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Maya Art

Autoretrato en un Vaso del Petén

          Painter self portrait in a Vase, Petén Late Classic, Note the paintbrush in the headress

See Gallery at the bottom of these Page

See Dr. Richard Hansen's Lecture in UFM,  Mirador Basin, Arquirtectura and Codex Style ceramics Guatemala on Feb 5 2007

The art of the Maya, is a reflection of their lifestyle and culture. It was an important trade merchandise. The art was composed of delineation and painting upon paper and plaster, carvings in wood, Obsidian, bone, shells, Jade and stone, clay and stucco models, and terracotta figurines from molds. The technical process of metal working was also highly developed but as the resources were scarce, they only created ornaments in this media. Music was very appreciated and there is also proof of Theater plays being held in the public ceremonies. The Maya Kings commissioned finely crafted works to furnish their palaces and attest to their sovereignty and Warfare victories, Wooden Lintel from El Zotzamong them, carved thrones and throne backs, where a king might reign supported by depictions of ancestors or gods. Figural mirror holders servedLa Corona, Ball Player as “perpetual servants” who revealed the king’s dazzling but fractured image in polished pyrite and hematite,  mosaic mirrors, artists working in stucco achieved realistic portraiture that captures age and wisdom. Painted cups and vases for the elite depict scenes of court life, while clay figurines portray members of the retinue that attended the king. Representing ball players, servants, dwarfs, hunchbacks, musicians, messengers, and priests, along with elegantly coiffed women, these figurines all come from tombs, where they also served their lords in death. Although, The Maya Art was not only for the royalty, as the multiple findings in households shows. On the other hand in Aguateca, every one of the elite residences excavated so far has included a workshop—a sign that Aguateca's sculptors, painters, ceramic artists, and scribes came overwhelmingly from the ranks of nobility. A sampling of clay figurines shows their range of inspiration. The enigmatic and extremely fine sculptures from an Unknown Site, named Q for Qué? in Spanish (What?), has been identified as La Corona in Northwestern Petén.

Sculpture:  A common form of Maya sculpture was the stela.  The Maya somehow transported enormous stones through the jungle from distant quarries, apparently without the aid of either wheeled carts or beasts of burden. Artists then used only rudimentary stone tools to execute the intricate carvings, before raising the ponderous sculptures to their present vertical positions. The largest in the Maya world is Stela E at Quiriguá, that weighs an astonishing 65 tons and stretches 10.5 meters in length, with sculptures covering its 8-meter panels. The Stelas were large stone slabs covered with carvings. Many depict the rulers of the cities they were located in, and others show gods. The Stela almost always contained hieroglyphs, which have been critical to determining the significance and history of Maya sites. Other stone carvings include figurines,  and stone or wooden lintels (Right), known only from Tikal and El Zotz, with different scenes. The Maya used a great deal of Jade and Obsidian in their art. Many stone carvings had jade inlays, and there were also ritual objects created from jade. It is remarkable that the Maya, who had no metal tools, created such intricate and beautiful objects from jade, a very hard and dense material.  In a workshop of Maya sculpture, the subject matter had to conform to local tradition; elements of style such as viewpoint of the figures, gesture, depth of relief, and the treatment of faces had to be recognizable as local art, and the artists observed the specific regalia worn by rulers. Subject matter and style were bound by tradition. The earliest Stela-Altar monuments, were plain, such as in Monte Alto in the Pacific Lowlands, the site of the Famous early Preclassic "Fat Boys" or Barrigones, and home to a Giant Head unique in Mesoamerica, now vanished Monte Alto, Mysterious Giant Head with Caucasian features(See Photo) and Naranjo in the Highlands.
The inhabitants of
Cotzumalguapa, near the early Preclassic Monte Alto,  developed an original artistic style and a writing system of their own, which
found expression in a large corpus of monumental sculptures. These include rock carvings, Stelas, Altars, Colossal Heads, and three-dimensional Sculptures, as well as a variety of architectural sculptures such as carved stairs, pillars and pavement stones. There are also numerous portable sculptures. Characteristic of the Cotzumalguapa style is an extraordinary degree of realism in the representation of human figures, which in many cases may be considered as individual portraits, possibly representing kings and nobles. In many cases, these individuals participate in complex scenes, where they interact with other human characters or with supernatural beings. Sacrificial scenes are frequent. Distinctive elements of the Cotzumalguapa style include speech scrolls shaped as vines with a variety of flowers and fruits. Hieroglyphic signs usually are inscribed in circular cartouches, but they may also acquire complex animated forms.

