The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya
image: Sculpted throne back, 700-800 image: Cylinder vessel with a court scene, 600-800 image: Portrait head of Pakal, c. 650-683 image: Carved panel with the King of Yaxhilan, a noble, and captives, 783
image: Sculpted throne back, 700-800

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Life at the Maya Court

Dominated by the king, the Maya court was the focus of religious and political life. Within palace chambers and behind swag curtains, the king ruled from his throne, where he reclined on jaguar pelts in settings often prepared for feasts, with plentiful tamales, pots of frothy chocolate drink, and flowers. Dwarfs and hunchbacks served as his trusted counselors, while musicians played wooden trumpets and horns made from conch shells.

The Maya commissioned finely crafted works to furnish their palaces and attest to their sovereignty--among them carved thrones and throne backs, where a king might reign supported by depictions of ancestors or gods. Figural mirror holders served as “perpetual servants” who revealed the king’s dazzling but fractured image in polished mosaic mirrors. The king’s scepter took the form of a powerful god of lineage and lightning. Although rare, artists working in stucco achieved realistic portraiture that captures age and wisdom.

Painted cups and vases for the elite depict scenes of court life, while clay figurines portray members of the retinue that attended the king. Representing servants, dwarfs, hunchbacks, musicians, messengers, and priests, along with elegantly coiffed women, these figurines all come from tombs, where they also served their lords in death.