There is a side of the Faculty of Medicine building that is covered by the giant mural. If you look at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s (UNAM) Faculty of Medicine building from several angles, it’s pretty hard to miss the enormous tiled mosaic that covers one of its sides. The highly symbolic mural is bordered by a rattlesnake with bared fangs — as if clasping it in a protective embrace. The middle portion of this snake is in flames, with tendrils of fire and smoke rising upwards.
The snake depicted in the image represents the age-old Greek symbol of medicine, the Caduceus staff, and the ancient Egyptian–Mesopotamian idea of Ouroboros and infinity. Most importantly, the green serpent is supposed to embody Cōātlīcue, the Aztec Earth Mother Goddess. As the story goes, Cōātlīcue (also known as Teteohinnan) was supposed to have given birth to the earth itself, and just like Earth, she was often portrayed to have a dual, conflicting nature.
As a supernatural deity, she can be a loving mother, creator, and nurturer of life, but she can also be a devourer and destroyer of human existence. In this artwork, Cōātlīcue (the snake) is presented as a confluence of various concepts: creation and inception of life, fertility, and fecundity, as well as dangers and risks. Below the scaled belly of the snake, there are three enigmatic golden creatures in flight, which are supposed to represent the winged creatures that the Aztecs venerated: the king vulture, the golden eagle, and the swallowtail butterfly. This aspect of the artwork is meant to embody the element of air (yohualli).
The center image consists of a three-faced mask set against a red background. The image is supposed to signify both the universal human condition and the nationwide advent of mestizaje in Mexico. This term refers to the racial and ethnic mix of indigenous inhabitants and Spanish colonizers. Above the mask, there are two enormous hands; one holds pollen while the other one carries a seed. They are supposed to denote the element of fire (tetl), which many pre-Hispanic civilizations regarded as a representation of the unity of opposites and duality. The two hands indicate the role played by the controlled use of fire in agriculture.
Meanwhile, beneath the element of fire, there is a skull that appears to be consuming a cob of maize. This is supposed to represent the Earth (Tlalli) and the human life cycle (from birth to death). Mankind’s link to the Earth and its dependence on plants (for food, medicine, clothing, and shelter) is represented by four important plants: maguey, maize, the cotton plant, and the nopal cactus.
Directly below the skull is a surreal aspect of Tlaloc. This divine being is supposed to personify the element of water (atl) and is accompanied by four creatures of his aquatic realm: the axolotl salamander, the leopard frog, the water snail, and the tiny coral fish. The creator of this mural was the artist Francisco Eppens, who was commissioned by UNAM to do the work in 1951. The artwork covers the west side of the Faculty of Medicine building. It can be viewed at all hours, as it is marvelously well lighted after dark.