Trisha Shetty

Ancient Maya art

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Ancient Maya art

Ancient Maya art refers to the material arts of the Maya civilization, an eastern and south-eastern Mesoamerican culture that took shape in the course of the later Preclassic Period (500 BCE to 200 CE). Its greatest artistic flowering occurred during the seven centuries of the Classic Period (c. 200 to 900 CE).


Ancient Maya art then went through an extended Post-Classic phase before the upheavals of the sixteenth century destroyed courtly culture and put an end to the Mayan artistic tradition. Many regional styles existed, not always coinciding with the changing boundaries of Maya polities. Olmecs, Teotihuacan and Toltecs have all influenced Maya art. Traditional art forms have mainly survived in weaving and the design of peasant houses.

Mayan art history

Following the nineteenth and early-twentieth century publications on Maya art and archaeology by Stephens, Catherwood, Maudslay, Maler and Charnay that for the first time made available reliable drawings and photographs of major Classic Maya monuments, the 1913 publication of Herbert Spinden´s 'A Study of Maya Art' - now over a century ago - laid the foundation for all later developments of Maya art history (including iconography). The book gives an analytical treatment of themes and motifs, particularly the ubiquitous serpent and dragon motifs, and a review of the ´material arts´, such as the composition of temple facades, roof combs and mask panels. Spinden's chronological treatment of Maya art was later (1950) refined by the motif analysis of the architect and specialist in archaeological drawing, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, in her book 'A Study of Classic Maya Sculpture'. Kubler's 1969 inventory of Maya iconography, containing a site-by-site treatment of 'commemorative' images and a topical treatment of ritual and mythical images (such as the 'triadic sign'), concluded a period of gradual increase of knowledge that was soon to be overshadowed by new developments.

Starting in the early 1970s, the historiography of the Mayan kingdoms - first of all Palenque - came to occupy the forefront. Art-historical interpretation joined the historical approach pioneered by Proskouriakoff as well as the mythological approach initiated by M.D. Coe, with a professor of art, Linda Schele, serving as a driving force. Schele's seminal interpretations of Maya art are found throughout her work, especially in 'The Blood of Kings', written together with art historian M. Miller. Maya art history was also spurred by the enormous increase in sculptural and ceramic imagery, due to extensive archaeological excavations, as well as to organized looting on an unprecedented scale. On from 1973, M.D. Coe published a series of books offering pictures and interpretations of unknown Maya vases, with the Popol Vuh Twin myth for an explanatory model. In 1981, Robicsek and Hales added an inventory and classification of Maya vases painted in codex style, thereby revealing even more of a hitherto barely known spiritual world.

As to subsequent developments, important issues in Schele's iconographic work have been elaborated by Karl Taube. New approaches to Maya art include studies of ancient Maya ceramic workshops, the representation of bodily experience and the senses in Maya art, and of hieroglyphs considered as iconographic units. Meanwhile, the number of monographs devoted to the monumental art of specific courts is growing. A good impression of recent Mexican and North American art historical scholarship can be gathered from the exhibition catalogue 'Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya' (2004).


The layout of the Maya towns and cities, and more particularly of the ceremonial centers where the royal families and courtiers resided, is characterized by the rhythm of immense horizontal stucco floors of plazas often located at various levels, connected by broad and often steep stairs, and surmounted by temple pyramids. Under successive reigns, the main buildings were enlarged by adding new layers of fill and stucco coating. Irrigation channels, reservoirs, and drains made up the hydraulic infrastructure. Outside the ceremonial center (especially in the southern area sometimes resembling an acropolis) were the structures of lesser nobles, smaller temples, and individual shrines, surrounded by the wards of the commoners. Dam-like causeways (sacbeob) spread from the 'ceremonial centers' to other nuclei of habitation. Fitting in with the concept of a 'theatre state', more attention appears to have been given to aesthetics than to solidity of construction. Careful attention, however, was placed on directional orientation.

