A Study of Maya Art: Its Subject Matter and Historical Development

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Author: Spinden, Herbert Joseph (1879-1967)

Year: 1970

Publisher: Kraus Reprint Company

Place: New York


xxiii+285 pages with 286 illustrations, 29 plates (many folding) and fold out map. Folio (14" x 11") issued in grey wrappers with black lettering to front wrapper. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Volume VI. Kraus reprint.

Ancient Maya art deals mainly with politics, the ancient calendar, and religion. The incredible amount of religiously themed art occurs in many different mediums, mainly stone inscriptions, jewelry, pottery, wall paintings. Art has enabled archaeologists to understand much about Maya ritual and the identities and nature of the gods. Through the ritual actions of the king and elite, gods were born, appeased, and nourished. Man contacted the gods and his ancestors, and he could invoke the forces of nature to work for him. As the Maya invented more and more deities, pleasing all of them became increasingly complicated. By the Classic Period, endless rounds of ceremonies for months, gods, and rites required priestly specialists, causing ritual to become a never ending cycle. Art depicts sacrifice and bloodletting as a primary element of Maya ritual. Numerous murals show lords and kings puncturing themselves with stingray spines, thorns, or lancets. The blood was usually collected by strips of cloth like paper and then burned so that the gods could consume the blood in the form of smoke. Bloodletting from the tongue, ears, and genitals was the most common method. Some of the most dramatic representations of bloodletting rituals are depicted on two series of lintels found in buildings at the city of Yaxchilan. The scenes show different points in the ritual which occurred on several different occasions. The Maya believed that bloodletting was also practiced by the gods in order to maintain order in the cosmos. One particular vessel, known as the Huehuetenengo vase, shows six gods squatting over bowls and letting blood from their genitals. The squatting position is very characteristic and is a glyph for bloodletting itself. In essence, art depicts bloodletting in scenes to numerous to count, showing the ritual to permeate Maya life and religion. Sacrificial offerings satisfied the gods' constant demand for repayment of the blood debt man incurred at creation. Sacrificial victims were usually animals or captives from other peoples. A black polychrome vase from the Late Classic Period depicts the sacrifice of a young lord to the patron deity of the Maya month "Pax." The center of the composition features a young man stretched across an alter. He has been cut open just below the chest and the deity is devouring his entrails. Another polychrome vase from the Late Classic Period shows the aftermath of a child sacrifice. The scene shows a ruler and three other men of importance wearing ritual masks and garments. An attendant kneels, carrying a bowl filled with blood-splattered paper strips. The lifeless victim floats in front of or is attached to the clothing of the third figure. The child's chest is cut open, indicating that he was the victim of a heart sacrifice.The Maya designed funerary vessels to be buried with the dead so that they might instruct the person though the challenges of the Underworld. Classic vessels, especially those of the Early Classical Period, often depicted patterns representing the watery world of Xibaba One particular tomb at Rio Azul was painted with a band of water around the base of the chamber. Later, the water bird became a symbol of Xibalba's surface. A dotted vessel in the New Orleans Museum features the neck and head of the water bird surfacing from the domed vessel lid, much as if it was rising to the water's surface after a hunting dive. Another example of water imagery is a bowl from the Denver Art Museum in which the handle of the domed lid is surrounded by a dot pattern symbolizing water. Archaeologists debate as to if the brilliant red of the bowl is merely and artistic convention or if it refers to the bloody Xibalban waters. Funerary vessels also depict the inhabitants of Xibalba. They include anthropomorphs, zoomorphs, animals, and skeletal creatures, all of fearful visage. Many Xibalbans have old toothless faces and some may even have both male and female features. They are all depicted wit black marks on their faces representing rotting flesh. Many wear jewelry of disembodied eyes threaded together by the optic nerves. Each god of the Underworld can represent different kinds of sacrifice and is named by a different cause of death (old age, disease, warfare, etc.) Other funerary vessels show the Hero Twins defeating the Lords of the Underworld in various matches. Such vessels are meant to show the deceased how to conquer death. Because funerary objects were designed for this very purpose, very few pieces of funerary art show the triumph over Xibalba. One rare example is a stone tablet obstructing a ceremonial entrance at Pacal's Temple 14 at Palenque. The tablet shows one of Pacal's sons exiting Xibalba in triumph as he dances across the watery surface to reunite wit his mother. Funerary art depicts the Mayas' concept of the after life a an incredibly fearful cycle to be overcome. The concept of death must have been terrifying to the Maya, its immediacy spurred on by warfare, regular sacrifice, and the hazards of life in ancient Mesoamerica.


Back pages damp rippled, soiled, a good to very good issued in wrappers.

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