Treasures of Sacred Maya Kings
June 13–September 10, 2006
Based on an inherited tradition for interaction between royalty and supernatural powers, Maya kings of the early centuries of the Common Era portrayed themselves in the roles and costumes of deities and elaborated sacred imagery on all manner of works of art. The recent increase in the scholarship on the ancient Maya allows for a much more detailed examination of this important period in their history. At a time when the hereditary rulers of city-states were sustained by the prosperity gained by maize agriculture, they surrounded themselves with a cultivated nobility. They held forth in courts that included artists, architects, scribes, astronomers, diviners, courtiers, and servants of all sorts. The titles of many a Maya king, or lord (ajaw), his wife, his subordinates, and his enemies are known today, as are details of his life, his times, and his treasures.
The exhibition features stone sculpture in a number of forms, from large commemorative monuments, or stelas, to small, precious works of jade, a material of infinite value to all ancient Mesoamerican peoples, and one principally used for the fabrication of personal ornaments. Ceramic sculpture has a solid presence in the exhibition, appearing in a variety of shapes and encompassing numerous lidded vessels of diverse sorts—large cache vessels often embellished with complex iconographic schemes and/or further covered with stuccoed surfaces, and smaller, more intimately scaled examples reproducing natural forms. Ceramic censers in human form, bowls with complex relief images, and vessels in the shapes of deities are included. Bone and shell were used widely in ancient times for everything from object handles to personal ornaments, examples of which are on view. Works in jade are also well represented. Invariably green in color, Maya jade objects take the form of celts, beads, plaques, pendants, and three-dimensional sculpture, their hard and polishable surfaces decorated with delicate incised patterns, low-relief images, hieroglyphic inscriptions, and even narrative scenes.
Depictions of Maya Lords
Maya lords themselves are represented in the exhibition. They appear on stone sculpture as standing profile figures, elegantly arrayed as deities. The 76-inch-tall granite relief, a commemorative monument known as Stela 11 (Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City), from the highland site of Kaminaljuyu (Guatemala) is one of the earliest such Maya images, dating to the last centuries of the first millennium b.c. This well-preserved sculpture illustrates the necessary elaborateness of costume and accoutrements required for the kingly role in ritual performance. Wearing a wide belt with a great, down-curving beaked profile at the center, the figure supports a stacked helmet mask with the same profiles. The great beak is associated with a divinity known rather prosaically to modern scholars as the Principal Bird Deity. He is presented in Maya myth as a brilliant emanation of early light, or sun. The transformed king in his deity regalia is placed between the earth symbol below his feet and the bird of the heavens at the top of the stela. The Kaminaljuyu lord is portrayed as the universal bridge between the heavens and the earth.
Kingly images in other materials are also included, such as the Censer with Seated King (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), the fourth–fifth-century ceramic sculpture in the shape of a cross-legged lord holding a small tray of offerings out in front of him. The rising of smoke from such censers honored deified ancestors in rituals. Funerary masks encrusted with jade are considered the last "portraits." A Funerary Mask (Museo Histórico Fuerte de San Miguel, Campeche) from Calakmul displays the type. Calakmul, in the interior lowlands of the Mexican state of Campeche, was a powerful Maya city from the first to the ninth century.
Source of Maya Traditions
One section of the exhibition is devoted to the source of the inherited traditions upon which the Maya kings elaborated. In the early first millennium b.c., the Olmec peoples of the Mexican Gulf Coast were the first to portray their rulers as divinities. Olmec imagery is presented as background to the Maya works in the exhibition.