"Treasures of Sacred Maya Kings," June 13-Sept. 10, 2006, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.
The prime duty of the ancient Mayan kings was to assume the mantle of the gods, especially the Maize God, and through ecstatic dancing to spark a yearly rebirth of fertility. For the Maya, a good harvest was crucial, and the paraphernalia connected with these rituals -- stelae, vessels, ornaments, murals and more, now on display in "Treasures of the Maya Kings" at the Metropolitan Museum -- were of the highest significance.
Focusing on the many symbols of cosmic power and supernatural might, "Treasures of the Maya Kings" includes items that are spare and elegant, like small jadeite masks, and others that are more robust, like a limestone divination figure (150-350 AD) in which a king is in the midst of transforming himself into a jaguar, his animal spirit companion. What the pieces all share is a pulsing energy.
At the entry to the exhibition is a granite stela from Guatemala, 200-50 BC, measuring more than six feet tall and depicting an early Maya king wearing a bird mask. The ruler has branches in his headdress that turn him into a world tree, a bridge between the underworld (symbolized by an abstract earth monster beneath his feet) and the heavens (symbolized by the Principal Bird Deity above his head).
The show, which originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is one of the most important and compelling exhibitions of the year -- and it looks great in its incarnation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Visitors can savor the art for its esthetic merits alone. But the exhibition also is an enjoyable way to get up-to-date on what’s been happening in archeology lately.
First, a little orientation. The Maya lived in sites scattered across the Yucatan Peninsula from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific, in what is present day southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and western Honduras. The Maya had many small kingdoms, a few regional centers and no one ruler.
The Formative period, or Preclassic period, of Mesoamerican civilizations runs from about 2000 BC (with the earliest Maya material appearing around 1000 BC) to about 100 AD. The Classic Maya begins around 100 AD, based upon a recent find, rather than 250 AD as previously thought, and ends at 909 AD.
Mesoamerica has been one of the hottest areas of archeological study recently, and new discoveries have shaken up our understanding of the Maya (and much more remains to be learned, of course). Once thought to be pacific, it turns out that the Maya were as dependent on blood sacrifice, most of it human, as were other Mesoamerican peoples.
A few years ago, a large mural was discovered at San Bartolo in Guatemala, showing a ruler dressed as the Maize God. This important revelation has pushed back the date of the Classic Maya from 250 AD to 100 AD.
Visitors to the exhibition can watch a video that describes this impressive site and some of the most recent excavations, and that also illustrates ways that the Maya of today have retained and integrated rituals from the past into their lives. Several recent art works, such as a wooden carving of a deer dance performed in Guatemala, attest to this continuity in a lively fashion.
Nearby, a reproduction of the San Bartolo find allows viewers to observe some of the earlier Olmec elements in the tableau. Most but not all archeologists believe that the Olmec, a people that flourished from roughly 1200 BC to 400 BC in Mexico’s Gulf Coast heartland, was a "mother culture" for Mesoamerica, evolving many of the beliefs that the Maya would adopt and refine. The Olmec spoke a different language from the Maya, however, and never developed writing as the Maya did. At least, that’s the thinking at the moment.
A good case for Olmec elements in the Maya idea of kingship is made early in the show. The basic Mesoamerican cosmogram has four cardinal directions with a world tree rising in the center, connecting the three worlds of the heavens, earth and the underworld. The earliest work of art in the show is a basalt Olmec monument of a Lord Raising a World Tree (1100-900 BC). Found on the top of a volcano in Veracruz, the now-eroded face of the lord is topped by an Olmec headdress of the Maize God with a trefoil sprouting maize plant on top.
A distinctly Maya Plate Portraying Enthroned King (Mexico or Guatemala, 250-450 AD) shows a ruler, transformed into the Maize God, with a different kind of headdress, but one that contains a cob of maize, trefoil leaves and maize silk. This regal personage sits on a jaguar pelt in the cross-legged position used by royalty and holds a sacred offering bundle.
Another Olmec beauty is a Young Lord (900-400 BC) posing as the world tree. This gracefully elongated human form, which is carved from serpentine and has reddish cinnabar in its incisions, is more than two feet tall and holds two celts. Celts were usually made of jadeite, which like the serpentine, is green and symbolic of vegetation and fertility. The Maya reused Olmec jadeite pieces as heirlooms and also made their own.
Flowering plants, especially water lilies, and water birds like cormorants are also linked to fertility for the Maya. One Maya painted ceramic from Guatemala (250-400 AD) has a cormorant picking up a fish from the water as a handle for the lid. The four feet of the vessel are peccary heads. These animals were associated with pillars holding up the four cardinal directions of the universe. Turtles also appear frequently in ceramics. Their backs are related to the dry crust of the earth from which the young maize emerges.
While in a trance from blood-letting or ingesting hallucinogens, Maya kings would divine the future with the help of mirrors. One rare wooden figure (500-600 AD) with a combination of Olmec and Maya features seems to have held a mirror once and his open mouth and half-closed eyes suggest a trance state. An actual mirror of irregular pieces of hematite with a cave creature on the reverse was once worn as a pendant.
Feasting in the context of accession, war victory celebrations, and religious and political occasions required lots of vessels for food and drink. Many were given as gifts to participants by Maya kings. Cacao beans, used as a form of currency, were whipped into a frothy beverage with flavorings, water and a kind of sap. Kings preferred a cacao drink mixed with spices and chili peppers. Traces of pinole, a mixture of cacao and maize, were found in a ceramic deer effigy vessel (Honduras, Copan, 430-435 AD). It was found with a scoop made of shell in the form of a human hand.
Associations with fertility followed Maya kings to the grave. A stunning funerary jadeite mosaic mask with shell and obsidian eyes (Mexico, Campeche, 200-600 AD) was worn by a king in his tomb. The small upward curls of white shell at his mouth depict his breath -- and his soul escaping.
"Treasures of the Maya Kings" considers the controversial question of trade and cross-cultural exchanges between the Maya and the central Mexico civilization anchored in Teotihuacan. Previously, it was thought that the Teotihuacan may have dominated the Maya in some areas, because of their extensive influence on Maya material culture. With new research, the exchanges appear more balanced and the result of mutually beneficial trade.
This area is open to conjecture. We do know that Teotihuacan fell as a major state around 400 AD. Perhaps a Maya tripod vessel (Mexico, Campeche, 450-550 AD) -- part of dedication cache to a new building -- that has a Teotihuaca-style human figure and once held Teotihuacan warrior figurines, may have been a symbolic "sealing up" of that once-powerful regime. But maybe there’s another explanation that more research will reveal.
The exhibition is organized by Virginia M. Fields, curator of Pre-Columbian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Dorie Reents-Buder, research associate at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, and accompanied by a terrific catalogue, Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship.
"Treasures of the Sacred Maya Kings" was previously on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.