mexican Art History: Politics, History, and Art in Nineteenth-Century Mexico (London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2017)

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Manuel Vilar, Tlahuicole," in Smarthistory, May 6, 2021, accessed March 3, 2024,