Among the various types of structures should be mentioned:

  • Ceremonial platforms (usually less than 4 meters in height).
  • Courtyards and palaces.
  • Other residential buildings, such as a writers' house and a possible council house in Copan.
  • Temples and temple pyramids, the latter often containing burials in their base or fill, with sanctuaries on top. The outstanding example are the many clustered dynastic burial temples of Tikal's North Acropolis. The chief Post-Classic temple pyramids of Chichen Itzá and Mayapán evince a radial four-staircase structure.
  • Ball courts.
  • Among the structural ensembles are:

  • 'Triadic pyramids' consisting of a dominant structure flanked by two smaller inward-facing buildings, all mounted upon a single basal platform;
  • 'E-groups' consisting of a square platform with a low four-stepped pyramid on the west side and an elongated structure, or, alternatively, three small structures, on the eastern side;
  • 'Twin pyramid complexes', with identical four-stepped pyramids on the east and west sides of a small plaza; a building with nine doorways on the south side; and a small enclosure on the north side housing a sculpted stela with its altar and commemorating the king's performance of a k'atun-ending ceremony.
  • In the palaces and temple rooms, the 'corbelled vault' was often applied. Though not an effective means to increase interior space, as it required thick stone walls to support the high ceiling, some temples utilized repeated arches, or a corbelled vault, to construct an inner sanctuary (e.g., that of the Temple of the Cross at Palenque).

    The Classic Puuc, Chenes, and Rio Bec architecture of Yucatán is characterized by the geometrical reduction of realistic decoration, the stacking of rain god snouts to build facades, and the use of portals shaped like serpent mouths; the Rio Bec style includes the use of solid pseudo temple-pyramids.

    Stone sculpture

    The main Preclassic sculptural style from the Maya area is that of Izapa, a large settlement on the Pacific coast where many stelas and (frog-shaped) altars were found showing motifs also present in Olmec art. The stelas, mostly without inscriptions, often show mythological and narrative subjects, some of which appear to relate to the Twin myth of the Popol Vuh. Nonetheless, it remains uncertain if the inhabitants of Izapa were ethnically Mayan. For the Classic Period of the Mayas, the following major classes of stone sculpture may be distinguished.

  • Stelas. These are large, elongated stone slabs usually covered with carvings and inscriptions, and often accompanied by round altars. Typical of the Classical period, most of them depict the rulers of the cities they were located in, often disguised as gods. Although the rulers' faces, particularly during the later Classic Period, are naturalistic in style, they usually do not show individual traits; but there are notable exceptions to this rule (e.g., Piedras Negras, stela 35). The most famous stelas are from Copan and nearby Quirigua. These are outstanding for their intricateness of detail, those of Quirigua also for sheer height (stela E measuring over 7 metres above ground level and 3 below). Both the Copan and Tonina stelas approach sculptures in the round. From Palenque, otherwise a true Maya capital of the arts, no significant stelae have been preserved.
  • Lintels spanning doorways, and panels and tablets set in the walls and piers of buildings and the sides of platforms. Particularly Palenque and Yaxchilan are renowned for this kind of art works - Yaxchilan chiefly for its long series of lintels in deep relief, some of the most famous of which show meetings with ancestors, Palenque for the large tablets adorning the inner sanctuaries of the Cross Group temples, and for refined masterworks such as the 'Palace Tablet', the 'Tablet of the Slaves', and the multi-figure panels of the temple XIX and XXI platforms. King Pakal's carved sarcophagus lid - without equal in other Maya kingdoms - might also be included here.
  • Altars, rounded or rectangular, sometimes resting on three or four boulder-like legs. They may be wholly or partly figurative (e.g., Copan turtle altar) or have a relief image on top, sometimes consisting of a single Ahau day sign (Caracol, Tonina).
  • Zoomorphs, or large boulders sculpted to resemble living creatures and covered with highly complicated relief ornamentation. These are especially known from the kingdom of Quirigua and may have functioned as altars.
  • Ball court markers, or rounded relief carvings placed in the central axis of the floors of ball courts (such as those of Copan, Chinkultic, Tonina), and usually showing royal ball game scenes.
  • Monumental stairs, most famously the giant hieroglyphic stairway of Copan. The hewn stone blocks of hieroglyphic stairways together constitute an extensive text. Stairways can also be decorated with a great variety of scenes (La Corona), particularly the ball game. Sometimes, the ball game becomes the stairs' chief theme (Yaxchilan), with a captive depicted inside the ball, or, elsewhere (Tonina), a full-figure captive stretched out along the step.
  • Thrones, with a broad, square seat, and a back sometimes iconically shaped like the wall of a cave, and worked open to show human figures. Examples from Palenque and Copan have supports showing cosmologic carriers (Bacabs, Chaaks).
  • Stone sculpture in the round, represented by statuary, such as the seated Copan scribe and small stelas from Toniná; by certain figurative architectural elements, such as the maize deities from a Copan façade; and by giant sculptures such as the symmetrically-positioned jaguars and simian musicians of Copán, that were integral parts of architectural design.
  • Wood carving

