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Painted Vessel

Maya, Late Classic
650/750-900 CE
18.42 cm x 16.83 cm (7 1/4 in. x 6 5/8 in.)

On view


The presentation of gifts, offerings, or tribute is a major subject in Classic Maya painted pottery. From this depiction, it appears that the size, number, and contents of these goods were as important as the names and identities of the characters that gave and received them, or the places where these highly formalized events took place. As represented on ceramics, these items give tangible expression to the hierarchical relationships among members of the Maya courts.
The composition in this vase centers on a palatial setting, indicated by the drapery that runs across the upper part of the scene and the vertical glyphic panel positioned like a wall or pillar. Three seated figures are depicted on the vessel: a deity, a half-human creature, and a human figure. The first one, the highest-ranking character, is an old god with jaguar features that include a round eye with spiral pupil and dark spots on the forehead. His elevated status is reinforced by the ornamented jaguar-pelt cushion behind him, and by his elaborate headdress. A large flower, its aroma marked by the fret-nosed serpent that projects forward, is shown on the front of the headdress. The jaguar god here has his own serpentine breath scroll, which perhaps also denotes his precious breath.
The identification of the creature with the human body has proved controversial; some scholars considered it to be an opossum while others a fox. The netted headdress has been interpreted as a scribal badge with attached writing implements. This character presents the jaguar god with goods. As usual in Maya tributary scenes, the goods are carefully wrapped in bundles or served in plates and bowls whose contents are indicated by sample items painted above or in front of the wrapped bundles. Here, the god receives a plateful of shells, feathers, strings of beads, and a square bundle marked with a conical heap of a dark, grainy substance. While this material’s nature is difficult to ascertain, one possibility is that it represents dark mineral salt. A third bundle appears at the extreme left, next to the inscribed pillar, watched by the only character that has strictly human features. This bundle includes wrapped clothes, shells, and feathers. The presentation of tribute by such distinctive figures may correspond to details of an unknown mythical narrative that explained the nature of the presents and the circumstances of their bestowal.
The glyphic annotation on this vessel departs from the standards of Maya writing. While this and other examples suggest calligraphic expertise and a well-developed knowledge of texts, their content is problematic. Some signs are recognizable, but they may represent a localized variant of the Classic Maya script that remains largely unreadable.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1969 Supplement to the Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., cat. 442.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1974 Gestures and Offerings. In Primera Mesa Redonda De Palenque, Part 1, 1973, Merle Greene Robertson, ed., pp. 109-120. vol. 1. Robert Louis Stevenson School, Pre-Columbian Art Research, Pebble Beach. p. 114, fig. 9.

Coe, Michael D. 1975 Classic Maya Pottery at Dumbarton Oaks. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 17-18, cat. 9, pl. 9.

Coe, Michael D. and Justin Kerr 1998 The Art of the Maya Scribe. Harry N. Abrams, New York. pl. 68.

Fernández, Justino and Donald Robertson 1977 Del Arte: Homenaje a Justino Fernández. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, México, D.F., fig. 20.

Gallenkamp, Charles 1985 Maya: The Riddle and Rediscovery of a Lost Civilization. 3rd ed. Viking, New York. pl. 34.

Gallenkamp, Charles and Regina Elise Johnson (EDS.) 1985 Maya: Treasures of an Ancient Civilization. H.N. Abrams, New York. p. 167.

Graham, Ian 1971 The Art of Maya Hieroglyphic Writing; January 28-March 28, 1971; an Exhibition in the Art Gallery, Center for Inter-American Relations. Harvard University Printing Office, Cambridge. p. 42, cat. 23.

Kerr, Justin (ED.) 1992 The Maya Vase Book. 3. Kerr Associates, New York. p. 473, cat. K4339.

Kerr, Justin n.d. Maya Vase Database: An Archive of Rollout Photographs. URL: <>. cat. K4339.

Pillsbury, Joanne, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito and Alexandre Tokovinine (EDS.) 2012 Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 366-368, pl. 67, fig. 201.

Werness, Hope B. 2004 The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. Continuum, New York. p. 185.

Exhibition History
"The Art of Maya Hieroglyphic Writing", Art Gallery of the Center for Inter-American Relations, New York, NY, 1/29 - 3/31/1971; Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 5/1 - 6/30/1971 (catalogue # 23).

"Maya: Treasures of an Ancient Civilization", American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY, 5/1 - 7/28/1985; Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA, 8/28 - 11/3/1985; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX, 12/15/1985 - 2/16/1986; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada, 3/23 - 6/15/1986; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Fine Arts, Kansas City, MO, 7/20 - 10/15/1986; The Albuquerque Museum, Albuquerque, NM, 11/16/1986 - 2/8/1987.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Edward Merrin (The Merrin Gallery), New York (dealer), by Dumbarton Oaks, 1967.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.

Animals | Mayas