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Sunday, November 11, 2007

HUX 576: Tikal and Yaxchilan

The classic period of Mayan art encompasses a period from 300 to 800 C.E. During this period, the civilization grew to an impressive size with villages and cities spread throughout the Yucatan. Magnificent temples were erected, a language was refined, and the arts were enthusiastically cultivated purposes both religious and secular. Engravings, sculptures, ceramics, and paintings were cast and created in the unique style which is the heart of Mayan culture. Their iconography is highly detailed, varies from region to region, and denotes a level of skillful mastery that has earned them the reputation as being the most artistically advanced civilization of Mesoamerica in their time.

Unfortunately, the climatic conditions of the Yucatan played havoc with whatever wooden carved figures the Maya created. Wood based artwork has always been fragile in any civilization, prone to burning, cracking, splintering, and rotting. The Maya were likely well aware of the fragility of woodworked pieces and though they probably still utilized wood in many products, stone offered them a stronger material with which to carve. Limestone, hematite, flint, and volcanic tuff are types of rock quarried in abundance in the Yucatan (Miller, “Maya Art” 81-82). Limestone was easier to chisel when fresh from the quarry, and it tends to harden as time goes on (Miller, “Maya Art” 81). Volcanic tuff found in the southern Mayan territories is another malleable stone that ranges from pink to green and was used for three-dimensional sculpture and mosaic facades (Miller, “Mayan Art” 82). The mountains yielded hematite (an ore that produces a rich red color) which mixed nicely as a pigment for paints and for use in burial rites and sculptures (Ibid. 83).

Flint was a popular material with the Maya as well. Strangely, however, flints were rarely used as tools. They were often carved into unusual shapes such as animals or humans (Miller, “Mayan Art” 83). “Archeologists call these odd flints ‘eccentrics’” (Ibid. 83). The human form was the most prized form in flint carving, and these icons included details as exquisite as “a pouty mouth or pronounced chin” (Ibid. 83). Eccentric flints were also used to personify one of their gods: K’awil. One of the characteristic symbols associated with K’awil is the torch, and Mary Ellen Miller points out that K’awil may have been the patron god of flint because of this; those flints which bore his image may have served as scepters or staves (Ibid. 83).

Stone sculpture is thought to have originated in the Mayan world in the “Early Classic” art era. The Early Classic era runs from 250 C.E. to 550 C.E. The stone monuments from Tikal, one of the major cities in the Mayan world, dates back to the Early Classic era and the surviving pieces of sculpture from their makes it evident that sculpture was actively commissioned then (Miller, “Mayan Art” 88). A number of dramatic stelae from Tikal and other areas still survive today. These stelae are richly detailed and carved quite deeply, denoting a master craftsperson.

Stela number 29 from Tikal is one of several excellent examples of Mayan sculpted form. It allows a clear look at the dominant iconography of Tikal and how their works differ from other Mayan art pieces of the distant cities of Yaxchilan or Caracol. Stela 29 has been dated back to 292 C.E. The Stela depicts a king, facing right, and holding the head of the Jaguar God, the patron God of the Underworld (Miller, “Mayan Art” 91). “The roughly hewn shaft of Stela 29 was carved on one surface with a portrait of a seated Tikal ruler” (Miller, “Mesoamerica” 110). Unfortunately, the Stela is incomplete – the lower half having broken off from the main image and remains lost at this time. Miller hypothesizes that the loss of the lower half may have been the result of violence in the 6th century or so (Miller, “Mayan Art” 91). The Steal contains no refined borders; instead the slab was unfinished, creating a challenging surface for any artisan to work with (Ibid. 91-92). Miller guesses that the unworked stone would have likely been sketched with heavy charcoal lines in order to draw the figure out prior to carving and the carved glyphs most of the surface area, only pausing where deep recesses or pockets in the stone interrupt the natural flow of the carvings (Ibid. 91). Stela 29 features multiple heads across the surface which might serve to confuse to viewer. The king wears a mask, a convention which seems typical of Mayan iconography. The profile head of the Jaguar God erupts from the mouth of the serpent bar, held out on a draped cloth perhaps indicating a headdress (Ibid. 93). The Tikal king:

