Since it opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in November, the exhibition Lives of the Gods: divinity in Maya art has struck a chord with visitors, particularly artists. They have been surprised to discover that we now know the names of some of their counterparts who practised more than 1,200 years ago in the lands that are now Guatemala and southern Mexico. Artist signatures are exceedingly rare in ancient American art – that is, the art created in the Western Hemisphere before European colonisation in the 16th century. For a scant few centuries, however, Maya sculptors and painters of the Classic period (AD 250-900) signed their work, giving the only artist names we have from thousands of years of artistic production in the pre-Hispanic Americas.
The works of seven named artists are among the more than 100 objects featured in Lives of the Gods, which is organised with our colleague Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, an archaeologist from Yale University. The artworks present the Maya gods’ mythical lives and their primordial struggles – confrontations that resulted in the formation of the world and its inhabitants. The topic provided rich opportunities for creative invention, and sculptors, painters, potters, and lapidary artists excelled at creating works of great power, beauty, and, at times, humour. On one vessel, for example, we see the comical antics of the old god Itzamnaaj as he tries to ride a peccary (a wild pig) in pursuit of a runaway.
Thanks to research on Maya glyphs in recent decades, we are now able to assign attributions to specific works in the exhibition labels, recognising artists by name. In the late 1980s, David Stuart, at the time a young epigrapher and now a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin, deciphered the Maya hieroglyph for ‘artist’, itz’aat (‘wise or skilled person’) – the crucial breakthrough needed to identify specific artists. Subsequent studies by others, including the important work of Simon Martin, Mark Van Stone, and especially Stephen Houston, have expanded the corpus of known artists. Houston has identified the names of 17 painters on ceramic vessels, and some 120 sculptors’ names on monumental reliefs such as architectural panels or stelae, the upright stones erected in plazas or on platforms of Maya cities. The first names appear in the 6th century AD, and the tradition ends in the 9th century.
In the 21st century, we have come to expect to know the names of artists. Indeed, we place a great emphasis on the identity of the artist and assign greater value to works by named individuals. Though they grew in prominence during the Renaissance, artist signatures remain, on the whole, comparatively rare in the history of art worldwide until the 19th century. Prior to the development of a modern art market, signatures were the exception rather than the rule. Artists of great accomplishment were undoubtedly known and admired in Aztec and Inca times, but we do not have their names. What is striking about the Maya case is that, at least at some sites, a distinctive skill set was recognised and appreciated. At other sites, however, there is no evidence for such recognition. Interestingly, for example, despite its architectural splendour with its towering stepped-pyramid temples, we have no artist signatures from Tikal. The convention of identifying artists by name varied widely across the Maya region.
On relief sculptures, signatures are often inscribed on the background, whereas the primary text, usually devoted to matters such as the date the sculpture was created and what event was being celebrated, is rendered in higher relief. On a panel depicting an elegantly attired royal woman, for example, the sculptors’ names, K’in Lakam Chahk and Jun Nat Omootz, flank her on either side, framed by the primary columns of text. Each artist signature consists of four glyph blocks (read top to bottom) beginning with the phrase ‘his carving’, and concluding with a scribal title.
The royal woman holds up a diminutive figure, who seems to be twisting to face her, gesticulating as if in a lively conversation. This small figure with a serpent leg and smoky celt emerging from his forehead is K’awiil, a lightning god and patron of royal power. Maya rulers summoned deities to oversee important events such as their enthronement, the dedication of temples and monuments, and their military campaigns. The gods sanctioned the monarchs’ actions and conveyed their divine power to human affairs.
