A fantastical being with a human torso and bracelet-bedecked arms holds an axe in his right hand.
Otherworldly large eyes peer out from above a reptilian mouth; small curls at its edges suggest the barbels of a fish. The trunk of a tree erupts from his head.
The creature emerges from the murky depths of a watery realm, represented by a band of motifs painted with a water-laden brush.
Maya artists combined human, animal, vegetal, and mineral elements in the depiction of their gods, mining a rich body of mythological lore to visualize the gods in imaginative ways.
The figure at the center of this swirling composition is Chahk, the Rain God, wearing his characteristic diadem (a jeweled crown) and Spondylus-shell earflares.
Chahk is waist-deep in a register of “black water”: a cenote, a naturally occurring sinkhole in the karst landscape of the Maya region, considered an opening to the underworld.
Chahk’s name is spelled out beside his diadem, a sinuous shape projecting from his forehead.
The text is written in Mayan hieroglyphs, which were both pictorial and phonetic. Glyphs on this plate identify important gods, dates, events, and people.
A powerful but unpredictable god, Chahk used his axe to hurl lightning bolts to strike the earth and release new life. In a region highly dependent on rainfall for agriculture, he was—and still is—widely venerated in traditional communities.
This plate was rendered in a delicate, calligraphic style reminiscent of finely painted Maya books, its dichromatic palette of black over a cream slip broken only by the band of red on the rim.
It was a style that flourished in the late seventh and the first half of the eighth century in southern Campeche, Mexico, and northern Guatemala.
As most Maya books created before the European invasion of the Americas in the sixteenth century were destroyed in campaigns to eliminate “idolatry,” works such as this plate are reminders of a once-great scribal tradition.
Executed by a literate, highly educated artist, the sure lines on this footed plate reveal a mastery of slip painting—the application of a suspension of pigment and clay in water. Although this plate is unsigned, other vessels bear the name of their creators.
For a scant few generations in the Maya region, artists were recognized by name—a unique occurrence in the thousands of years of artistic production in the ancient Americas.
The Maya used the same word, tz’ihb, for both writing and painting, reflecting the close relationship between text and image.
Painted on the interior of an exceptionally large plate with three hollow feet, the intricate composition was likely displayed in a palatial context.
Similar vessels have also been depicted as containers for tamales at elegant feasts.
Cylinder Vessel with Palace Scene, Guatemala, Petén, Dos Pilas or Motul de San José, Maya, 740–800, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Camilla Chandler Frost, image © Museum Associates/LACMA Conservation, by Yosi Pozeilov
Footed plates (hawte’) are a feature of palace scenes on Maya cylinder vessels.
In this example, the plate just below the cross-legged king holds three tamales, dribbled with a red sauce.
Clearly not everyday sorts of ware, these vessels were used in important events, such as a gathering of nobles.
Here, Chahk is a riot of vegetation: plantlike tendrils sprout at the upper right into the head or torso of a supernatural creature.
Chahk’s left arm also terminates in a deity’s head, seen in profile, and facing upward—a personification of obsidian, a dark, volcanic glass associated with sacrifice.
One branch of the tree that grows from Chahk’s head extends to the left, passing under his arm and blossoming into another deity with wild eyes and an open maw.
Another branch extends upward, and a jaguar emerges, head thrown back mid-roar. Nocturnal predators at the top of the food chain, jaguar gods are associated with the underworld.
Two more heads sprout from the branch, just beyond the jaguar.
The imagery along the circumference of the plate frames the action within a cosmological setting.
A celestial bird at the top of the composition presides over the scene. On either side are star signs—half of the glyph Ek’, meaning star, constellation, or planet—that Maya artists used to mark a heavenly realm.
The bird is flanked by other symbols of the heavens, including parts of a “Starry Deer Crocodile.”
Here we see a tendril emerging from the creature’s open maw. A star sign, the same Ek’ glyph seen above, recognizable by the characteristic motif that looks a bit like two eyes and a nose, is set into his upper jaw.
