The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya

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Portrait head of Pakal
Palenque, Mexico, c. 650-683, stucco
Museo Nacional de Antropología-INAH, México
© Michel Zabé

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: Stucco Portrait of Pakalimage: Carved panel with the King of Yaxhilan, a noble, and captives, 783


The focus of Maya courtly art was the person of the king, seen as both political ruler and living god. Noble images like this one served to promote his absolute power. This stucco portrait depicts Pakal the Great, who ascended the throne of Palenque at the age of 12. He ruled this powerful city-state for 68 years, transforming it with new palaces and temples atop massive stepped pyramids.

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.

Pakal's headband here is of buds of flowers...just coming into bloom. Maize foliage wraps...around...his headdress, and then his hair is turned back, like the very corn silk that one would find emerging from the cob.

This portrait was found in Pakal's tomb, which contained spectacular works of art [some of the most spectacular art yet found in the Maya world]. It was discovered in 1952, in a chamber at the bottom of a hidden staircase, deep inside the Temple of the Inscriptions-- a massive building commemorating Pakal's own life, death and resurrection.

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.