The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya

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Bloodletting Ritual of Lady Xoc (Lintel 24),
Lady Xoc Conjuring a Large Serpent(Lintel 25),
Shield Jaguar, Lady Xoc, and Jaguar Headdress (Lintel 26),
Structure 23

Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico, c. 725
Courtesy of the Trustees of The British Museum
© Justin Kerr


In royal Maya courts, women filled important civic and religious roles denied them in many Mesoamerican cultures. These lintels are seen together probably for the first time since the temple they were made for collapsed in the rainforest. Each formed the ceiling of a deep doorway to one of the temple's three separate rooms. As worshipers entered, they looked up to see the scene overhead. The lintels were commissioned by Lady Xoc of Yaxchilan. They feature her performing crucial duties during the reign of her husband, King Shield Jaguar.

On the first one of these lintels, lintel 24, Shield Jaguar stands holding a flaming torch.... Kneeling in front of him, we see his wonderful queen, Lady Xok. And she takes a rope that's studded with thorns or spines, and she's running it right through her tongue.... Spots of blood are collecting on the paper that's in the basket that's right in front of her.

This blood-letting rite occurred in 709. Pain and loss of blood were a necessary prelude to conjuring up the royal ancestors. To the right, in Lintel 25, we see the aftermath of another blood-letting by Lady Xoc. This one took place in 681, the year her husband ascended the throne.

Out of her blood, we see emerging this huge, writhing, twisting serpent. And then out of its mouth emerges an armed ancestor.... This is the founder of the dynasty. She has now conjured him up, as if, in...the moment when her husband becomes king, she goes back and consults with the founder.

In the third lintel, we move forward in time again, to 725. Here, Lady Xok is handing a jaguar helmet to Shield Jaguar, securing his place in the line of kings.

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.