Cacao was a sacred plant, an offering, a delicacy, a ceremonial drink, a muse for artists and writers, a tribute item, and a currency in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Maya elites so prized this remarkable fruit that many of them were buried with vessels such as this one, decorated with carved references to cacao and probably once filled with a chocolate drink to feed the spirit of the deceased.
This bowl is decorated with three oval cartouches containing bas-relief carvings and interspersed with columns of large glyphs. The figure represented in the two remaining cartouches (the third has been destroyed) displays tattoo-like earth markings on his limbs and torso, and striped cacao pods grow from various places on his body. He wears composite earspools and a beaded necklace, bracelets, anklets, and a belt, and sits on or floats above a woven throne, here covered with jaguar skin. He wears a “jeweled Ajaw” headdress, and points toward a necked jar, presumably one containing a chocolate drink.
This impressive personage may personify a cacao plant or possibly a Chocolate God. The Maya used various vessel types to serve chocolate, but they apparently favored hemispherical bowls such as this one for drinks that they wished to keep cool. They consumed chocolate variously as a drink, porridge, powder, or solid substance, often mixing it with other ingredients or flavorings, including chili peppers, an herb called itsimte, and a still-unidentified flavor labeled yutal in Classic Maya writings. Like the Aztecs, Maya nobles preferred a chocolate drink that was frothy and considered foam to be the most desirable part of the drink. In order to create large amounts of foam, Maya women poured liquid chocolate repeatedly from one tall vessel into another.
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"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, May 1948 to July 1962.
"I Maya", Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy, 9/6/1998 - 5/16/1999.
"Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 4/4 - 7/25/2004; California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA, 9/4/2004 - 1/2/2005.
"Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, 9/9/2005 - 1/8/2006; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX, 2/12 - 5/7/2006; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, 6/11/ - 9/10/2006.
Purchased from William Spratling by Joseph Brummer, New York (dealer), October 1, 1940;
Joseph Brummer, New York, dealer, 1940-1947;
Purchased from Ernest Brummer, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, June 17, 1947;
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1947-1962;
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.