The pre-Columbian Maya of Mexico and Central America made art as if their lives depended on it because it did in terms of their culture. Their art glorified and placated the maize god and other deities, while extolling pride in the bloody battles they fought for prisoners, prisoners whose blood, like that of their rulers would entice the maize god, beheaded every year at harvest, to resurrect himself the next spring.
Each of the roughly sixty city-states of the Maya at their height, around 600 to 900 AD, was ruled by a king who took the place of a god or gods in many rites. He, and sometimes she, acted as an intermediary between this world and the next.
A rare throne back of carved limestone from Piedras Negras in Mexico shows what looks like the supreme sky god attended by his wife or another goddess with a smaller winged creature, the Pax god, a messenger for the sky god between them. These are not the gods themselves, however, but a Mayan king and probably his wife as impersonators. Its an excellent example of the Mayan court mirroring the divine.
The throne back is part of the impressive traveling exhibition, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The show is filled with limestone carvings, ceramic vessels and figurines, and flint, shell, and jade treasures, many of which are being seen for the first time in this country.
While much remains unknown about the Mayan (their beginnings stretch back to 2500 BC), what is known about them during their height in the late classic period is illustrated in this exhibition. It focuses on the period from 600AD to 850AD. By the early 900s, their huge cities filled with palaces, pyramids, ballcourts, and many other elaborately decorated buildings were deserted, the home to beggars and animals.
What happened is a mystery, but archeologists guess that drought brought on by deforestation erupted into wars that embroiled the entire Mayan heartland. (That area today includes southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.)
The maize upon which they Maya depended is represented as a lavishly adorned young man in a carving of volcanic tuff from Copan, Honduras. He was associated with the color green, the color of young shoots of corn. Thats why several rulers have been found in tombs covered with green jade face masks; the assumption is that they would join with the maize god in death. One spectacular example with ear flares and eyes of obsidian and shell is from Calakmul, Mexico, a rich site, one of the few city-states able to afford such jade objects.
Blood-letting by the king and queen was imperative in coaxing the maize god to reappear each spring.
Although the Spanish burned most of the Mayan books, a vivid glimpse of nobles actually performing a specific ritual comes through in a series of pieces. Three large, carved limestone panels, from around 725AD, were once used as doorways at the court of Shield Jaguar and his principal wife, Lady Xok, in Yaxchilan, Mexico.
In one of them, Lady Xok is shown delicately pulling a thorn-studded rope through her tongue. Her husband holds a torch above her head, while the drops collect. In another she has a vision of a snake god that hovers menacingly over her head. In the last, she is presenting her husband with a jaguar headdress. The fine carving permits us to see feathered garments and patterned textiles that have not survived.
Even the blood-letting instruments were special. A cache of carved bone, deer antlers, and stingray spines were found in a tomb connected with this royal pair, each intricately etched with designs.
A full-scale painted replica of some of the murals discovered in three rooms at Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico, offers a stunning tableau of officials and prisoners of war, another source of blood for the gods. At the top of the steps, the court hierarchy is stiff and proper while the captured prisoners, dead and dying, sprawl beneath them. On a lower level, lesser members of the court keep an eye on the ceremony.
Courtly Art doesnt neglect the less gory aspects of court life, either. A series of realistic ceramic figurines from Jaina Island, Mexico, give a glimpse of the people who served these exalted rulers, providing a good look at their tools and adornments, like a woman at her loom, a messenger, and a singer. A paint container in the form of a human hand made from shell was one of the most elegant pieces in the show to my eye.
Still, the gods in their most horrific forms, on pieces like the ceramic Censer Stand with the Jaguar God of the Underworld from Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, are the images that will probably haunt my dreams.
Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya will be at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, to July 25. From Sept. 4, 2004 to January 2, 2005, it can be seen at the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor. The two institutions collaborated with the Instituto Nacional de Antropologa e Historia in Mexico, which generously provided about half of the works.
The curators of this must-see show are Kathleen Berrin, Curator in Charge of Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Mary Ellen Miller, Vincent J. Scully Professor of the History of Art at Yale University. The catalog, a great read with wonderful photos, by Professor Miller and Simon Martin includes some informative short takes on current research on the Maya. Its available for $35 in paper and $50 in hardback.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.