Mayan art refers to the artworks done by the ancient Mayan civilization. It involves any painting, architecture, wood carvings, sculptures and figures made from wood, stone, stucco, and precious gems like jade, weaving and textile, and even their literature. These art pieces are considered as precious artifacts these days and are in the care of museums around the world. The Mayan people lived in North America to South America. The Mesoamerican culture existed from 500 BCE to 900 CE or during what is known as the preclassic period to the postclassic period. To this day, several areas of Mayan art survived and practiced, particularly in weaving.
Mayan Art Context and Beginnings
Since they have been thriving for a long time, the age of the Mayan culture can be divided into three periods: preclassic, classic, and post-classic.
The preclassic era was when the Mayan civilization was first founded and was built. During this time, Mayan people worked on clay potteries and figurines. Villages were also smaller and settled in one place for a long time.
As time went by and they approached the mid-preclassic period, villages expanded into cities, and so this their art.
During the classic period, the civilization grew even more. Cities became urbanized and littered with sculptures from rocks and woods. The architecture was also more complicated than the first civilizations. They built pyramids where they made sacrifices for their gods.
Nonetheless, many art pieces didn’t survive the Mayan collapse. Historians still do not know what had happened and triggered the fall of a great civilization. While the Mayan civilization was significantly reduced, they still had a strong presence during the post-classic period.
Most of Mayan’s first art theme was about religion. They depicted the gods they believed in as well as painted pictures of human sacrifices and rituals they partake in. The rich and the noble would also commission artists to create their statues.
Mayan Art Concepts and Styles
Religious and Spiritual Themes
Mayan people revered their gods and goddesses, and they became the focal point of their art. Architectures such as pyramids were created to be a sacred place. These are adorned by sculptures that are often of their deities.
As a way of giving back to deities for their protection, Mayan people used to have human sacrifices and similar rituals. Many of their sacred places such as pyramids were made for this sole purpose. Some of the art pieces they created focused on these types of religious rituals.
The Mayans also believed in a flat earth and that a strong god protects every cardinal point. Then above Earth are 13 layers with each one represented by another deity. Below us in the underworld.
They also depicted this belief in many of their art including paintings.
Stone sculptures are prevalent in the ancient Mayan civilization. Most of these may have been created during the Classic period. The most popular type of stone sculptures were stelas and often did not have any inscriptions. Nonetheless, the subjects are mostly mythological.
But what are stelas? These are the elongated stone slabs that are covered with inscriptions and carvings. These are typically found accompanied with round altars. While they depict what seemed like deities, these are the rulers of the city or village, only disguised as gods.
Lintel sculptures, on the other hand, usually are carvings around a doorway. They are longer and are filled with intricate details usually of meetings with rules or with local deities.
There are also the panels and tablets that are set in the walls of buildings. You can find large ones such as the ones that can be found in the Cross Group temples.
Other stone sculptures are rounded or rectangular altars, zoomorphs or large boulders which resemble living creatures, monumental stairs, and thrones.
Wood Figures and Carvings
Wood carving is believed to be more common than how it might appear. However, historians and archaeologists were only able to scavenge a few pieces. It is believed that the 16th-century carvings of idols and deities were destroyed when Spanish colonial authorities raided the Mayan civilization.
One of the Classic pieces that are deemed the most important were recovered from the main Tikal pyramids. The pieces consisted of intricate lintels and wood reliefs. These were said to be dated from the 8th century.
These lintels included a depiction of a jaguar, a Teotihuacan war serpent, and a man disguised as the jaguar god. But perhaps the most popular of all was the lintel of a victorious king that was dressed as a death god.
Mayan Mural Paintings
Sadly, not many of the ancient Mayan mural paintings survived due to the humid weather of Central America. However, several paintings were found in the majority of court residences. These were typically found on spaces underneath the buildings that were added later.
Subjects on these discovered mural paintings were more or less repetitive. For example, there’s the floral subject found on the House E walls located in the Palenque Palace. There were also depictions of daily life. Of course, paintings about deities and ritual scenes were also common.
The paintings were from different time periods. Typically, the Classic period murals had stark colors but were already a subtle and more mature style.
Experts also found a bright turquoise blue color known as the “Maya Blue” that has survived throughout the centuries because of the unique characteristics of the chemicals in it. The color can be found on mural paintings in Cacaxtla, Bonampak, and in various Colonial Convents. The use of Maya Blue survived until the 16th century.
Stucco was incredibly common, especially during the late Preclassic period. There were painted and modeled stucco can be found all over buildings and even the floors of town centers. These were mainly masked stucco.
Large deity mask panels are often attached to retaining walls of the platforms on temples. These panels also depicted with heads of deities, usually that of the sun, earth, and rain.
Pieces that were done during the late Preclassic to the Classic period had varying designs, with some holding deeper meanings. However, early Classic designs were more about deity masks. There were also pieces surrounding Mayan cosmology.
There are also stucco pieces made with the mask of rulers and noblemen of the Maya people.
Writing and Codices
Maya’s writing system has around 1,000 unique and distinct characters which are known as glyphs or hieroglyphs. Just like with the Ancient Egyptian civilization, Maya’s writing system includes a mixture of logograms as well as syllabic signs.
