These delicately carved shell ornaments depict the severed head of the Maize God. They most likely were originally set into the front of a set of earflares (or "earspools"). A bead assemblage, including a frontal bead and beaded counterweights, would have anchored these frontals in place (see examples of earflare assemblages on 1979.206.1047). Shell was a highly valued material for the ancient Maya, and its use here indicates the original owner of these ornaments was of elite status. Their preservation is notable—in the humid jungles of the Lowland Maya region, many organic materials, including shell, disintegrate over time.
The set was clearly designed as a matching pair, but, if one looks closely, one can see that the frontals were carved by different hands. The earflare that faces left exhibits flatter relief and smooth, delicate lines. The composition is balanced, with an open, airy feel. The line-work, including the sweeping curve of the god’s closed eye, is neatly efficient, giving us a sense of the artist’s light, confident touch. The earflare that faces right is also masterfully executed, but the artist appears to have been more interested in creating a greater sense of volume and depth. The eye swells out against its eyelid, and the composition overall feels fleshier and more densely packed. The carved lines are deeper and thicker, and the artist has added an eyebrow and a more dramatically incurving scroll behind the forehead. Under raking light, a few mistakes are visible, the echoes of an errant but energetic carving stroke.
The combination of the sloping forehead, bucktoothed overbite, chinstrap beard, and flowing cornsilk hair (seen both behind the ear and in a jade-beaded forelock that hangs from forehead to mouth) tell us that this is the face of the Maize God. Maize, or corn, was a popular subject for ancient Maya artists (see 1979.206.728). A number of different forms were used to represent different stages in the life cycle of maize, from green, ripening ears, to dead, dried cobs and kernels. Here, we see the Maize God as a ripened, yellow ear of corn. His eyes, closed in death, tell us that he has been decapitated, a ripe ear of maize severed from the stalk.
In ancient art, myth, and contemporary belief, decapitation is strongly associated with the Maize God, his severed head representing a newly harvested ear of corn. Other shell ornaments, depicting the aged or skeletal face of corn, represent the dried corn kernel, a skull-like seed that would be planted (or "buried") in the earth to give rise to a new, green crop. In general, then, Maize God images emphasize the cyclical nature of the cosmos, the continual birth, death, and rebirth of agricultural crops and the intertwined life cycles of deities, who were born, died, and were resurrected, and who were often sacrificed to benefit of mankind.
Maize, one of the most important agricultural products of the ancient Maya world, played a key role in the cosmological layout and mythical foundations of the human world. Humans themselves were thought to have been born from the sacrificed flesh of the Maize God, and the world was envisioned as a four-sided maize field. At the center of this world stood a tree, or axis mundi, which was often conceptualized as a maize stalk. Maya kings frequently displayed aspects of the Maize God in their costuming, declaring themselves the centers of the world, the mythical progenitors of humankind, and the source of agricultural nourishment for their subjects.
Lucia R. Henderson
Related Objects at the Met
1994.35.582 and 1994.35.583
1994.35.590a, b and 1994.35.591a, b
Other Related Objects
Fields, Virginia M., and Dorie Reents-Budet, eds. Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2005. See Plates 23 and 81. See pp.184-185 and Plate 62.
Finamore, Daniel, and Stephen D. Houston, eds. Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea. Salem and New Haven: Peabody Essex Museum and Yale University Press, 2010.
Goldstein, Marilyn M., and Lourdes Suárez Diez. Conchas Precolombianas: Mesoamerican Art Created from Seashells. New York: Hillwood Art Museum and Yale University Art Gallery, 1997. See p.73 and Cat.143.
Merwin, Raymond E., and George C. Vaillant. The Ruins of Holmul, Guatemala. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology 3, No. 2. Cambridge: The Peabody Museum, 1932. See pp. 28-29, 88, Figure 29, and Plates 36d, f.
Pendergast, David. Excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, 1964-1970. Vol. Vol. 2, Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum, 1982. –See pp. 206-207 and figures 109a-b.
Kamer, Hélène. Arts Pre-Columbiens. Paris: Hélène Kamer, 1971. Pictured as Plate 49.
Tokovinine, Alexandre. "Plate 81: Pair of Carved Ornaments." In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito and Alexandre Tokovinine. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, No. 4, 440-43. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2012. – Illustrated as Fig. 254.
Sources and Additional Reading
Carlsen, Robert, and Martin Prechtel. "The Flowering of the Dead: An Interpretation of Highland Maya Culture." Man 26, no. 1 (1991): 23-42.
Christenson, Allen J. Popul Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Maya. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.
Fields, Virginia M., and Dorie Reents-Budet, eds. Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2005.
Henderson, Lucia R. "Dualidades Singulares: Identificando Parejas De Escultores Y Esculturas En Kaminaljuyú, Guatemala, a Través De La Ilustración Arqueológica." In Xxvi Simposio De Investigaciones Arqueológicas En Guatemala, 2012, edited by Bárbara Arroyo and Luis Méndez Salinas, 249-62. Guatemala City: Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes, Instituto de Antropología e Historia, Asociacion Tikal, 2013.
Just, Byran R. "Mysteries of the Maize God." Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 68 (2009): 2-15.
Miller, Mary E., and Marco Samayoa. "Where Maize May Grow: Jade, Chacmools, and the Maize God." Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 33 (1998): 54-72.
Miller, Mary Ellen, and Simon Martin. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. San Francisco and New York: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Thames & Hudson, 2004. See in particular pp. 52-58, 66-67, 69.
Pillsbury, Joanne, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, eds. Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, No. 4. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2012. See in particular Velázquez Castro, "Pre-Columbian Maya Shell Objects: An Analysis of Manufacturing Techniques" (pp. 432-439) and Ishihara-Brito and Taube, "Plate 40: Plaque Pendants" (pp. 244-247). Also see Tokovinine, full citation above.
Quenon, Michel, and Genevieve le Fort. "Rebirth and Resurrection in Maize God Iconography." In The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases, edited by Barbara Kerr and Justin Kerr, 884-902. New York: Kerr Associates, 1997.
Saturno, William A., Karl A. Taube, David Stuart, and Heather Hurst. The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala. Part 1, the North Wall [in English]. Ancient America, No. 7. Barnardsville: Center for Ancient American Studies, 2005. See in particular pp. 24-41.
Taube, Karl A. "The Classic Maya Maize God: A Reappraisal." In Fifth Palenque Round Table, 1983, edited by Virginia M. Fields, 171-81. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, 1985.
Taube, Karl A. "Lightning Celts and Corn Fetishes: The Formative Olmec and the Development of Maize Symbolism in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest." In Olmec Art and Archaeology in Mesoamerica, edited by John E. Clark and Mary E. Pye, 297-337. Washington, D.C. and New Haven: National Gallery of Art and Yale University Press, 2000.
Taube, Karl A. The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, No. 32. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1992.
Taube, Karl A., William A. Saturno, David Stuart, and Heather Hurst. The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala; Part 2: The West Wall. Ancient America, No. 10. Barnardsville: Boundary End Archaeological Research Center, 2010.