The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya
image: Human artisan, 250-600

Human artisans
provenance unknown, 250-600, ceramic
The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund

These figures are the patrons of art and writing in Maya culture. Twin sons of the Maize God, they were transformed into monkeys by their more powerful half-brothers, the Hero Twins. They are represented in Maya art in both human and simian form, or, as here, as one of each. The monkey artisan shapes a small mask in his hand. His human brother paints on a piece of bark--a symbolic book since beaten bark was the paper of the New World.

Learn more about Maya hieroglyphs and Maya numbering.

Word and Image in the Maya Court

Writing is a hallmark of Maya civilization. Of the many Mesoamerican societies, from the Olmec to the Aztec, only the Maya developed a complete system of writing that represents the equivalent of speech. With more than five hundred hieroglyphs--phonetic or pictorial signs for sounds or words--Mayan writing long eluded modern attempts at decipherment.

By 1900 the elaborate calendar of the Maya had been deciphered and a correlation between it and the Christian calendar established. Beginning in the 1950s, and especially in the past two decades, scholars have made enormous strides in decoding Mayan glyphs. Much of Mayan writing can now be read, reproducing the sound and syntax of an archaic language no longer spoken today. This writing system saw its highest achievement in the seventh and eighth centuries AD.

image: cylinder vessel with flower motifs (The pictorial quality of Mayan glyphs meant that scribes were by necessity artists. Many scribes and artists came from the elite ranks; the specialized skills for the making and inscribing of fine things belonged to particular families and their workshops. Teams of sculptors produced large stone works, while a single artist painted any given Maya pot. Artists sometimes signed their work, as in the case of the "Fleur-de-lis vase."

Although no examples from the first millennium AD survive, books--screenfold manuscripts painted on fig bark paper--were a commonplace; their illustrations may have resembled the finely painted images on ceramics in this gallery. Such flourishing art production required wealthy patrons--not just the king, but warlords, noblemen, and noblewomen.