…wears abundant insignia, including a shark-like Jester God on his forehead and what may be the mask of Chaak – god of lightning, rain, and decapitation, directly rendered onto his face, but, interestingly enough, no feathers, and no headdress of his own…. Rather, the crown of the king’s head, from forehead back to his fontanel, features a spiky ‘mohawk’ haircut, studded with bones…. At the top of the monument, a disembodied head floats, facing down at the standing lord. (Miller, “Mayan Art” 93)

Stela number 4, also from Tikal, dates back to 396 C.E. and creates a vivid picture of some of the cultural differences the Maya had endured. In the years following the creation of Stela 29, invaders from Teotihuacán made significant inroads into Mayan held territory, and by 378 C.E. Tikal had fallen (Miller, “Mayan Art” 94). The Stela records the coming to power of the “curl-nosed” ruler Nun Yax Ayin (Miller, “Mesoamerica” 110). Technically similar in many regards to Stela 29, the work features an uneven surface area carved in shallow relief. The Stela features Curl-Nose in a seated position, “and he bears the Jaguar God of the Underworld on his right hand, but he is shown with a fully frontal face” (Ibid. 110). However, this figure wears a full headdress featuring a plumed jaguar and a collar of shells (Ibid. 110). The dress Curl Nose wears is similar to what would have been found in Teotihuacán at the time, showing very distinctly the relationship between the recently conquered Tikal and their northerly neighbors (Ibid. 110). The frontal face is also typical of Teotihuacano style and helps to reinforce the notion that Nan Yax Ayin was likely a usurper lord (Ibid. 110). Further evidence of this is revealed with the figure of the “Central Mexican god Tlaloc in the crook of the right arm”, while the feathers flanking the jaguar headdress are likely symbolic of the Aztec War Serpent (Miller, “Mayan Art” 95).

Stela number 31 is yet another surviving piece from Tikal, this one dated to about 451 C.E. This Stela was created by a ruler called “Stormy Sky” and we note a definite return here to the style and form of Stela 29 (Miller, “Mesoamerica” 111). The style is seemingly conservative in nature, perhaps an effort to legitimize the past (Ibid. 111). Stormy Sky wears an assortment of ritualized paraphernalia, holding the Jaguar God of the Underworld in the crook of the right arm while wears the “twisted –strands-and-knot symbol emblematic of Tikal, and he and the man who carries him probably both symbolize the site and its lineage” (Ibid. 111). Unlike Stela 29, Stela 31 is very smooth and even, having been quarried from a finer grade of limestone (Ibid. 111). Stela 31 has also been worked on every surface, making it strikingly different than its predecessors. This is due in part to advances in the use of exacting tools which allowed backgrounds to be stripped away and relief carving to substantially deeper and more detailed (Miller, “Mayan Art” 96). Further differences abound. Stormy Sky stands in an active (indeed almost aggressive) posture and holds his headdress up with his right hand (Ibid. 97) The headdress features “powerful earflares and chin straps, the headdress is the very image of those worn by Maya deities on monumental stucco facades” (Ibid. 97). The shield included in the work bears the image of Tlaloc, yet another indicator of Tikal’s domination by Teotihuacán (Miller, “Mesoamerica” 113). Also unlike previous Stelae, Stela 31 features carved images on all four sides with figures in profile on the narrowed left and right edges. And, while virtually every other piece of Early Classic sculpture was thick with layers of iconography in the form of ritual paraphernalia, Stela 31 is easily the most complex of these pieces (Miller, “Mayan Art” 98). Indeed, as the tools of carving became more sophisticated, complex and refined, so too did the very sculptures they made, clearly showing technical progress but also glaringly illustrating indigenous Mayan style and its differences from applied Teotihuacano forms.

