Of courts and kings

Special to The Times


During the last years of the 20th century, scholars managed to break the code of the hieroglyphics of the ancient civilization of the Maya people. Perhaps 85% of the writing on Maya artwork and monuments can now be deciphered. The new knowledge has led to new understanding. A Maya exhibition, which just opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, is one of the first gifts of the new scholarship.

“Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya” places some of the finest pieces of Maya art into a coherent and focused story about the life of the kings and courts that ruled the splendid city-states in what is now Mexico and Central America during the height of Maya civilization from the years AD 600 to 800. Maya art has long been admired for its beauty and scenes of realistic action. “There is a poignancy about Maya art that reaches into your heart and soul,” says Kathleen Berrin of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, a curator of the exhibition. “There is an elegance and beauty that appeals to Western taste.”

The exhibition, which displays more than 130 pieces, includes some of the finest samples of this appeal: the stucco head of Pakal the Great, the best-known king of Palenque; three carved doorway lintels, made of limestone, that relate the courtly duties of Lady Xok of Yaxchilan; delightful ceramic figurines like ballplayers dressed in all their protective regalia; and a brightly colored vase painted with an almost comic scene of a bloated, lazy king waited on by dwarfs, scribes and other courtiers. The pleasure of seeing these pieces is enhanced by the findings about their meaning.


The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. After closing in Washington on July 25, the exhibition will move to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco from Sept. 4 to Jan. 2.

The mysteries of the Maya have long fascinated scholars and tourists. Their civilization was the most complex, sophisticated and artistic of all the peoples of the Western Hemisphere during their time. They developed a system of hieroglyphic writing and used it to inscribe their history on monuments. Their economies flourished on the bounty of corn. They developed a calendar, created the concept of zero for their numbering, and built great palaces, towers and pyramids. Then their elaborate societies collapsed. By the end of the first millennium, the Maya people had abandoned their cities.

The Maya cities did not belong to one great Maya state. The latest research on the hieroglyphics has revealed that each city -- there were more than 60 -- was its own city-state ruled by a powerful and hereditary king with an elaborate court that included the queen, lords, dwarfs, hunchbacks, singers, dancers and scribes. The cities were not good neighbors but warred upon one another. The most powerful, sophisticated and artistic city states included Palenque (in what is now Mexico), Tikal (in Guatemala) and Copan (in Honduras).

Women played a prominent role at court. This is illustrated by three deeply carved doorway lintels from the city of Yaxchilan in Mexico, not far from Palenque. They come from the house of Lady Xok (pronounced “shoke”), the wife and queen of Shield Jaguar the Great, ruler of Yaxchilan. Two lintels were lent to the exhibition by the British Museum, the third by the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. They have not been seen together since a British explorer spirited two away from the Yaxchilan site in the 1880s. In the first lintel, Lady Xok, performing a vital ritual, is offering her blood as a sacrifice while Shield Jaguar hovers over her with a torch. She yields blood by pulling a rope with thorns through her tongue. In the second lintel, the Maya gods reward Lady Xok with a vision of a warrior, presumably Shield Jaguar, emerging from the mouth of a serpent. In the third lintel, Lady Xok hands a shield and a helmet fashioned from the head of a jaguar to Shield Jaguar, her husband and king now dressed as a warrior.

For many years, scholars believed that the Maya were a peaceful people who rarely engaged in battle. But the discovery in 1944 of remarkably preserved murals in a temple at Bonampak, not far from Palenque, eventually changed archeologists’ views. A watercolor reconstruction of three of these large murals is a riveting feature of the exhibition. The reconstruction was prepared by Yale University’s Bonampak Documentation Project, headed by Mary Miller, a professor of art history at Yale and the second curator of the exhibition.

One mural shows a wretched scene in which warriors are presenting captives to the king. The king is accompanied by two nobles, his wife, his mother and several courtiers. The king and the most important members of his retinue dress in clothes made of jaguar skin. On the steps below the king lie the prone body of a dead captive and a severed head. A warrior is cutting the fingertips or stripping the nails of live prisoners, and several, holding out their bleeding hands, are grimacing in pain.


Captives were a prize booty of Maya war, and the exhibition shows several realistic figurines and relief carvings of humiliated captives. One carving from the city-state of Tonina, according to the hieroglyphics, is that of a king from nearby Palenque captured in 711. Sculptors sometimes squeezed their portraits of bound captives into monumental limestone steps so that the victors could humiliate them further by walking upon them. Mark Leithauser, the National Gallery of Art’s chief designer, has demonstrated the effect by displaying a handful in a mock staircase in the exhibition.

The city-state of Palenque, hidden in the fog of a rainforest, has been favored by archeologists and art historians for many years. Unlike other Maya sculptors who sometimes made their stylized faces almost alike, Palenque’s artists were meticulous workers who attempted to re-create the personality of the individuals they sculpted. “The idea of being interested in the individual,” says curator Miller, “is something that seems special for Palenque.” The exhibition singles out Palenque as a paragon of artistic achievement; one of every six pieces in the show is from Palenque.

More than 100 ceramic incense holders, carved in the form of faces, have been found at Palenque during the last decade, and the exhibition displays five. The most elaborate is that of a young woman, her hair cut close and parted in the middle, who wears an enormous headdress made of beads, a godlike figure, a winged serpent, and a tiny nobleman who sits on a throne doling out incense.

But the most striking Palenque sculpture is surely the stucco head of Pakal the Great, the king who ruled from age 12 in 615 until his death at age 80 in 683. Pakal was buried in a sarcophagus at the end of a secret staircase within the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque. A Mexican archeologist discovered and opened the tomb in 1952. It had been closed for almost 13 centuries. The stucco head was found beneath the sarcophagus.

The head’s beauty stems from its idealized simplicity. Pakal bears the sloping forehead that the Maya imposed on their children with cradle boards. He sports an enormous nose, a feature so admired by the Maya that they sometimes attached a false piece over the bridge to make their noses seem longer. His thick hair sweeps upward in the form of ears of corn much like the headdress usually worn by the Maya maize god with whom most kings identified.

One of the great lingering mysteries of the Maya is the cause of their collapse. Although the Maya maintained their existence -- several million still live in Mexico and Central America, they abandoned their palaces and monumental cities. Professor Miller believes the city-states fought one another into oblivion. “The last subject matter commemorated at the monuments on every site is victory,” she says. The next great event would have been defeat and abandonment. The Maya did not fashion any monuments on defeat as they fell captive or fled.


Miller assumes that “scarcity of resources was the underlying reason for all this warfare.” Some scholars guess that overpopulation, drought or destruction of the environment brought on the scarcity. The abandoned palaces and monuments, some in ruins, were soon engulfed by forests, their splendor hidden for almost a thousand years.

As part of a celebration of Mexican culture, the National Gallery of Art is also offering a festival of Mexican films, including several by Luis Bunuel and Emilio Fernandez, and a small exhibition of cubist paintings by Diego Rivera. The 21 works by Rivera were painted in France and Spain from 1913 to 1915. Rivera, then in his late 20s, had not yet attracted international fame as a painter of enormous murals depicting the history and mythology of Mexico. The Rivera exhibition closes in Washington on July 25, then goes to the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City from Sept. 19 to Jan. 16.