Met’s Mayan Major – “The Classic Period”

This portrait is of the King Jaguar Bird Tapir from Chiapas, Mexico celebrates his worldly might and divine connections. He wears a tall headdress composed of stacked masks representing supernatural beings
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By Bob Nesoff

Ask anyone, well almost anyone, to name the most famous art museums in the world and more than likely you’ll hear the Louvre in Paris and the Prado in Madrid. Those are terrific museums, but arguably one of the top, if not the top, is the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Museum Mile on New York’s Fifth Avenue 


The Met, as it is familiarly known, has a reputation for presenting some of the best exhibits ever shown by any museum anywhere. Currently “Lives of the Gods, Divinity in Mayan Art” on display until April 2, 2023. The display, featuring amazing works from Mexico, Guatemala and neighboring countries.

To reach the second floor for the Mayan display you pass one exciting gallery after another. But that is only a precursor for what is to come. The exhibit brings together almost 100 of amazing artifacts that are rarely seen and some that have only recently been seen.

This is a monumental depiction of Chahk from the northern lowlands of Mexico and highlights the rain god’s warlike nature. He is holding the handle of a large axe and is depicted with an open mouth that seems to be shouting threats. To this day farmers in the dry plains of the Yucatán perform ceremonies in honor of rain deities still known by the name Chahk

The artifacts range from miniatures that require you to step up close the display case while others are monumental. Each has a descriptive card explaining the meaning of the piece, where it is from and what era was it made. Most are seven centuries and older.

What comes to mind in viewing the various artifacts is the ability of the ancient craftsmen and skill with which they depict the gods. Several of the miniatures depict periods in the lifecycle of the gods from the moment of their birth to the transformation with some as flowers that are blossoming.

This thrown from Petén Province in Guatemala shows two figures silhouetted in the eyes of an animate mountain. A complex political situation led to King K’inich Yat Ahk III accession to power

Some, while depicting the cycle of life, are fearsome night creatures. The ancient artists were deep into the mysticism of their age and many gods were creatures to be feared. But the artists, for the time period they were in, knew how to make intricate carvings, some six to eight feet tall while, as mentioned, were miniatures. During what was considered the “Classic Period,” A.D. 250-900, especially in the royal cities deep in the tropical jungles of Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, depicted a world in which godly, human and the natural world became enmeshed with one another. 

Today visitors to the ancient jungle city of Tikal, can see many of these monuments in their natural setting. The giant pyramid-like monuments peer above the green jungle cover. In days past when planes were permitted to fly into Tikal, the tops of the monuments peeking through the green jungle cover would bring a chill of excitement to the visitor. Flights were stopped years ago because the vibrations from the engines were causing damage to the monuments.

Working Title/Artist: Double-Chambered Vessel Department: AAOA Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 05 Working Date: 5th century photographed by mma DP101921 film and media (jn) 05_02_02

A special treat for those at the unveiling of the exhibit was a talk by Alejandro Rax Jul, in classic local clothing, told of the efforts to preserve and save the ancient artwork. He gave his talk in the local dialect, understood by no one. But the entire talk was then read in English.

Codex-style vessel showing the rebirth of the Maize God_Structure II, Tomb 1, Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico

Exhibits such as this one at The Met serve a critical purpose. They not only bring history to life, but they protect monuments and art, especially those located deep in the jungle, from destruction by vandals and those who seek to steal and profit. Very deep in the Guatemalan jungle, atop a slippery incline is a historic site guarded by one man who lives at the river’s edge. Those who manage to reach the top of the slope are rewarded with the sight of a number of stelae, tombstone-like monuments that have stood there for the millennia. One has a section missing. A crew from a Texas university flew in by helicopter and with a stone saw, cut a chunk out of it, flew back to Texas and put it on display at the university. It took the Guatemalan government years to get it back.

The Honduran Maize god’s slim body and handsome face evoke the beauty of ripening corn. His head. Like a maize cob is elongated and mostly bald except for a thick brow surrounding the face. Jewels enhance his gracious appearance

Incidents such as this make The Met’s display even more critical. While most museumgoers will never get to see the Mayan artwork in its natural habitat, slowly walking through the several galleries brings the culture of the Mayan to the visiting public. And by creating interest in the amazing work of the ancient artists, preserving the art for coming generations. 

Incense burner_Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

The exhibition is made possible by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, the Palcido Arango Fund, the Diane W. and James E. Burke Fund, the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund, The Mellon Foundation and the International Council of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition is organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Kimbell Art Museum. All objects are from mostly the seventh to ninth centuries. They are from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras.

Sak[. . .] Yuk[. . .] Took’ and Sak[. . .] Yib’ah Tzak B’ahlam_Stela 51_Calakmul, Mexico

Photos are courtesy of The Met and Bob Nesoff

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