The impressive city of Yaxchilan also commissioned the creation of a number of Stelae. Among the most notable is Stela 27, dated to around 514 C.E. Stela 27 features a bearded lord who is carved in what is called the “scattering pose”, a pose that would become typical of later Yaxchilan efforts (Miller, “Mayan Art” 101). “In showing his ability to cast this precious flow from his body, this early king presents himself as the regenerative force of his community” (Ibid. 101). The style is strikingly different in the mannerism and poses of the figure and allows for a glimpse of stylistic differences between Yaxchilan artists and their Tikal brethren.

Late Classic Mayan carved iconography can be examined with the El Peru statuary. The El Peru Stelae are two interrelated stelae which adopted a male-female format that was popular in Naranjo and Calakmul (Miller, “Mayan Art” 108).

Erected at the end of the seventh century in 692 to dedicate the widely celebrated ending of 13 periods of 20 years, the El Peru sculptures are worked in very low relief, with many additional small texts – probably naming the members of the atelier who carved this set – incised onto the female presentation but, tellingly, not onto the male. (Ibid. 108)

Like with most Mayan iconography, the pair of images is in profile with richly rendered religious paraphernalia. The couple grasps similar objects but their dress is markedly different. The woman wears “a long beaded dress belted at the waist, its patterned selvage vanishing from view once tied” (Miller, “Mayan Art” 109). The headdresses are feathered and shrunken heads adorn their chests while an attempt at drapery is made (Ibid. 109). The female figure of the El Peru group resides in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Information garnered from the Cleveland Museum indicates that Maya rulers celebrated milestones in their reigns with sculpted portraits of themselves (“Front Face”). The use of feathers on the costume was important to many (as illustrated in the previous examples). Feathers symbolized fertility to the Maya and were one of the most highly sought after possessions in the Mayan world (“Front Face”). The shield and sword are symbols of her royal stature and the hieroglyphs indicate the precedence of the event being celebrated. The hieroglyphs read as follows:

Four months and two days have passed since January 14, 686. Then came April 6, 686 when Jaguar Paw Fire (the male figure of the El Peru pair), divine lord of Calakmul, grasped the scepter [of rulership/took the throne]. Six years, zero months, and thirteen days have passed since April 6, 686. Then came March 15, 692, when the great stone [the stela on display] was raised in his honor…to Royal Woman of Calakmul, the provincial lord, planted the passing of k’atun on March 15, 692. (“Front Face”).

The Tablet of the Sun carving at Palenque is also quite typical of Mayan iconographic style. The tablet features an adult version of K’an Balam facing in profile a younger version of himself, also in profile, on the left side of the tablet (Miller, :Mayan Art” 114). In the center of the piece is the large head of the Jaguar God of the Underworld surrounded by additional images of minor gods responsible for trade and tribute (Ibid. 114). On the extreme right and left of the work lie numerous hieroglyphs. The Jaguar God of the Underworld in the center of the piece characterizes Maya “shield iconography. This is the god, then, that Maya rulers would cover their faces with as they charged into battle” (Ibid. 114). The great Jaguar God shield is supported by two additional, aged gods. “At left is clearly the God L, an aged deity who presides over the Underworld and who is the patron of merchants and traders; the unknown but similar god at right may be another view of him in a manner that recalls the similar but different sides of Stela 31from Tikal” (Ibid 114). The tablet makes a clear indication of the value of both warfare and tribute or trade to the Mayan ruling elite whether in Palenque or otherwise.

Sculpture at Tonina featured large, three-dimensional figures with texts running the length of the figures spine (Miller, “Mayan Art” 119). Here the figure is full frontal with the hands gingerly folded near the lower abdomen. Clearly marked areas on the neck and chest indicate where semi-precious gems might have adorned the work. Tonina also has some unusual works that betray a fluid/flowing style more closely attributed to the Palenque than indigenous Toninan artists (Ibid. 119). It is believed that in the many wars and skirmishes that took place between Mayan city states, artists and craftsmen were seized as well as green-stones, sacrifices, and other valuables. One such image is a two dimensional relief of the captive Palenque king K’an Hok’ Chitam II. The work is quite obviously not crafted by a Toninan hand. The typical Palenque two-dimensional style is prevalent; the piece carved fairly deep denoting the fallen king, stripped of his regalia and ceremony – now a common prisoner of a stronger city-state.

