Maya in Human Form

The Maya were a mighty civilization in Mesoamerica from c. 2000 BC to AD 250. Historians revere them for their advancements in mathematics, architecture, the written language, and astrology.  Remember when the “world ended” in 2012? You can thank the Mayan calendar for that one! And museums have little crumbs of Mayan stonework in glass boxes, right?

Ah, but that civilization also left us a visual feast of artwork! I recently caught a glimpse of such images, rubbings of stone reliefs, that truly snatched my attention. Each scene featured human forms in a world of elaborate line and pattern. The Mayans certainly developed a unique artistic style and a sense of balance in their illustrations. Such works have merit, not just from an archaeological or anthropological standpoint, but from an artistic one as well.

The civilization was nearly theocratic, and therefore most of the images reflect religious subjects like gods or priests (though a few depict warriors or everyday life). Bodies are proportional to each other in the scene, and backgrounds rarely reference specific locations. Faces are generally profiled, but the Mayan exercised a basic understanding of foreshortening when depicting the body; they could show the entire body in profile, though seemed to have a bit more trouble with quarter-views.

Characters are dressed in ornate costumes, featuring heavily patterned clothing and large jewelry. Headdresses are particularly elaborate, as their styling reflects the individual’s social identity. However, faces are simple and usually show little expression (excepting, of course, the grotesque god-like figures). Physical features mirror the society’s opinion of ideal beauty:

“The Mayan preferred their foreheads sloped back; their noses in a very Roman profile; their eyes slightly crosses; their ears, noses, and lips pierced; their teeth filed into patterns…and their bodies tattooed and painted.” (Foster 337)

Most humans are portrayed with these “ideal” features, and therefore characters tend to look very similar. I suppose this kind of figure acted as the John Doe of the Mayan world, making the religious message universal in some way. Centuries later, this “repeated character” infuses a sense of familiarity into the body of Mayan work; he is like a character I’m following in some epic narrative.

Compositions are designed for a finite amount of space and depict simple scenes.  However, elements such as clothing, jewelry, and glyphs are elaborately detailed, creating a visual labyrinth of pattern. Despite its complexity, artists manage to balance positive and negative space, and the arrangement gives “weight and stability to the design as a whole” (Spinden pg. 31).

Geometry plays a curious role in these works. There are some forms that are definitely geometric, but even the organic shapes echo of geometry. For example, a serpent’s tail might twist and bend, but the artist portrays each turn in slight angles. Other shapes take on the illusion of geometry: they are bunched in a clump of similar forms, thus resembling shapes in the pattern. The human figures also participate in this geometric dance, with limbs in defined angles or bodies standing exceptionally strait.  Such poses animate the character somehow (I’ll have to look into why). Overall, the prevalence of geometry give a bit of order into the seemingly chaotic scene.

Every piece of artwork contains such an infusion of culture and faith, every detail relevant to the visual composition and the Mayan society. There is so much to sift through in a single image! I wish more works had survived.

A Study of Maya Art: Its Subject Matter and Historical Development, by Herbert Joseph Spinden
Handbook To Life In The Ancient Maya World, by Lynn Vasco Foster
Rubbings by Merle Greene Robertson ©Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, 1995-2007, used with permission.


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