The panel was probably once part of a palace interior at a centre affiliated with Piedras Negras, a city-state on the Usumacinta River, the modern border between Guatemala and Mexico. Some sculptures bear up to 12 artists’ names, but, as with others from the area, this panel names a pair of sculptors, perhaps a master and apprentice. Such epigraphic breakthroughs provide new insights into Maya artistic practices and the artist’s role in court society. We now know that at least a few artists were members of the nobility; some are described as ‘wise’; others are identified as instruments of the king. Some sculptors’ names include the name of a god. For example, K’in Lakam Chahk includes ‘Chahk’, the name of the axe-wielding rain god, provoking the intriguing idea that perhaps the creative process was also, at least in part, considered a divine act.
Regrettably, not all artist signatures have come down to us in a complete state. A spectacular, 3m-high stela from Calakmul, for example, was looted from that site in Campeche, Mexico, in the 1960s and cut into portable slabs, resulting in the loss of portions of the monument’s text. Recovered and restored by a team of conservators from the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, this stela depicting King Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil in all his resplendent finery reminds viewers of the power of his kingdom. Monuments at the site proclaim the king’s close connection with divine power, through regalia and even through name: King Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil invokes the powerful god of lightning. Rulers of Calakmul, a rival polity of the mighty city of Tikal, called themselves ‘holy lords of the Snake Kingdom’, and they consolidated their power through both strategic alliances and ruthless conquest.
On the stela, the Calakmul king wears a long cape, an elaborate pectoral, and a serpentine headdress. He grasps a staff in his right hand and, for good measure, stands on a captive. The finely incised text to the left of the king’s face records the name of the two sculptors, Sak[…] Yuk[…] Took’ and Sak […] Yib’ah Tzak B’ahlam (when names are not entirely legible or are incomplete, ellipses in brackets are used to denote missing information). Interestingly, scholars now think that this monument was a gift from a subsidiary polity.
This last point brings to the fore the issue of patronage. In many cases, not only do we have the names of artists, but we also have the names of their patrons, which are often given greater prominence than those of the artists in both painting and sculpture. Calakmul was well-known for a distinctive painting style known as ‘codex style’, so-called for its resemblance to the calligraphic style of writing seen in delicate screenfold manuscripts. Only four of what were surely thousands of Maya manuscripts survive from the pre-Hispanic period – many were burned in the unrelenting campaigns against ‘idolatry’ in the 16th century and later – making these vessels all the more precious, as they allow us to glimpse one of the ancient world’s great scribal traditions.
A particularly fine example of this codex style is a remarkable vessel excavated from the tomb of a high-status woman at Calakmul in the 1990s by archaeologists from the Universidad Autónoma de Campeche. On it, the young Maize God reclines on his back, arms and legs bent, in a pose artists often used to depict infants. Only a third of the painting on the vessel’s surface has survived intact, but it demonstrates the characteristic format associated with the codex style. The lip is slip-painted in red, and beneath that is a line of text often referred to as the ‘Primary Standard Sequence’, which generally refers to how the vessel was used, sometimes who commissioned the work, and occasionally who painted it. In this instance, the text tells us that the vessel was used to drink a fruity, probably fermented, cacao beverage.
The Maize God at the centre of the composition emerges from a cleft head (possibly representing a seed) in a variant of the myth of the rebirth of this deity, a transit echoing the life cycle of this staple crop. The lower band is filled with aquatic motifs, including tadpoles. The rebirth of the Maize God was a favoured subject for rulers, providing a model for their own hoped-for rebirth and afterlife. Although no artist signature appears on this vessel, Antonio Aimi and Raphael Tunesi attributed the vessel to Master 1 of Yopaat B’ahlam, Yopaat B’ahlam being the powerful, long-lived king of Calakmul and the patron who commissioned the work. The same king commissioned a different painter for the same subject – the rebirth of the Maize God from watery depths – on a codex-style plate. Although we do not have the names of the painters for these two vessels, their distinctive styles and achievements were surely recognised at the time.
