For the ancient Maya, who flourished in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras between 600 BC and around AD 950, ceramics were at the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Painted ceramics vessels were the principle medium for recording the Maya’s precarious relationship with both the mythological world and the mundane and often complex political world. Like most ancient cultures the recorded history found on pottery (the Maya were the only fully-literate ancient Americans) mostly reflects the lives and exploits of the ruling class. The scenes painted on the pots may depict exploits in the underworld, heroic battles, tributes and offerings made to a ruler or the subjugation of a defeated enemy. Others are purely decorative and just meant to impress with their beauty.
Ancient Maya culture was remarkably conservative. Religious themes, mythologies, technologies and artistic styles changed very slowly if at all over the thousand year history of urban Maya civilization. The importance of mythology, that often legitimized the rulers, was depicted over and over on superbly painted cylinders, platters, bowls and other often-simple forms. The complex pantheon of gods, fantastic creatures and other supernatural actors played out dramas that often mirrored worldly activities.
For more than a century Maya hieroglyphic writing defied decipherment. (The story of breaking the Maya code is an amazing story of intrigue, luck, brilliance and perseverance.) Today the majority of Maya hieroglyphs are able to be read and slowly a literal history of Maya civilization is being re-constructed – and painted ceramics with hieroglyphic texts are a primary source of information. (Spanish Catholic priests burned thousands of Maya books in the 16tth century as idolatrous works of the devil. Only a handful survive today.) Scholars are revealing that the imagery on painted ceramics often depicts actual historic events and even relevant dates and names the principle players.
Technically Maya ceramics are not particularly unusual and subscribe to the same, universal technology of pre-industrial cultures the world over. Earthenware clay, which matures at a low firing temperature, was hand modeled into relatively simple forms. Before firing the pieces were painted with various colored liquid clays called slip. Glazing was unknown. Once partially dry the surface was polished which compressed the clay molecules and produced a more durable, shiny surface. It appears that in many cases the potters and painters of the vessels were the sons of rulers. Obviously a knowledge of the bewilderingly complex writing system and ancient mythology were essential and probably only available to a very small sample of the population. Once made and successfully fired the vessels were often gifts of tribute, used in important ceremonies that often involved food and a special chocolate beverage and ultimately, and fortunately for posterity – ended up as funerary offerings in tombs.
This exhibition of approximately thirty vessels represents the major types of Maya ceramics. Most date from the Classic Period which is approximately AD 250 – 950. Some date from the post-Classic period (11th-15th Century) that followed the collapse of the great urban centers. In some cases the characters that inhabit the surfaces of the pots are known, but in most cases we can interpret the scene but not know the names of the persons involved. Despite the fact that most hieroglyphs have been deciphered, the ‘reading’ of Maya texts is a highly specialized skill not shared with this writer!
The Maya, who have long intrigued scholars and art historians, left us with astonishing ruins deep in Mesoamerican jungles and thorn forests and a highly developed artistic legacy. They developed the most sophisticated ancient culture in the Americas that rivaled anything in the Old World. But some fatal flaw – environmental, political, or a combination of both – brought the great cities down. These ceramics are a lasting testimony to the complexity, sophistication, and mystery of this fantastic ancient culture.
The exhibition opens Friday, November 18, (5:30-7:30 PM) and continues through Friday, December 23, 2016. All pieces are for sale.