    It is believed that carvings in wood were once extremely common, but only a few examples have survived. Most 16th-century wood carvings, considered objects of idolatry, were destroyed by the Spanish colonial authorities. The most important Classic examples consist of intricately worked lintels, mostly from the main Tikal pyramid sanctuaries, with one specimen from nearby El Zotz. The Tikal wood reliefs, each consisting of several beams, and dating to the 8th century, show a king on his seat with a protector figure looming large behind, in the form of a Teotihuacan-style 'war serpent' (Temple I lintel 2), a jaguar (Temple I lintel 3), or a human impersonator of the jaguar god of terrestrial fire (Temple IV lintel 2). Other Tikal lintels depict an obese king wearing a jaguar dress and standing in front of his seat (Temple III lintel 2); and most famously, a victorious king, dressed as an astral death god, and standing on a palanquin underneath an arching feathered serpent (Temple IV lintel 3). Free sculpture in wood, dating back to the 6th century, is represented by a dignified seated man possibly functioning as a mirror bearer.

    Stucco modeling

    At least since Late Preclassic times, modeled and painted stucco plaster covered the floors and buildings of the town centers and provided the setting for their stone sculptures. Often, large mask panels with the plastered heads of deities in high relief (particularly those of sun, rain, and earth) are found attached to the sloping retaining walls of temple platforms flanking stairs (e.g., Kohunlich). Stucco modeling and relief work can also cover the entire building, as shown by Temple 16 of Copan, in its 6th-century form (known as 'Rosalila'). Dedicated to the first king, Yax K'uk' Mo', this early temple has marvellously preserved plastered and painted facades. The stuccoed friezes, walls, piers, and roof combs of the Late Preclassic and Classic periods show varying and sometimes symbolically complicated decorative programs.

    Several solutions for dividing up and ordering the stuccoed surfaces of buildings were applied, serialization being one them. The Early Classic walls of the 'Temple of the Night Sun' in El Zotz consist of a series of subtly varied deity mask panels, whereas the frieze of a Balamku palace, also from the Early Classic, originally had a series of four rulers enthroned above the open ophidian mouths of four different animals (a toad among them) associated with symbolic mountains. Conversely, friezes may be centered on a single ruler again sitting on a symbolic (maize) mountain, such as a frieze from Holmul, with two feathered serpents emanating from below the ruler's seat, and another one from Xultun, on which the ruler carries a large ceremonial bar with emerging jaguar-like figures. An Early-Classic temple frieze from Placeres, Quintana Roo, has the large mask panel of a young lord or deity in the middle, with two lateral 'Grandfather' deities extending their arms.

    Often, a frieze is divided into compartments. Late Preclassic friezes of El Mirador, for example, show the intervening spaces of an undulating serpent's body filled out with aquatic birds, and the sections of an aquatic band with swimming figures. Similarly, a Classic palace frieze in Acanceh is divided into panels holding different animal figures reminiscent of wayob, while a wall in Tonina has lozenge-shaped fields suggesting a scaffold and presenting continuous narrative scenes that relate to human sacrifice.

    Plastered temple roof combs are similar to some of the friezes above in that they usually show large representations of rulers, who may again be seated on a symbolic mountain, and also, as on Palenque's Temple of the Sun, set within a cosmological framework. Further examples of Classic stucco modeling include the piers of the Palenque Palace, embellished with a series of lords and ladies in ritual dress, and the 'baroque', Late-Classic Chenes-style stucco entrance, beset with naturalistic human figures, on the Acropolis (Str. 1) of Ek' Balam.

    Unique in Mesoamerica, Classic Period stucco modeling includes realistic portraiture of a quality equalling that of Roman ancestral portraits, with the lofty stucco heads of Palenque rulers and portraits of dignitaries from Tonina as outstanding examples. Some of these portrait heads were part of life-size stucco figures adorning temple crests. The portrait modeling recalls that of certain Jaina ceramic statuettes.

    Mural painting

    Although, due to the humid climate of Central America, relatively few Mayan paintings have survived to the present day integrally, important remnants have been found in nearly all major court residences. This is especially the case in substructures, hidden under later architectural additions. Mural paintings may show more or less repetitive motifs, such as the subtly varied flower symbols on walls of House E of the Palenque Palace; scenes of daily life, as in one of the buildings surrounding the central square of Calakmul; or ritual scenes involving deities, as in the Post-Classic temple murals of Yucatán's and Belize's east coast (Tancah, Tulum, Santa Rita).