While stone has been the obvious favorite for Mayan artists, other materials were also frequently used. As illustrated in the aforementioned stelae, shells and bones were used as decorative ornaments for Maya rulers. Pecten shells were quite valuable and are found on much of Mayan iconography. Shells were cut and carved to make headdress spangles and other decorations such as earflares (Miller, “Mayan Art” 220). Much of the shell jewelry that was made served as neck adornments and cast striking imagery. Typical images of Maya lords in ceremonial masks were made, but one interesting aberration appears on the smooth side of a conch shell in which a relaxed Maya lord is depicted smoking a thin cigar.

Bones were also ornately carved. In Tikal, Hasaw Chan K’awil was interred with a bag of ninety carved bones, some with very delicate incisions and colored with vermillion (Miller, “Mayan Art” 78). Bones were also rubbed with cinnabar and hematite to reveal prominent lines of calligraphy (Ibid. 219). One such piece shows a bound captive and one must wonder if the man’s image was carved onto his very bone following his execution. At the Yale University Art Gallery, a highly carved human femur features the guise of a warrior reveling in his victory (Ibid. 220). Again, one must wonder if the femur on which the image is carved belonged to the victim of this mighty warrior. “the carved bone of a victim would have been a potent souvenir…(Ibid. 220).

Painted forms were also common. Most Early Classic paintings were

monochromatic or bi-chromatic and rarely, if ever, depicted mortal men and women (Miller, “Mayan Art” 168). A tomb at Rio Azul in Peten shows the Maya Sun God flanked by side walls with beaded symbols which serve to create a murky liquid effect, likely the Underworld (Miller, “Mesoamerica” 115). Late Classic paintings are more fully polychromatic and were applied liberally to many objects. Painted pots from the Altar de Sacrificios shows a bald dancer in snakeskin pants, his head thrown back in religious ecstasy as he swings a boa constrictor through the air (Ibid. 158). Entire rooms in Bonampak in the Usumacinta region were painted as with Structure 1. Here, vaults, walls, benches and door jambs were all painted with bright colors applied to damp stucco (Ibid. 159). Massive wall murals depict Mayan lords in profile complete with feathered headdresses and ceremonial masks while the bound prisoners, their hands bleeding, await their fate (Ibid. 160). At the base of the Red Temple in Cacaxtla, the aged God L walks along a painted stream in which the water seems to be running uphill (Miller, “Mayan Art” 179). God L stands in profile laden with a heavy pack of merchandise from trade and tributes. God L wears a typical Mayan mask and is adorned in skins.

As with carved forms, Mayan painting adhered to time tested traditions, featuring figures in static, stylized profiles adorned from head to foot with ceremonial devices such as masks or jewelry. Like European Romanesque and Gothic paintings, the Maya seemed to adhere to traditional depictions of gods. They seem to be carved with the same facial features to define age or youth, and they are rendered metaphorically with various devices and objects that any typical Mayan lord or commoner would readily be able to identify. Thus, regardless of regions, most gods seemed at least to be carved in such a fashion to be easily recognized either due to coloration or symbols associated with those figures. Meanwhile, carving tended to place figures in typical profiled poses heavily ornamented in Mayan finery. Some regional and stylistic differences are evident, and most of this comes from conquests of the Mayans by Central Mexico Aztecs. Still, Mayan iconography remained relatively stable through the 500 plus years of the Classic Era. Yet, as the various city-stets grew and developed, some marked stylistic differences can be noted. Regardless, Mayan iconography is highly detailed, varies from region to region, and denotes a level of skillful mastery that has earned them the reputation as being the most artistically advanced civilization of Mesoamerica in their time.

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Graduate of The University of Akron, Graduate of California State University (HUX)

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