It’s not just that the towering, limestone slab weighs nine tons — imagine the amount of work it took just to install it, remarked curator James Doyle of Pennsylvania State University’s Matson Museum of Anthropology.
Nor is it that the stela — the official term for such a stone artwork — is one of the finest of its kind from the high point of Mayan culture (250 A.D – 900 A.D.). Or that it has never been put on view in the United States before (it’s on loan from the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City).
Or even that it makes for an awe-inspiring opening statement in the Kimbell Art Museum’s new show, Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art.
Actually, Doyle said, why this particular stela holds pride of place is that because of recent breakthroughs in deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs, we now know that carved into the stone just to the left of the figure’s face is something rare and amazing: the sculptor’s signature.
We don’t have many names much less the signatures of 8th century European artists. We often have difficulty even identifying works by individuals. Nevertheless, Doyle stopped several times during the press preview to note that this or that ceramic vessel was painted by a particular artist. At one point, there even seems to have been a ‘school’ of such painters.
It’s partly because of these achievements that we have a greater understanding of what Mayan art actually represents.
In many cases, it depicts historical figures. The Mayan civilization, beginning sometime around 2000 B.C., ultimately developed city-states and trade networks stretching from southern Mexico, across Guatemala and Belize and into Honduras.
The Mayans left us the most complex system of pre-Columbian writing, huge temple complexes and the artworks here, which vary from the massive to the intricate, the gruesome to toy-like whistles.
To the average contemporary viewer, Mayan mythology can seem like a bewildering team-up of Marvel superheroes and supervillains — presumably they’re gods and goddesses wearing elaborate headpieces and doing indecipherable things with abstracted snakes and grinning, gargoyle-like heads. It can seem a hellish universe, all very much tooth and claw. (The Mayans did practice blood sacrifice.)
But Doyle — echoed by Kimbell curator Jennifer Casler Price — said these figures are often actual Mayan rulers portrayed as gods. By putting on headgear, cape and jewelry, a Mayan king could literally don the mantle of divinity, to publicly associate his own authority with that of the powerful rain god, Chahk, or K’awill, the god of lightning and fertility.
It made for good media coverage: The gods bring you abundance — just as I do. I am your protector and provider.
We are not so far from the Roman and Chinese traditions promoting emperors to divine status. Or the way, for centuries, arts patrons often popped up in paintings, apparently having become close friends of the Holy Family.
Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art is thefirst museum exhibition organized around what we now know about Mayan deities and the fundamental aspects of life they embody: day, night, maize, knowledge, etc. The show more or less follows the life cycle of Mayan gods, who, like us mere mortals, were born, matured and, perhaps over several generations, eventually died.
Much like the artist signatures it features, Lives of the Gods also highlights a related rarity: the work of scribes. Only four books (or codices) from classic Mayan culture are known to have survived. They were easy enough to neglect or burn; it was harder to destroy a nine-ton stone figure or, for that matter, entire temples.
Because of the complexity of Mayan writing, scribes were important figures for transmitting cultural wisdom, and although the exhibition doesn’t feature any books, it does include several ceramic vessels that were used to hold them. They have some of the show’s most expressive illustrations.
Even so, as delicate as the smaller works of jewelry and pottery may be, some of the most memorable works here are stone. It seems to express something fundamental and hard, even grim, in their worldview. For all the curvilinear tracing and whispy incisions, the stone works project a hulking power, a stand not just against human enemies but the jungle, the animals, the weather, the comings-and-goings of seasons or gods or stars.
After all, some of the Mayans’ most distinctive works (not included here) are their monolithic calendars. History, the future, the entire swirling cosmos carved permanently into stone.
Lives of the Gods was organized by the Kimbell and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it was shown last year. Holland Cotter in The New York Times wrote, “Just to have this show is a gift.” The assembled works come not only from Mexico and Guatemala but New York, London, Los Angeles and Switzerland.
Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art runs at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth through Sept. 3.
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