While most of Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, the Maya of Mexico and Central America flourished. Living off a bounty of corn, they devised an elaborate calendar, charted stars and planets and invented the most complex written language in the Americas. And at the peak of their civilization, from a.d. 600 to 850, the Maya built monumental cities and produced art—stone sculptures, painted ceramics, delicate figurines and jade jewelry and masks—of astonishing beauty and striking, revelatory detail. Recently, scholars studying these pre-Columbian artworks have gained new insights into the life of the ancient Maya kings and their retinues. Now, an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. of more than 130 Maya masterworks, many of them never before displayed in the United States, affirms the pomp and sophistication of Maya courtly life, from its royals’ fondness for mirror-gazing to its chilling brutality.
The exhibition, organized by the National Gallery and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, makes clear that Maya royalty—the more than 60 Maya city-states were ruled by hereditary kings who claimed kinship with the gods— lived within a rigid social hierarchy. A carved stone relief (p. 51) bearing an inscription dating it to a.d. 783 from the Yaxchilán area of southern Mexico shows a bejeweled king, Shield Jaguar III, sitting cross-legged on his throne. A noble known as He of Red Monkey kneels a step below and presents his booty of three captives who await their fate—slavery, torture or sacrifice. Their jewels have been plucked, and strips of cloth now fill the holes that once held earrings.
The relief also hints at Maya cosmology, with Shield Jaguar III wearing his hair upswept in thick bunches, reminiscent of ears of corn, in emulation of the Maize God. One of many gods thought to inhabit the sky, earth and underworld, the Maize God, according to Maya belief, was lured to the underworld, where the death gods murdered him, burying his body and putting his head in a calabash tree. His twin sons, half human and half divine, entered the underworld, defeated the gods and resurrected their father. Significantly, the myth of the Maize God has a parallel with the life cycle of corn, which is “decapitated” and reborn every year.
A scene (detail, left) painted on a small cylindrical vessel from a.d. 600-800, depicts a more intimate moment. A potbellied king, sporting a headdress shaped like a rabbit’s head and gazing intently into a mirror, holds a fly whisk (a symbol of authority) in one hand and stretches out the other, showing off long, delicate fingernails. The Maya believed that mirrors possessed magical powers and often consulted them as oracles. A bodyguard stands behind the throne and a courtier, just beneath it, watches over vessels that scholars believe held a spiced chocolate drink (made from cacao beans) highly valued by the Maya elite. A dwarf drinking from a bowl, a hunchback, and a courtier, clutching a bouquet of flowers, sit in front of the king. Wooden horns and a conch-shaped trumpet suggest the presence of musicians.
The artistic remains of Maya society document that dwarves and hunchbacks, who were companions to the Maize God in Maya cosmology, often served as trusted counselors to the kings. The court was also filled with queens, nobles, priests, messengers, eunuchs, ballplayers, singers, trumpeters, dancers, tortilla makers, weavers, artists and carvers. Scribes, a vital part of court life, recorded events, kept accounts of tribute and also functioned as artists.
Women played a prominent role at court, and in a few rare cases ruled their city-states. Three intricately carved limestone lintels from a temple commissioned by and dedicated to Lady Xok (pronounced “shoke”) in Yaxchilán attest to her wealth and prominence. Lady Xok was the principal wife and queen of Shield Jaguar the Great, who ruled Yaxchilán from a.d. 681 to 742. Two of the Lady Xok lintels were removed from the site in the 1880s by the British explorer and photographer Alfred Maudslay and placed in the British Museum. The third belongs to the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. In the first lintel (p. 52), Lady Xok, wearing heavy jewelry, performs a ritual bloodletting, required of royalty, as an offering to the gods to guarantee the continuation of life. Shield Jaguar stands over her with a torch or burning spear as she pulls a rope with thorns through a perforation in her tongue. Blood drips onto paper in a basket. In the second lintel, a kneeling Lady Xok burns offerings of blood-soaked paper and conjures a vision of a gigantic snake disgorging a warrior—possibly an ancestral spirit or, more likely, her husband, Shield Jaguar himself. In the final lintel, Shield Jaguar wears battle armor made of a mat-like material covered in cotton and feathers. Lady Xok hands him a shield and also a jaguar helmet (probably made from an actual head). The fiercest animal known to the Maya, the jaguar was a symbol of power.