    They may also evince a more narrative character, usually with hieroglyphic captions present. The colourful Bonampak murals, for example, dating from 790 AD, and extending over the walls and vaults of three adjacent rooms, show spectacular scenes of nobility, battle and sacrifice, as well as a group of ritual impersonators in the midst of a file of musicians. At San Bartolo, murals dating from 100 BC relate to the myths of the Maya maize god and the hero twin Hunahpu, and depict a double inthronization; antedating the Classic Period by several centuries, the style is already fully developed, with colours being subtle and muted as compared to those of Bonampak or Calakmul. Outside the Mayan area, in a ward of East-Central Mexican Cacaxtla, murals painted in a predominantly Classic Mayan style, with often stark colors, have been found, such as a savage battle scene extending over 20 meters; two figures of Mayan lords standing on serpents; and an irrigated maize and cacao field visited by the Maya merchant deity.

    Wall painting also occurs on vault capstones, in tombs (e.g., Río Azul), and in caves (e.g., Naj Tunich), usually executed in black on a whitened surface, at times with the additional use of red paint. Yucatec vault capstones often show a depiction of the enthroned lightning deity (e.g., Ek' Balam).

    A bright turquoise blue colour - 'Maya Blue' - has survived through the centuries due to its unique chemical characteristics; this color is present in Bonampak, Cacaxtla, Jaina, El Tajín, and even in some Colonial Convents. The use of Maya Blue survived until the 16th century, when the technique was lost.

    Writing and bookmaking

    The Maya writing system consists of about 1000 distinct characters or hieroglyphs ('glyphs'), and like many ancient writing systems is a mixture of syllabic signs and logograms. This script was in use from the 3rd century BCE until shortly after the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. As of now (2015), a considerable proportion of the characters has a reading, but their meaning and configuration as a text is not always understood. The books were folded and consisted of bark paper or leather leaves with an adhesive stucco layer on which to write; they were protected by jaguar skin covers or, perhaps, wooden boards. Since every diviner probably needed a book, there must have existed large numbers of them. Today, three codices (the Dresden, Paris, and Madrid codices), all of the Post-Classic period, are still in existence; the authenticity of a fourth one (the Grolier Codex) is doubtful. They are largely of a divinatory and priestly nature, containing almanacs, astrological tables, and ritual programs; the Paris Codex also includes katun-prophecies. Great attention was paid to a harmonious balance of texts and (partly coloured) illustrations.

    Besides the codical glyphs, there existed a cursive script of an often dynamic character, found in wall-paintings and on ceramics, and imitated in stone on panels from Palenque (such as the 'Tablet of the 96 glyphs'). Often, written captions are enclosed in square 'boxes' of various shapes within the representation. Wall paintings may also entirely consist of texts (Ek' Balam, Naj Tunich), or, more rarely, astrological computations (Xultun); sometimes, written on a white stuccoed surface, and executed with particular care and elegance, these texts are like enlargements of book pages.

    Hieroglyphs are ubiquitous and were written on every available surface, including the human body. The glyphs themselves are highly detailed, and particularly the logograms are deceivingly realistic. As a matter of fact, from an art-historical point of view, they should also be viewed as art motifs, and vice versa. Sculptors at Copan and Quirigua have consequently felt free to convert hieroglyphic elements and calendrical signs into animated, dramatic miniature scenes ('full figure glyphs').

    Ceramics and 'ceramic codex'

    Unlike utility ceramics found in such large numbers among the debris of archaeological sites, most of the decorated pottery (cylinder vessels, lidded dishes, vases, bowls) once was 'social currency' among the Maya nobility, and, preserved as heirlooms, also accompanied the nobles into their graves. The aristocratic tradition of gift-giving feasts and ceremonial visits, and the emulation that inevitably went with these exchanges, goes a long way towards explaining the high level of artistry reached in Classical times.

    Made without a potter's wheel, decorated pottery was delicately painted, carved into relief, incised, or - chiefly during the Early Classic period - made with the Teotihuacan fresco technique of applying paint to a wet clay surface. The precious objects were manufactured in numerous workshops distributed over the Mayan kingdoms, some of the most famous being associated with the 'Chama-style', the 'Holmul-style', the so-called 'Ik-style' and, for carved pottery, the Chochola-style.

    Vase decoration shows great variation, including palace scenes, courtly ritual, mythology, divinatory glyphs, and even dynastical texts taken from chronicles, and plays a major role in reconstructing Classical Maya life and beliefs. Ceramic scenes and texts painted in black and red on a white underground, the equivalents of pages from the lost folding books, are referred to as being in 'codex style'; the hieroglyphical and pictural overlap with the three extant books is (at least up to now) relatively small.

