Time, insects, and moisture have destroyed most Precolumbian sculpture in wood, but a handful of objects have miraculously survived. This wooden object, a kneeling sculpture of a male that most likely bore a mirror of pyrite, probably owes its existence to the sturdy dry walls of a tomb or cave. The artist created this figure from a solid piece of wood from the genus Cordia, known locally as bocote. Research determined a radiocarbon age for the wood of 1425 years b.p. ± 120 years, or a range of AD 410 to 650. This date falls within the late Early Classic or early Late Classic period, when dynastic kingdoms expanded throughout the Maya Lowlands.
The person shown wears an elaborate knee-length woven skirt with ties. In addition, he wears a rope or cloth band, perhaps for lashing the mirror, that goes around his neck and falls through his arms to his feet, which are folded under his body. He sits with legs and feet tucked under him as he arches his back, his head slightly tilted upward, his upper arms parallel to the ground, and his fists held tightly to his chest.
He wears a distinct hairstyle or headdress, is shown with a curled moustache, elaborate multi-tiered earflares, and a pectoral with an anthropomorphic portrait. Although the proper left side of the sculpture suffered more damage in antiquity, surviving pigment on the surface suggests he would have been brightly painted and lively.
This character is most likely a courtly dwarf, as seen in many palace scenes. In Maya art, dwarves often accompanied rulers or the Maize God. We see other dwarves in figurines and in painted scenes holding up mirrors. Mirrors themselves are about royal narcissism but also about dressing; they connote the assistance in clothing the king. They were also special in the eyes of Mesoamerican societies; they had divinatory powers and were sought after as entertainers in the royal courts.
John Stokes, New York, until 1962; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1962, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1962–1978
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Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, no. 614.
Easby, Elizabeth Kennedy, and John F. Scott. Before Cortez: Sculpture in Middle America. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970, no. 172.
Newton, Douglas, Julie Jones, and Kate Ezra. The Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Americas. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987.
Fields, Virginia M., and Dorie Reents-Budet. Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. London and Los Angeles: Scala Publishers Limited, 2005, no. 9, pp. 106–107.
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Pillsbury, Joanne. "The Pan-American: Nelson Rockefeller and the Arts of Ancient Latin America." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin Vol. 72 (2014), p. 24.