The darker side of Maya life is also evident in a series of murals from a.d. 790-800 that were found in 1946 by American photographer Giles Healey. (Reproductions of the murals are a centerpiece of the exhibition.) Healey was sent to Mexico by the United Fruit Company, which operated banana plantations in Latin America, to make a documentary film about the Indians of southern Mexico. One group, the Lacandon, led him to a Maya ruin (the site would later become known as Bonampak) where, in a small temple, the photographer came upon three rooms whose walls were filled with extraordinary murals. The paintings, though somewhat faded, were remarkably well preserved. Most of the scenes depict chaotic battles, and one shows a tableau (p. 54) in which warriors are presenting captives to a king named Yahaw Chan Muwan. Wearing a jaguar-skin vest and an enormous headdress of green quetzal feathers, the king is accompanied by his wife (Lady Rabbit of Yaxchilán), his mother, a servant and two noblemen swathed in jaguar pelts. On the steps below the king lie the body of a dead captive and a severed head. One of the king’s warriors is cutting live prisoners’ fingertips or stripping their nails. Several grimace in agony as they hold out their bleeding hands.
The murals helped change scholars’ perception of the Maya, once viewed as primarily a peaceful people interested in astronomy and the calendar, but now understood to be aggressively territorial, warlike and violent. “There is no single artifact of the Maya that tells you as much about its time and place as the Bonampak murals,” says exhibition co-curator Mary Miller, a professor of art history at Yale University, who heads a project there that is reconstructing the murals in their original full-color glory.
With Maya city-states often warring against one another, the disposition of captives was a recurring theme in their life and art. One carving from the city of Toniná in southern Mexico, its hieroglyphics tell us, is of a king from Palenque who was captured in a.d. 711. Sculptors carved images of bound captives into limestone steps, providing the victors with yet another means of treading upon the vanquished.
Palenque, set in the dense tropical rain forest of the Chiapas region of Mexico, was the first Classic Maya site found by the Spaniards, in the 1740s, and the fog-shrouded ruins have excited the fancy of travelers and scholars ever since.
Maya specialist George Stuart, who was staff archaeologist for the National Geographic Society from 1960 to 1998, once called Palenque the “most beautiful and evocative” of all the Maya ruins. “From a distance,” he wrote, “Palenque’s buildings appear as tiny jewel casks gleaming whitely on their graceful pyramids and platforms.” The most spectacular Palenque discovery came in 1952, when Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier found an immense sarcophagus at the end of a secret staircase deep inside the Temple of Inscriptions. “Out of the shadow arose a vision from a fairy tale,” Ruz would recall. It was the tomb of Pakal the Great, who ruled Palenque from a.d. 615, when he was 12, until his death in 683, at 80. The tomb was covered by a slab with a bas-relief showing the king emerging from the jaws of the underworld—a scene symbolic of resurrection. Inside, Ruz found Pakal’s skeleton and a jade death mask, with eyes of white shell and black obsidian. Jade jewelry adorned his remains— a necklace, pendants, earrings and rings. The highly prized green stone, colored rather like a corn husk, represented yet another royal association with the Maize God.
A strikingly individualistic stucco head of Pakal, also in the show, was found beneath the sarcophagus. It demonstrates the preference that Palenque sculptors had for naturalistic portraiture. (Other Maya artists, by contrast, tended to favor idealized portrayals of kings, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other.) “The idea of being interested in the individual is something that seems special for Palenque,” says Miller. Simon Martin, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and coauthor of the exhibition catalog with Miller, goes further. Pakal’s artists, he says, were “in a sense creating a cult of personality.”
In 2002, a limestone panel from a.d. 736 was found buried in the rubble of one of Palenque’s temples. The relief pictures Pakal, who had died 53 years earlier, flanked by his grandsons. It was long believed that the period of Palenque’s greatest wealth and power, and the achievements and artistic production that Pakal set in motion, ended with the reign (a.d. 702 to circa 720) of his second son. Mary Miller says that the discovery of this panel, which is featured in the exhibition, proves “that the long arm of Pakal extended right up to the end of the dynasty.”