The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya
image: Palenque, view of The Temple of the Cross

Palenque: An Exemplary Maya Court

image: Censer stand with human face, 700-800In the hills of Chiapas, Mexico, Palenque lies surrounded by waterfalls beneath deep rainforest canopy. The site is one of the best preserved examples of Maya courtly art and architecture. Its greatest ruler, Pakal, ascended to the throne in 615 at the age of twelve and reigned until his death in 683. Wealth from agriculture and the control of trade routes allowed him to initiate a massive building campaign, including a new royal palace and pyramidal temples that transformed the city. The jade mask depicting Pakal in old age was found in 1952 when Mexican archaeologists discovered his tomb buried deep within the largest of these temples.

image: Mask with ear ornaments, 600-800Pakal founded a dynasty that ruled Palenque until its demise in the ninth century. During the reign of his son, Kan Bahlam (ruled 684 - 702), a particular form of veneration of gods and ancestors flourished: huge incense burner stands, decorated with images of fire and sun gods, were set on the steps of temples, where they were excavated in the 1990s. Worshipers inserted into the stands smaller vessels for burning incense, the clouds of fragrant smoke conjuring additional images of divine power. After Kan Bahlam’s death, images of revered ancestors occasionally replaced those of deities on censer stands.

Other works of art here depict Pakal’s descendants, including his second son, K’an Hoy Chitam who reigned from 702 to about 720. Although long thought to be the last of the Palenque kings to marshal wealth and power, new discoveries at the site have revealed that the arts continued to flourish after his death. The most recent find, uncovered in late 2002, is the large limestone panel depicting Pakal flanked by his grandsons. Although Pakal was long dead at the time that this panel was carved in 736, he appears in the center of the composition as the venerated founder of Palenque’s greatest dynasty, as powerful in death as he once was in life.

The Temple of the Cross, Photograph © Roger Sherman