The ancient civilization has used the writing system from the 3rd century BCE until the Spanish conquest arrived during the 16th century. As of 2017, the Maya script was already read but their meanings still held a hint of mystery.
When it comes to bookmaking, the Mayans used leather leaves or bark paper with a layer of adhesive stucco where they write. The covers are made from either jaguar skins or wooden boards. There have been quite a few numbers of these books that were discovered, probably from the diviners back then who needed them.
As of now, three codices exist. They date back from the Post-classic period. There’s a fourth one that is said to be of Mayan origin, but its authenticity is still doubted.
Mayans didn’t just write on their books. Hieroglyphs existed on walls on stucco pieces and lintels.
Sculptures made from Precious Stones
Apart from using rocks and wood, there are figures and sculptures retrieved that were made from precious stones such as jade, mother of pearl, obsidian, malachite and more. There were plaques made from these materials, but there were also pieces of jewelry such as pendants and even masks.
But what makes this even more amazing is that the Mayans didn’t have metal tools back then. It remains a mystery how the ancient civilization was able to make detailed pieces from thick and dense materials.
Mayan Art Notable Artworks
While experts are yet to uncover many mysteries and discoveries from the ancient Mayan sites, there exist hundreds of Mayan artifacts that are considered as Mayan art. These pieces were able to help experts in their journey of finding out how the ancient civilization lived back then.
That said, here are the most notable pieces made by the Maya people.
The Mayan Calendar is perhaps the most popular Mayan art piece of all time. A discovered long-count calendar from the Mesoamerican civilization made international headlines and even caused a rising panic surge around the world. The calendar predicted the world ending on December 21, 2012.
However, it was, of course, untrue. But it is the truth that the long-count calendar of the Mayans was to end its cycle on December 21, 2012. The calendar roughly spans at 5,125 years starting from 3114 B.C. The unforgettable 2012 deadline only closed the Mayan’s 13th Bak’tun which was 400 years in the long-count calendar.
The long-count calendar is used by the Mayans to track down longer periods. Also, the calendar tracked various events in space and Earth. The long-count calendar isn’t the only one that exists. But due to misunderstanding, it became the most popular one.
The Vision Serpent is an important creature from the Mayan mythology. It was a social and religious symbol which the people revered. But basically, the creature symbolizes the passage of the ancestral spirits into our world along with the Gods of the underworld.
Moreover, the Mayans believed the serpent was a vehicle used by the celestial bodies like the sun and the stars to cross heaven. Also, the shedding of their old skin became a symbol for renewal and rebirth.
The Vision Serpent may not be a piece of one artwork. However, it is one of the famous symbols used in lintels, wall plaques, and even pieces of jewelry.
The Mayan pyramids were one of the best architectural designs the Mayan people did. For them, pyramids played such as huge role in their culture. Pyramids were burial grounds, ritual sites, sanctuaries, and temples for their deities.
But Mayan pyramids are different from Egyptian ones even concerning size and structure. The Mayan structures had steps, making it easier to reach the top where buildings and temples stood. Also, the Mayan pyramids also have a flat top unlike the sharp peaks of Egyptian pyramids.
Still, the Mayan pyramids were impressive, especially when it came to detail. Lintels, plaques, and stucco pieces adorned these pyramids.
Monumental Jaguar Sculpture
The Monumental Jaguar Sculpture is a painted earthenware that was discovered in Southern Veracruz, a city in Mexico. It is believed to have been made during the late Classic period, somewhere between 600 to 900 AD.
This piece is a hollow naturalistic jaguar sitting down, wearing what appears to be a sacrificial scarf. Experts believe that the Jaguar seemed to be preparing for its sacrifice. However, it may have flanked the throne of a king or ruler initially.
Jaguars were one of the significant sacred animals in the Mesoamerican culture as the people believed they possess animal companion spirits. They were also seen as the guards of kings and deities of the sun.
As mentioned earlier, the Maya Blue was a bright azure color that was discovered in several Mayan paintings. It became a popular shade since it was found as it remained vibrant even after thousands of years have passed. It is believed the Mayan people used palygorskite – a rare type of clay – to create the color.
Artists and Influence
The Maya people have been deeply influenced by the Olmecs, Toltecs, and the Teotihuacan when it came to their culture. These were other civilizations that thrived in the place, so it was not surprising that they all influenced each other when it came to art, style, and even with daily lifestyle.
However, there aren’t any discovered names of artists that can be credited for the creations that were found. But they may have been commissioned by the rulers and the kings of the cities they lived in.
Today, many Mayan symbolisms have been modernized and used by young artists to promote their bloodline.
Mayan Art Resources
Wikipedia. Ancient Maya art. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Maya_art
History on the Net. Overview of Mayan Art. Retrieved from https://www.historyonthenet.com/overview-of-mayan-art
History on the Net. The Mayan Calendar. Retrieved from https://www.historyonthenet.com/the-mayan-calendar
Plataforma SINC. (2009, April 23). Origins Of Maya Blue In Mexico. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090420085049.htm
Roach, Joan (2011, December 20) End of the World in 2012? Maya “Doomsday” Calendar Explained. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/12/111220-end-of-world-2012-maya-calendar-explained-ancient-science/
Wikipedia. Vision Serpent. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vision_Serpent
World Digital Library. Monumental Jaguar Sculpture. Retrieved from https://www.wdl.org/en/item/2659/