Ceramic: Unlike the monuments, whose royal proclamations were intended for public view, the ceramic vessels are often very anecdotal and are where the ancient Maya, in a sense, really let its feelings go free. One aspect of Mayan art is often overlooked, and that is the tremendous variety of excellence in style and design that it contains. Ancient Greek vase paintings are equally excellent but in comparison to the Mayan are mono-stylistic. Mayan art gave almost free reign to the artist, who was not required to produce a product that fit "the cannon of the culture" in every way. In its encouragement of individual genius and its variations from one workshop to another, the products of which were intended in good part to be given or sold to the royalty of other cities, Mayan vase paintings are more akin to the art of the modern period than the art of any other pre-modern people. The principal valuation seems to have been on artistic quality rather than adherence to standardized forms. Furthermore, like Greek and Chinese artists, Mayan painters and sculptors sometimes signed their work. Accordingly, their work was not a "cultural product" or a "city's product" but a person's product. They excel in all aspects of ceramics, including Flasks for several porpoises, Incense burners, burial Urns and articulated ceramics. Different names were used for different artifacts:  uk’ib’, “drinking vase”, jaay, “bowl”, lak, “plate”, and jawa[n]te’, “tripod plate”. Often the work produced by a particular artist, was heavily sought after by the elite classes of Maya society, the most renown is Aj Muwan from Naranjo, maker of the 7 and 11 god vases among other fine pieces.

Petén God L and God K. These flasks may have held pigments or tobacco snuff.

Petén, Containers in form of toads. They wear "tzuk" faces on their backs as on codex style vases and used its dry skin for rituals

Quiché, Highlands, Burial Urn with cover. Ruler seated on Jaguar throne. Cover with seated deity

Tikal,. painted clay. Figure of God A of decapitation from burial 10, the burial of Yax Nuun Ayiin I

Petén, Late Classic, War Scene

Articulated Monkey  from the Pacific Lowlands, Tiquisate Area. The arms and legs move.

    It appears that literacy was confined to the elite (as in all pre-modern cultures) and artists and the literate were of the same class; indeed, it is probable that Mayan artists were often the younger sons and daughters of the ahaw, the rulers, of Mayan cities, as the Yaxhá case illustrates, as the minor son of the ruler was known only after his paintings. One should look at these paintings as an appreciator of art, not as an anthropologist. How do the artists use color, or ignore it? How do they use line, thin or thick, space human figures, show life and energy, incorporate calligraphy into their work?.  Of note is that: "After a review of thousands of ceramic pieces and hundreds of thin section examples of Maya ceramics from major lowland sites, we identified the types of ceramics that had volcanic ash tempering added to the clay paste and determined that volcanic ash made up more than 20% of the ceramic paste matrix of the ash tempered ceramic collections. The ash and assemblage of crystals (biotite, hornblende, hypersthene, and zircon) all are consistent with Guatemala Highland tephra" (Drexler et al., 1980; Rose et al., 1981).

Figurines from Cancuén's Tomb 28

  The pottery found in the Maya sites and caves, is the more common way to date and identify the commerce between the different regions, The archeologist divide the different styles in periods that share style and features, the most beautiful is the polychrome specially the Codex style, from the late Classic occupation in El Mirador, the Ik site now known to be Motul de San José and the Alta Verapaz (Chamá) vases and plates that were exported all over the Maya zone. Most pieces of pottery were decorated with images of humans, animals , or mythological Chamá location Mapcreatures. Many highly detailed clay figurines were made by the Maya, portraying humans and gods. These were made with molds and by hand. The Maya had every day and ceremonial pottery, and it was the main sacrifice object used in the Maya Caves  rituals, the destroying of the physical representation of an object is significant because its destruction activates and brings the offerings spirit to the world, allowing it to be used in the supernatural realm. Several examples of offering destruction were also unearthed in the Caves. The presence of obsidian blades, censers fragments, charcoal, and fire-cracked rock all attest to bloodletting and a burning event, or events. According to the Popol Vuh, humans were made from corn found in a cave, and bloodletting was one of the obligations set out by the gods when they gave people the world. The Incense or "Incensarios",( saklaktun) used to burn Copal (Pom) from Tiquisate, Escuintla in the Pacific Lowlands are particularly fine, and were exported throughout the Maya World.

Tiquisate, Escuintla Incensario (Incense Burner) or cache vessel with woman holding cone

Tiquisate Incensario (Incense Burner)  with woman holding bowl

Tiquisate Incensario (Incense Burner) with woman holding cacao pod

Tiquisate. height 54.6 cm. Incensario with bound captive.

