Ceremonial Handle (?)
Mexico or Guatemala, Mesoamerica
H. 5 1/2 x 1 1/8 x 1 3/4 in. (14 x 2.8 x 4.5 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Not on view
This is a fragment representing the handle of a Classic Maya (ca. AD 250-900) scepter. Scepters are some of the most important objects shown in royal portraits and found in royal burials. Analysis of the stone classified it as the hard mineral omphacitic jadeitite (composed of the elements silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron, and magnesium). The sculptor subtly created a fleshiness out of the jade by slightly bowing out the vertical lines that connotes a constriction by the horizontal bands lined with a ridge. The scepter terminates in the head of a serpent with round eyeballs, an open mouth with fangs, an upturned snout, and distinct eyebrows. Tiny biconical drill holes along the serpent’s bottom jaw would have allowed for beads or other danglers to be attached and perhaps make a lot of sound as the ruler employed the scepter in motion.
The fragment probably represents the lower portion of an image of K’awiil, the god of lightning. Classic period artists portrayed the K’awiil scepter not as a stone object, but as an animate participant in the rituals depicted. The small-scale god flails about, sits in a solemn pose with crossed arms, gestures to the viewer of the scepter, or even holds other objects himself. The most recognizable feature of K’awiil is his prominent, tall forehead, decorated with a pill shaped cartouche pierced by either a jade celt, a torch, or a tobacco cigar, from which emerges plumes of smoke. He has a human-like body and a zoomorphic head that consists of an upturned snout, large eyes with a spiral pupil, and one or both of his legs often morph into a serpent. The meaning of the serpent-leg is not immediately clear, although all across ancient Mesoamerica, lightning was associated with snakes.
Very few sculptures of K’awiil in the round have survived; they were probably made out of wood or other perishable materials. That makes this possible K’awiil foot rare and important for understanding Late Classic Maya regalia depicted in relief carvings and painted vessels. Rulers would have commissioned this jade object to embody the god of lightning as they performed in front of nobles and courtiers. K’awiil is particularly associated with accession rites. Maya scribes commemorated someone’s ascension to the throne using the metaphor for "conjuring" the god K’awiil, represented by a logogram in which a hand grasps a fish. The first conjuring of K’awiil in a ceremony was presumably reenacted as the new kings and queens grasped the stone scepters.
Resources and Additional Reading:
Fields, Virginia, and Dorie Reents-Budet. 2005 Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles, Scala.
Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin. 2004 Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. New York, Thames & Hudson.
Schele, Linda, and Mary Ellen Miller. 1984 The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Fort Worth, Kimbell Art Museum.
Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011.
[Everett Rassiga, New York, until 1965]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1965, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1965–1978
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