    Sculptural ceramic art includes incense burners and hand or mold-made figurines sometimes used as ocarinas. The profusely decorated, elongated Classic incense burners from the kingdom of Palenque - evolved from Early-Classic models - show the modeled face of a deity (usually the jaguar deity of terrestrial fire) or of a king. The elaborate Post-Classic, mold-made effigy incense burners especially associated with Mayapan represent standing deities (or priestly deity impersonators) often carrying offerings.

    Figurines, many of them mold-made, are often of an amazing liveliness and realism. Apart from deities, animal persons, rulers and dwarfs, they show many other characters as well as scenes taken from daily life. Some of these figurines may have been used in rituals. The most impressive examples stem from Jaina Island.

    Precious stone and other sculpted materials

    It is remarkable that the Maya, who had no metal tools, created many objects from a very thick and dense material, jade (jadeite), particularly all sorts of (royal) dress elements, such as belt plaques - or celts - ear spools, pendants, and also masks. Celts (i.e., flat, celt-shaped ornaments) were sometimes engraved with a stela-like representation of the king (e.g., the Early-Classic 'Leyden Plate'). The best-known example of a mask is probably the death mask of the Palenque king Pakal, covered with irregularly-shaped jade plaques and having eyes made from mother-of-pearl and obsidian; another death mask, belonging to a Palenque queen, consists of malachite plaques. Similarly, certain cylindrical vases from Tikal have an outer layer of square jade discs. Many stone carvings had jade inlays.

    Among other sculpted and engraved materials are flint, shell, and bone, often found in caches and burials. The so-called 'eccentric flints' are ceremonial objects of uncertain use, in their most elaborate forms of elongated shape with usually various heads extending on one or both sides, sometimes those of the lightning deity, more often anthropomorphic with a lightning torch in the forehead. Shell was worked into disks and other decorative elements showing human, possibly ancestral heads and deities; conch trumpets were similarly decorated. Human and animal bones were decorated with incised symbols and scenes. A collection of small and modified, tubular bones from an 8th-century royal burial under Tikal Temple I contains some of the most subtle engravings known from the Maya, including several scenes with the Tonsured maize god in a canoe.

    Applied arts and body decoration

    Textiles from the Classic period, made of cotton, have not survived, but Maya art provides detailed information about their appearance and, to a lesser extent, their social function. They include delicate fabrics used as wrappings, curtains and canopies furnishing palaces, and garments. Among the dyeing techniques may have been ikat. Daily costume depended on social standing. Noblewomen usually wore long dresses, noblemen girdles and breechcloths, leaving legs and upper body more or less bare, unless jackets or mantles were worn. Both men and women could wear turbans. Costumes worn on ceremonial occasions and during the many festivities were highly expressive and exuberant; animal headdresses were common. The most elaborate costume was the formal apparel of the king, as depicted on the royal stelae, with numerous elements of symbolic meaning.

    Wickerwork, only known from incidental depictions in sculptural and ceramic art, must once have been ubiquitous; the well-known pop ('mat') motif testifies to its importance.

    Body decorations often consisted of painted patterns on face and body, but could also be of a permanent character marking status and age differences. The latter type included artificial deformation of the skull, filing and incrustation of the teeth, and tattooing of the face.

    Museum collections

    There are a great many museums across the world with Maya artefacts in their collections. The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies lists over 250 museums in its Maya Museum database, and the European Association of Mayanists lists just under 50 museums in Europe alone. In Mexico City, the Museo Nacional de Antropología contains an especially large selection of Maya artefacts. A number of regional museums in Mexico hold important collections, including the Museo de las Estelas "Román Piña Chan" in Campeche, the Museo Regional de Yucatán "Palacio Cantón" in Mérida, and the Museo Regional de Antropología "Carlos Pellicer Camera" in Villahermosa, Tabasco. The most important museum collections in Guatemala are those of the Museo Popol Vuh and the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, both in Guatemala City. Notable museums with collections of Maya artefacts include the British Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Switzerland, holds a number of wooden lintels from Tikal; the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin holds a broad selection of Maya artefacts. In Belgium, the Musées royaux d'art et d'histoire in Brussels houses an important collection. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago contains a notable selection of Maya ceramics, while the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio has one of the most extensive Maya collections in the United States. The Museo de América in Madrid hosts a large selection of artefacts from Palenque; it is also home to the Madrid Codex. Other notable European museums are the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden, Netherlands, home to the Leyden Plate, and the Rietberg Museum in Zürich, Switzerland.

    Maya performative arts

  • Maya dance
  • Maya dance drama
  • Maya music
  • References

    Ancient Maya art Wikipedia

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