  A very  well known style is the Chamá Polychromes, named for the type site in Guatemala, which lies in a fertile valley on the Chixoy river, in the Alta Verapáz, Guatemala’s hilly middle country, situated between the great Classic Era cities of the Petén in the Lowlands, and the more sparsely populated highlands to the west and south. The region lies on one of the major Precolumbian trade routes, but is peripheral to the prominent lowland Maya cities, and its architectural remains are not spectacular. Many of these polychrome masterpieces have been excavated intact from the tombs and palaces of the elite, and are recognized as among the finest expressions of Maya artistic genius. Indeed, their presence is often an indicator of Classic "Maya-ness" (Reents Budet 1994).  Chamá-style cylindrical vases have distinctive black-and-white chevron motif bands painted around the rim and base, with a bright white, and strong red-and-black paletteChamá Style, Monkey with Hat, applied to a distinctive yellow to yellow-orange background. The preferred decorative template is either a static scene or individual repeated on each half of the vessel surface, continuous scene wrapped around the cylinder, such as on the well-known Ratinlinxul Vase. It lasted only 3 generations, at the end of the 7th  and it was presumed to be an fleeing elite from Altar de Sacrificios, located at the confluence of La Pasión and Chixoy rivers where they form The Usumacinta, that introduced this fine style.                                        


Painting: The Maya excel in the painting mainly in Ceramics, but the murals both in buildings and in caves, were also important to them, they use several vegetal as well as mineral colorants to perform their masterpieces as the brilliantly rendered murals at  San Bartolo, that constitute the most elaborate mythological scenes known for the ancient Maya. The mural is approximately 2000 years old, with more than 40 feet of this spectacular painting exposed, we are given a unique glimpse into the ancient mythology of the Maya. Other early examples of Mural painting are found in La Sufricaya and Uaxactún. They also painted their Temples in red and white, as well as the monuments. Recent investigations in the well preserved Rosalía Temple in Copán, have proved that in some buildings, the paint was mixed with Mica to make the buildings glitter in the sun, being Guatemala the only known source of this mineral in the Maya area, but it was used only in a Katún ending celebration, not in the regular maintenance and repainting. The Murals in  San Bartolo and the Tombs in Río Azul are exceptional painting examples, that contain a wide range of colors, including the Maya Blue.

The ancient Maya combined skills in organic chemistry and mineralogy to create an important technology – the first permanent organic pigment–. The unique color and stability of Maya Blue, the most durable Maya color, that only recently has beenAhau in Throne, Petén, late Classic, note that only the Maya Blue is well preserved Indigofera guatemalensis, source of the exquisite Maya Bluereproduced. The Maya blue pigment is a composite of organic and inorganic constituents, primarily indigo dyes derived from the leaves of añil (Indigofera suffruticosa or Indigofera guatemalensis) plants combined with palygorskite (Sepiolite), a natural clay,  cooked at 100  oC, that makes it turn from blackish to its exquisite tone. Smaller trace amounts of other mineral additives have also been identified. Due to its attractive turquoise color and light fastness, Maya blue was widely used in mural paintings, sculptures, ceramics and codices.

The stucco was prepared with an organic adhesive from the local tree named Holol, mixed with burned limestone and Sascab, a natural occurring mineral that does not need to be burned, and in the outer layer a finer Limestone with Barita, that is finer that the Sascab.

 The Maya words tz'ib or tz'ib'al  refers to painting in general, including both imagery and writing. The practitioners of these crafts, called ah tz'ibob ('they who paint'), were both master calligraphers and painters, which signed their work. The large corpus of ancient Maya painting includes portraits and names of several ah tz'ibob, depicts them at work, and presents their patron deities. The Vase rollout show below is a very distinctive class named The Holmul Dancers. There is a lot of drawings and Graffiti found in Maya sites such as Tikal and Nakum, also in Caves, made by common people. The most typical colors found in the Caves are black and red. Visual inspection suggests that black was usually derived from charcoal, although other black pigments, like manganese may have been used. The red (usually an orange-red) comes from iron-rich clays found in the caves themselves, as well as groundInk pots in Ruler's throne hematite (a bright, deep red). Yellow and blue are rare, the former occurring at Cueva de las Pinturas in Guatemala. Maya caves also contain graffiti and positive and stenciled handprints and, more rarely, footprints, both positive and negative. Sculpted cave art constitutes the other major group. Rock carvings, or petroglyphs, are made by incising, abrading, and pecking, the most common techniques employed in the production of Maya cave sculpture. Another class of cave sculpture includes three-dimensional images modeled in crude clay, a rare and very fragile art form The bark paper was used since the early Classic to make books, of those none is well preserved, but 4 Post Classic codices survive today.
Performing Arts: For the ancient Maya, performance, including dance (Ak'ta) and singing (K'ay), was integral at all levels of society, from large state ceremonies involving hundreds of people to an individual whistling on the way to the fields. Murals depict processions with large bands of drums (chunk'u), flutes (Xul), and rattles (Zoch). Performers in supernatural costumes accompanied and reenacted mythical scenes, such as the example to the right known as the "Holmul dancers". Royal participants donned elaborate costumes and danced. Such large ceremonies would fill the plazas with noise and spectacle, spreading onto the building platforms above. The performances united the community as performers and audience shared the experience. At the same time, participants were divided into different social groups according to their roles. Taube points out that "Acoustics were clearly important to the Maya." Many of the cities had open plazas for ceremonial dances where, as Mayan art illustrates, kings and rulers performed in jade and seashell belts. "These (belts) would have made a tremendous sound as they performed dances in the ceremonial plazas," Taube says. As in Other aspects of the Maya realm the gods enjoyed all these activities.

