Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Ancient Maya Painted Ceramics

In the first millennium B.C., peoples speaking Mayan languages settled in agricultural villages across the Yucatan Peninsula. They began constructing monumental buildings, sculpting in various media, and creating durable containers out of fired clays. Ceramic vessels nourished in both life and death: they held food and drink for daily life, but also offerings in dedicatory caches and burials, which range from the simplest graves to the richest royal tombs.

All Maya pottery was built by hand as opposed to on a potter’s wheel. The process of creating ceramics involved many steps and different materials, both local and imported. Selecting the clays first, usually from local sources, potters would then fold in different tempers, or additives, to achieve a desired consistency or aesthetic quality. Tempers include such materials as crushed-up sherds (grog), ground limestone (calcite), or even volcanic ash, presumably imported from the volcanic landscape of the Guatemalan highlands. Before firing, the surface would be covered in slips, or mineral mixtures dissolved in water, created to give the vessels specific colors and brilliance.

By the final centuries B.C., artists were engineering beautiful monochrome vases. The spectrum of slips on early pottery is limited to reds, creams, and blacks, but often potters would experiment with different firing temperatures and environments to create mottled surfaces, like red with black accents (1982.207.7). Ceramic artists experimented with different forms on monochrome vessels, such as vertical fluting on the walls of tall vessels (1982.207.6). Potters eventually added supports to wide plates and bowls. Around the first century A.D., ceramic vessels appear with enlarged, hollow supports with pellets inside (1982.207.1). These pellets would have made noise with the movement of the vessel, transforming serving vessels into sonorous instruments at feasts or other rituals. Creativity abounds in the forms of monochrome footed vessels, including those with lids featuring creatures such as a water bird catching a fish in its mouth (1984.614a,b).

Early experiments with polychrome vessels include a resist technique (1982.207.5), using wax in conjunction with slips to produce patterns of positive and negative coloration. During the Classic Period (ca. 250–900), however, artists developed an extensive repertoire of polychrome vessels that were painted with a variety of geometric and figural designs. These artists seem to have been sponsored by the royal courts of self-proclaimed divine rulers at sites like Tikal and Calakmul. Ceramics became the canvases of artists to create scenes of myths, often dedicated to their patrons with hieroglyphic texts. A vessel showing deities on jaguar-covered thrones (1978.412.159) underscores the mythological origins of Maya rulership. Maya kings and queens, sitting on similar thrones in the human realm, often impersonated deities through costume and performance, perhaps reenacting the scenes on the painted pottery before them.

Other, more mortal rituals on ceramic vessels provide clues to the important activities that Maya rulers undertook. The Mesoamerican ballgame was an important aspect of elite Maya culture, and ballplayers were often depicted on painted ceramics; one lidded vessel with the body in the shape of a “yoke,” part of the ballgame apparel, has an incised scene of ballplayers on its neck (1970.138a,b). Painted plates and vases often feature musicians in action, such as a plate with a trumpeter (1989.110), and they underscore the importance of music to Maya ceremonies. Other rituals, normally witnessed by very few people, were important subjects for painted pottery, such as an enigmatic scene in which a woman helps a man administer an alcoholic enema to himself in repeated vignettes (1993.441). Indeed, many of these vessels likely held alcoholic beverages in the form of fermented maize drinks or pulque, derived from agave.

Many vessels also held foamy, savory chocolate beverages. Certain regions within the Classic Maya area developed distinctive styles of chocolate-drinking cups, such as the Chamá style of the Guatemalan highlands (1999.484.2). There, artists used distinctive black-and-white chevron borders to delineate scenes of rulers and deities. Creativity in painted ceramics is evident in complex scenes and texts, for example scenes in which disembodied deity heads (2005.435) float in watery cartouches. Some artists experimented with bold graphics and abstracted images, such as in the distinctive slateware (1989.314.20) from the northern Maya area.

Ceramics did more than hold things. For Classic Maya kings and queens, they served as markers of their wealth and as diplomatic gifts to cement loyalty with local governors. They were also performative, perhaps serving as guides for song or poetry during ceremonies. The calligraphic style of some ceramic painters suggests they also painted books; although no books survive from the Classic Period, some ceramics depict scenes of people writing. In fact, dozens of vessels in the so-called codex style, named after later books, represent the pinnacle of calligraphic hieroglyphic writing and fine-line painting. The painting is so detailed that it must be appreciated at close viewing; the beholder is invited to turn the cylindrical vessel around to make different parts of the scene appear.

Codex-style vessels were likely produced around the massive city of Calakmul in Campeche, Mexico, and affiliated palaces in the northern Petén district of Guatemala. Like their bark paper book counterparts, they often feature scenes of deities. One group in particular shows the Maya rain god, known as Chac, interacting with a death god and a baby jaguar. The best example of this scene is known from a vase in the Museum’s collection (1978.412.206). A similar scene involves a full-grown jaguar, and Chahk is labeled as the god of the “first rain” (1980.213). In another codex-style scene (2014.632.1), an elderly Chahk breaks open a building as the Maize God dances, raindrops falling all around them. These may show myths pertaining to the start of the rainy season, a pivotal moment in the cyclical world of agricultural societies in the tropics. Ceramic vessels transmitted these stories and amplified the accompanying performances up until the collapse of the Classic Maya political system in the ninth century.