“The Mayan artist was most interested in abstractions. The use of line, volume, and color for non-descriptive, highly intellectualized purpose, was as natural with him as an objective fidelity is to the camera. As a result, this art stands as one of the wealthiest mines of theological motives and plastic abstractions the world has ever known.”
–Art From the Mayans to Disney by Jean Charlot. Sheed and Ward, NY & London, 1939. *See note below
One of the last great military rulers of the city of Calakmul, his name reflects his connection to the powerful Lightning God K’awiil (see below). Dressed in royal cape and snake headdress, he brutally stands on a captive from the rival city of Tikal. This is one of the few existing Maya monuments that includes the names of the sculptors in the incised text: Sak[…] Yuk[…} Took’ and Sak[…] Tib’ah Tzak B’ahlam.Roaming this large, immersive exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, my Animated Eye marvels at the variety of graphic styles, materials, and visual storytelling techniques displayed in 120 rarely seen masterworks of the Mayan Classic period (A.D. 250-900). Abstraction is but one graphic means employed by highly accomplished (mostly anonymous) artists who visually communicated the power of Mayan deities, and their close links with royal leaders of the Maya court, who interacted with the supernatural world. Towering limestone carvings and small sculptures, line drawings on cylinder vessels and pottery, decorative ornaments, figurines, wall murals, and masks offer both realistic draftsmanship and sophisticated caricatures that often mingle with intricate, grotesque phantasmagoric designs.
Beginning 4,000 years ago in Mesoamerican rain forests, the ancient Maya built a sophisticated, complex society populated by artists and scribes, astronomers, mathematicians. They were also brutal, vengeful warriors. Bloodletting, of oneself or a prisoner of war, was based on widespread Mesoamerican religious beliefs.
The Maya ruler’s role on earth was as the embodiment of, and chief communicator with, dozens of gods, who could appear old or young in human and animal form. The rulers of the city-state often included women as warrior-queens and powerful priestesses. The numerous deities of the supernatural world profoundly influenced every aspect of the natural everyday world of the ancient Mayans. The visualizations of 9th Century Mayan art — fearsome, fanciful and sensual – still evoke emotions of awe, humor and horror in 21st Century viewers.
Recent discoveries have made new inroads into deciphering Mayan glyphs, phonograms, and visualizations; but much more information needs to be discovered. However, universal communication principles, actions and emotions can be ascertained through these silent artworks in their presentation of basic body language, design, composition and symbolism. As an animator and archaeology fan, I’m intrigued by the mystery, beauty, imagination and humor found in Mayan artworks. Here are random thoughts about a selection of artworks in the Met exhibition that particularly caught my eye.
For those of you who cannot see the exhibition Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art in person at the Met in New York (it closes April 2), here’s a link to an excellent 28-min video tour with two curators of the exhibition.
It is an informative virtual exploration of an exhibition of rarely seen masterpieces and recent discoveries tracing the life cycle of the gods, from the moment of their creation in a sacred mountain to their dazzling transformations as blossoming flowers or fearsome creatures of the night.
*Note: The Jean Charlot Foundation has published Art from the Mayas to Disney online: