The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya

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Cylinder vessel with a court scene
Mexico or Guatemala, 600-800, ceramic
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
© Justin Kerr

Click on one of the images below for in-depth information.

image: Sculpted throne back, 700-800image: Cylinder vessel with a court scene, 600-800image: Portrait of Pakal, 650-683image: Carved panel with the King of Yaxhilan, a noble, and captives, 783

Cylinder vessel with a court scene

Maya artists depicted intimate moments of royal life. On this vase, we find a king relaxing, attended by a few trusted courtiers. The entire scene is visible on the roll-out photo under the label.

Our Maya lord, leaning here against his...cushion, certainly demonstrates how the Maya lived very well at court. Look at that pot belly, look at those long fingernails.

Maize was the staple food of the Maya, and the seasonal cycle of its planting and harvest dominated Maya life and beliefs. The shape of the young maize plant even influenced conceptions of beauty.

He has clearly enjoyed his chocolate--the favorite beverage of the Maya court. It would have been kept in those pots down below. But right now he's focusing on a mirror held by a carved figure of a dwarf. Maya kings often consulted mirrors as oracles. They were made of polished iron ore.

Scholars can't read his speech yet, but the glyphs at the top tell us that he ruled a city in Guatemala called Motul de San José.

Audio Segments
Audio segments are from the recording made for the exhibition (© 2004 Acoustiguide Corporation and National Gallery of Art).

Narrations are by Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, and Mary Miller, Vincent J. Scully Professor of Art History at Yale University.