Mayan art, invited to the Metropolitan Museum of New York

What were the Mayan gods like? In the culture of this Mesoamerican people, the divinities were represented at all stages of their lives. And when they faded, they could be reborn again, as a sign of regeneration and resilience.

The exhibition “The lives of the gods: divinity in Mayan art”, which opens this Monday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Met), tries to explain the cycle of life through a hundred works of these deities from birth to their transformation, sometimes turned into fearsome creatures of the night.

Created by masters of the Classic period (AD 250–900) who lived in royal cities in the tropical forests of Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, these sculptures “evoke a world in which the realms of the divine, the human, and the natural intertwine.” and intertwine”, say the curators.

The exhibition, with pieces from European, Latin American and American museums, as well as others recently discovered in Palenque (Mexico) and from the archaeological center of El Zotz (Guatemala), is an invitation to “experience the profound and stimulating power of Mayan visual art says Max Hollein, director of the Met.

“These Mayan artists drew on inspiration to shape the gods, through extraordinary works of great visual complexity and aesthetic refinement,” explains Joanne Pillsbury, curator of ancient American art at the Met.

The ceramics reveal the hectic lives of the gods in great detail.

– Gods and kings –

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The sculptures and vessels in the exhibition also show the intimate relationship between Mayan royalty and the gods, as well as the role of religion in the exercise of political authority of this people.

“In the hieroglyphic texts, the kings appear acting ‘in the company’ of the gods, they belong to them,” Yale University anthropologist Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, an advisor to the exhibition, told AFP.

“The kings were not considered as divine beings in themselves, but, after death, they were represented as beings comparable to the gods, for example, they were portrayed with the attributes of the solar god and the lunar goddess (in the case of the dead queens),” he says.

The sculptures were believed to embody the power and presence of the divine, and jade, shell, and obsidian ornaments adorned kings and queens and symbolically connected them to supernatural forces.

The exhibition, which will be open until April 2, 2023, also explores the origin of the world, the balance between the gods of the day, such as the Sun god K’inich, and those of the night, such as the god Jaguar, and the role of the scribes.

The sun was associated with the forces that give life. Rulers who identified especially with this power often added the title K’inich to their names.

The Maya venerated the rain gods, fundamental for the well-being of the communities, such as the powerful Chahk, or the god of lightning, fertility and abundance, K’awiil.

The god of maize, the staple of their diet, was represented as an eternally young and graceful being, who was associated with two of the most valuable elements in their economy: jade and cocoa.

– Works with signature –

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Only four of the books created during the pre-Hispanic period have reached our days. However, surviving texts on sculptures and ceramics provide insight into the alliances, conquests and spiritual beliefs of the Classic Maya era, curators say.

Another peculiarity of Mayan artists is that they signed their works, as has been discovered thanks to recent advances in the study of Mayan hieroglyphic writing.

The exhibition includes four works by identified individuals—such as “Royal Woman Panel” (795) by K’in Lakam Chahk and Jun Nat Omootz, and “King Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil Stela 51” (731) , from Sak[…] yuk[…] Took’ and Sak […] Yib’ah Tzak B’ahlam, as well as other examples that can be attributed to well-known Maya painters.

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Mayan art, invited to the Metropolitan Museum of New York