A watery underworld, on the opposite end of the plate, mirrors the sky band.
Skeletal creatures and waterlilies frame the action on the lower section of the plate. Maya artists often depicted portals to the underworld as the bony jaws of a great centipede.
Wear and fading on this object might suggest that it was used to hold food. Possibly maize tamales once sat atop this scene, which includes a faint image of the Maize God appearing to emerge from the realm of death. His head is tilted up, left arm extended, as if in dance.
The Maize God is usually depicted as a graceful, youthful male with a sloping forehead and a small bead at the nose symbolizing breath.
The Maize God emerges from the bony head with waterlily sprouts, reminding the viewer that delicate new life blossoms from rotting depths.
The Maize God’s death and rebirth from an underworld—echoing the agricultural cycle of this staple crop—were metaphors for regeneration and resilience, and, at least for kings, a model for a continuing existence beyond death.
The Maize God is flanked by two faintly outlined, upside-down leafy heads dropping from the “black water” band. Lightly painted, spectral presences, they may be personifications of two economically important plants—perhaps tobacco and a root vegetable—yet to emerge from their gestation underground.
The plate’s exterior reinforces the watery setting of the central composition.
Waterlilies and drops of water spill out over the sides and down on to the feet.
The hieroglyphic text above Chahk tells us the creation event we are witnessing took place in primordial time, before the advent of human history.
The text begins with a date: 13 Ok 8 Zotz.
The number 13 is indicated by three dots and two bars. Bars signify the number five.
The second part of the date, 8 Zotz, records the month. The glyph is the head of a bat (zotz), identifiable by his leaflike nose.
While the initial date refers to an event in mythical times, the text on the right mentions a historical lord, perhaps the owner of the vessel.
The two moments are linked in this composition, the mortal being emphasizing a connection with divine power and primordial creations.
The plate, in all its swirling, cosmological complexity, would have been accessible to few.
Yet the viewers who were privileged to gaze upon Chahk and his companions were invited to reflect on fundamental ontological questions about origins, creations, and existence—questions that all humans confront in understanding their place in the world.
Joanne Pillsbury, Andrall E. Pearson Curator of Ancient American Art, is a specialist in the art and archaeology of the ancient Americas.
Laura Filloy Nadal, Associate Curator for Ancient American Art in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, is a specialist in pre-Hispanic and early colonial Latin American art, archaeology, and cultures.
Doyle, James A., "Creation Narratives on Ancient Maya Codex-Style Ceramics in the Metropolitan Museum": Metropolitan Museum Journal, v. 51 (2016).
Doyle, James A. and Stephen Houston, "The Universe in a Maya Plate": Maya Decipherment, March 4, 2017.
Reents-Budet, Dorie, et al., Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.
Schele, Linda, and Mary Ellen Miller, The Blood of Kings. Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Fort Worth, TX: Kimbell Art Museum, 1986.
Tripod plate, mythological scene. 7th–8th century. Mexico or Guatemala. Maya. Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip. D: 16 1/2 in. (41.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of the Mol Collection, 2021 (2021.320)
Six pages from the Dresden Codex featuring eclipses, multiplication tables, and a flood. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Cylinder Vessel with Palace Scene. 740–800. Guatemala, Petén, Dos Pilas or Motul de San José. Maya. Slip-painted ceramic with post-fire pigment. H: 7 1/8 in. (18.1 cm); D: 5 1/8 in. (13 cm). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, Purchased with funds provided by Camilla Chandler Frost (M.2010.115.12). Image © Museum Associates/LACMA Conservation, by Yosi Pozeilov
Cylinder Vessel with Palace Scene (rollout photograph). 740–800. Guatemala, Petén, Dos Pilas or Motul de San José. Maya. Slip-painted ceramic with post-fire pigment. H: 7 1/8 in. (18.1 cm); D: 5 1/8 in. (13 cm). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, Purchased with funds provided by Camilla Chandler Frost (M.2010.115.12). Image © Museum Associates/LACMA Conservation, by Yosi Pozeilov