December 04, 2007

Maya art

Maya art is considered by many to be the most sophisticated and beautiful of the ancient New World. The distinct style of Maya art that developed during the Preclassic period (1500 B.C. to 250 A.D.) has influences from the Olmec civilization. Other Mesoamerican civilizations, including Teotihuacan and the Toltecs, affected Maya art, which reached its zenith during the civilization's Classic period (c. 200 to 900 AD). The Maya are well known for their use of jade, obsidian and stucco.

Character and style

Jadeite Pectoral from the Mayan Classic period. (195mm high)
Jadeite Pectoral from the Mayan Classic period. (195mm high)

Many pieces of Maya art are spiritual in nature, designed to appease or curry the favor of the gods. Most Maya art that survives today is in the form of funerary and ritual objects. The Maya did not have metal tools or potter's wheels, however they managed to create highly detailed and beautiful pieces of art. Most Maya art depicts gods, great rulers, legendary heroes, religious scenes and, occasionally, daily life. The focus of Maya art pieces is on human figures (whether gods or mortals). Animals and stylized designs were used as decoration on pottery and other objects. The Maya script, which could be considered an art form itself, is featured on most statues and carvings.

[edit] Art forms

Maya art takes many forms, from tiny pieces of carved obsidian to gigantic pyramids and stelae. The dominance of the Maya religion can be seen through all of these art forms; most objects have a spiritual or religious purpose.

[edit] Architecture

Main article: Maya architecture
A Maya temple at Tikal
A Maya temple at Tikal

As unique and spectacular as any Greek or Roman architecture, Maya architecture spans many thousands of years; yet, often the most dramatic and easily recognizable as Maya are the fantastic stepped pyramids from the terminal pre-classic period and beyond. These pyramids relied on intricate carved stone in order to create a stair-step design. Each pyramid was dedicated to a deity whose shrine sat at its peak. During this "height" of Maya culture, the centers of their religious, commercial and bureaucratic power grew into incredible cities, including Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Uxmal. Through observation of the numerous consistent elements and stylistic distinctions, remnants of Maya architecture have become an important key to understanding the evolution of their ancient civilization.

[edit] Ceramics

Main article: Maya ceramics
Maya vase of the codex style, representing a lord of the underworld stripped of his clothes and headgear by the young Maize divinity, assisted by a midget and a hunchback. Terracotta, northern Petén (Guatemala), 7th-10th century.
Maya vase of the codex style, representing a lord of the underworld stripped of his clothes and headgear by the young Maize divinity, assisted by a midget and a hunchback. Terracotta, northern Petén (Guatemala), 7th-10th century.

Many examples of Maya pottery survive today. Along with clay vessels, the Maya created many earthenware figures of humans and animals. Several examples of the Teotihuacan fresco technique of applying paint to a wet clay surface have been found at Maya sites, showing the influence that civilization had on Maya art. Most pieces of pottery were decorated with images of humans, animals , or mythological creatures. Many highly detailed clay figurines were made by the Maya, portraying humans and gods. These were made with molds and by hand. Many of these figures were buried with rulers, which is how they survived to the current day.

[edit] Codices

Main article: Maya codices
The Dresden Codex
The Dresden Codex

The Maya wrote many books, called codices (singluar codex), which described their calendar and religious system. Tragically, when the Spanish conquered the area, Diego de Landa ordered that they should all be destroyed. De Landa wrote:

  • We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.

However, not all of them were destroyed, and three codices and a fragment of a fourth survive. These codices detail which gods are responsible for which days of the year, horoscopes and astrological tables and other religious matters. The codices, which were lavishly illustrated, provide an integral view into Maya society.

[edit] Sculpture

Yaxchilan Lintel 24, depicting a bloodletting  ritual.
Yaxchilan Lintel 24, depicting a bloodletting ritual.

The Maya created a great number of sculptures, many of which can be seen at Maya sites and museums. A common form of Maya sculpture was the stela. These were large stone slabs covered with carvings. Many depict the rulers of the cities they were located in, and others show gods. The stelae almost always contained hieroglyphs, which have been critical to determining the significance and history of Maya sites. Other stone carvings include figurines, similar to the earthenware ones described earlier, and stone lintels which show scenes of blood sacrifice. The Maya used a great deal of jade in their art. Many stone carvings had jade inlays, and there were also ritual objects created from jade. It is remarkable that the Maya, who had no metal tools, created such intricate and beautiful objects from jade, a very hard and dense material. An excellent example is the death mask of Pacal the Great, ruler of Palenque. A life-size mask created for his corpse had "skin" made from jade and "eyes" made from mother-of-pearl and obsidian. Another feature where the wooden lintels, the best examples are from Tikal and El Zotz, in Peten, Guatemala

[edit] Paintings

The Bonampak paintings
The Bonampak paintings

Due to the humid climate of Central America few Maya paintings have survived to the present day. But a beautiful turquoise blue colour has survived through the centuries due to its unique chemical characteristics, the colour is called Maya Blue (Azul Maya), and it is present in Bonampak, El Tajín Cacaxtla, Jaina, and even in some Colonial Convents, this is one of the best examples of Arte Indocristiano; the combination of European and Indian (that is American Indians) Techniques and beliefs. The use of Maya Blue survived until the 16th century when the technique was lost. Some murals have been discovered at Bonampak. The paintings at Bonampak were preserved when a layer of calcium carbonate covered the paintings, preventing moisture from destroying them. The murals, which date from 790, show scenes of nobility, battle, and sacrifice. At San Bartolo, murals were discovered in 2001. These paintings date from 100 CE, and are some of the oldest and finest Maya paintings discovered. These paintings, which depict the Corn god myth, made scholars realize that the myth was older than previously believed. The art in caves such as Naj Tunich, has yield some exmples of fine painting and has increased the popularity of the Maya caves art among the archaeologist since its discovery 20 years ago.

[edit] Maya script

An example of Maya script
An example of Maya script
Main article: Maya script

The Maya writing system, sometimes called hieroglyphs or glyphs, consists of logograms accompanied by syllabaric glyphs. The glyphs themselves are highly detailed and artistic. The Maya script was in use from 3rd century BCE until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. The Maya script was used for the Ch'ol and Yucatec languages. The Maya script was slowly deciphered during the 20th century, and a major breakthrough was made by Yuri Knorosov in the 1950s. Today, about three-quarters of the Maya script is understood. Maya script plays an important role in art by identifying characters and helping scholars to understand more of Maya society.

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