Musicians in

 Music Was a cultural activity that was performed by both child and adult, by commoners and elite. However, music was explicitly divided between classes. Certain musical instruments and instrumentation were limited to the elite class. One function of music was therefore to indicate prestige through the use of music and musical instruments. Certain instruments were not available to the common Maya because ofCarved Bone Flte. Tikal museum the complexity involved in creating them. There are three families of musical instruments that show how the Maya created sound. Wind instruments are the most common musical artifacts. Although ceramic ocarinas and flutes are the most abundant, the Maya also played wooden trumpets, bone flutes, conch shells and reed flutes. The second category of musical instruments  are instruments that produce sound by the vibration of a tightly fixed membrane. The ancient Maya drums are the most frequent example of this instrument type, including ceramic, (see rigth), wooden and friction drums. The last of the instrument families consists of rattles, turtle carapaces and drums with no membrane. Children’s burials with “youth” instruments  may indicate music education initiated at childhood. Some ballgames were reenactments of creation stories, while others were sporting events. Music and dance celebrations surrounding the events varied according to the type of ballgame played. On a much smaller scale, hundreds of figurine whistles have been found at sites and were possibly carried around to create impromptu music by individuals and small groups. The Rabinal Achí is a Musical Theatre Play, still represented by the A´chí in Baja Verapaz, was declared  Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of the Humanity in 2005 by the UNESCO


Río Azul's Chocolate Bowl

Cougar Pot,
Chocolá, Pacific Lowlands

Pacific Lowlands, 3 Faces of K'inich Ahau, Sun God

Uaxactun Plate

Kaminal Juyu Vase, Preclassic

Kixpec, Alta Verapaz, (Chamá Style Vase)

Kinich Ajau, sun god, in 22 ruler's tomb, from Tikal

Vase, Late Classic, Petén
Ik site

Carved Bowl, Mid Classic,


Bone painting Tikal

San Bartolo Mural

Río Azul tomb

Hunahpú killing Itzam Ýe', (Vucub Caquix). Popol Vuh Scene, Petén

La Sufricaya, Mural 7, Early Classic

Burial 116
 Ceramic Vessel in the form of a slice of conch shell. The shape represents an artist's paint container. The glyph in the center reads "kuch sabak" literally "container for ink".

Lady of Tikal bowl

Naj Tunich Cave, drawings

Naj Tunich Cave, Petén


Pacific Lowlands, Early Classic double whistling vessel. Filling the vase with liquid will cause the figure to whistle

Petén Lowlands, Middle Classic Flute in an Ax shape.
Beads inside the body of the flute change the tone as they move up and down.

Conch Players figurines,
Yaxhá, Petén Lowlands

Ceramic Drum, Petén Lowlands, displayed at Museo Nacional de Arqueología

Rattle, in form of a Shaman, Petén Lowlands.

Maize God Whistle, Petén Lowlands.

Drummer in Ceramic Vase

Musicians Playing  Bone Flute (TikalMuseum)

      Trumpet scene in a
Motul de San José vase

Flute Early Classic 300 AC Pacific Lowlands

Triple Flute, Middle Classic Petén Lowlands

Classic Flute, Alta Verapaz

Lord preparing to dance

Waka´ Petén

Pacific Lowlands


Pacific Lowlands, Escuintla, Women Figurine

Petén stylized figure

Early Classic, Petén, Ball Player

Middle Preclassic Sculpture, Kaminaljuyú

Bilbao, Cotzumalguapa Monument 16

Jade Pectoral Nebaj  


Jade Funeral Mask -

Carved Stone Box,
Hul Nal Ye    Cave,
Chisec, Guatemala

Zoomorph P, Quiriguá, Izabal, Photo by Maudsley

Monument 1,
Chocolá, Suchitepéquez

Cancuén, Panel



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