The important name on these two Calakmul vessels is that of the patron. In some cases, though, we are fortunate enough to have both the name of the patron and the name of the painter. A squared, slip-painted ceramic vessel with post-fire stucco features an old, cigar-smoking jaguar-eared god, seated on throne covered with a jaguar pelt, presiding over an assembly of ten deities. The brief caption on the vessel tells us that these gods were gathered at the Great Sun Place on 11 August 3114 BC. This mythical date, before the rise of cities or writing in this region, was the primordial event that set the world in order.
The inscription tells us that this vessel, painted between 755 and 780, was made for the king of Naranjo, a Maya city-state in what is now Guatemala, and that it was intended to hold cacao. Three small glyph blocks on the side to the left of the old god give the name of the painter, Lo’ Took’ Akan(?) Xok (the reading of middle glyph is uncertain). The presence of the name of the patron in connection with the name of the painter is significant: the ruler wants the connection with this artist, this achievement, to be known. The king’s discernment is being recognised along with the painter’s skill. It is important to register, in other words, that these signatures were not, and are not, simply isolated facts, but offer platforms for an increasingly complex understanding of the cultural ramifications and complexities surrounding concepts of ‘art’, ‘artists’, and the ‘art world’ in the ancient Americas.
We have the names of far more sculptors than painters, perhaps because the monumental stone works required pairs or teams of sculptors. Interestingly, almost one-third of the sculptors’ names that have come down to us from the Maya region – that is to say, one-third of all the known sculptors from the ancient Americas – have been found at one extraordinary site: Piedras Negras. As this once-powerful polity began to be eclipsed in the late 7th century, the lords of the Yo’kib dynasty who governed Piedras Negras embarked on a building campaign to declare their continued strength and the divine nature of their rule. Artists adorned the palaces, plazas, and temples with some of the most inventive and accomplished relief sculptures known from the ancient Americas.
A throne featuring two lords in the eyes of an animate mountain was excavated by archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1930s. There is debate about the identity of the two busts – perhaps King K’inich Yat Ahk III and a courtier named in the text at the top of the throne back – but the names of the two sculptors are clear: K’in Lakam Chahk, the same sculptor who worked on the panel with the royal woman, and Patlajte’ K’awiil Mo[…]. Here, the artist names are no longer in the background: they are featured on the same plane as the rest of the imagery, an audacious statement of the prominence of the monument’s creators.
Piedras Negras was clearly a centre of impressive creative innovation, and sculptors embraced new subject matter. Compositions were no longer limited to single, stiff depictions of rulers engulfed in regalia. Perhaps borrowing from the vase painters, sculptors embraced complex palace scenes, filled with figures interacting with each other. One panel depicts King Itzam K’an Ahk II seated on a throne, leaning in as if to speak with one of the 14 standing and seated courtiers and visitors from the kingdom of Yaxchilan, a sometime rival city-state in the Usumacinta region, who joined him to celebrate his first katun, or 20-year period in office. The hieroglyphic text explains that the king performed the dance of the descending macaw and drank fermented cacao at sunset.
The text and imagery of the throne with two lords and the panel with the royal woman underscore not only themes of dynastic succession but also crucial diplomatic relations in a time of changing political fortunes. These bold statements of dynastic continuity, however, were among the last monuments to be erected at Piedras Negras. Both were intentionally destroyed in the early 9th century, surely the result of a violent conflict with Yaxchilan. Within a century, the tradition of carving monuments with elaborate texts describing historical and mythological events would come to a close, as new traditions were established elsewhere. For a few hundred years at sites in the southern Maya lowlands, however, ateliers were active, creative sites of invention and innovation, and artistic achievements were boldly proclaimed on some of the finest works of the era.
Lives of the Gods: divinity in Maya art runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until 2 April 2023 (www.metmuseum.org). It will then be at Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, from 7 May to 3 September 2023 (https://kimbellart.org).
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press: Lives of the Gods: divinity in Maya art, edited by Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, James A Doyle, and Joanne Pillsbury, with contributions by Iyaxel Cojti Ren, Caitlin C Earley, Stephen D Houston, and Daniel Salazar Lama.