This thick-walled vessel, originally thought to have been made from onyx marble or alabaster, is, in fact, carved from a pinkish carbonate rock or rose quartz with pink/brown inclusions. The source for this unusual carbonate rock is still unknown, although the inscription suggests that the bowl may be from the area of Palenque or Tortuguero, in Chiapas, Mexico.
The bearded cross-legged figure, identified as a portrait of the second king in the Palenque dynasty, faces to the viewer’s left and wears an elegant turban with a knot at the back. The headdress, made from a mosaic of jade or shell pieces, is not unlike the headdress on a Late Classic shell plaque in the Robert Woods Bliss Pre-Columbian Collection (PC.B.556). The figure’s right foot is visible beneath his left knee, and his hair is gathered and held together with a simple ornament. He wears an unusually large earflare and a substantial necklace of circular beads with counterweights extending down his back. The figure’s left hand rests in his lap, and he appears either to be holding something or—and this is the more likely scenario—the area simply is not fully cut out. The right hand extends below his knee, past the rounded curve of the vessel bottom, and gestures as if pointing to the inscription.
The bowl is unusual for several reasons, among them the nature of the material, which is rare in the extant archaeological record. The figure itself, though apparently a beautifully executed portrait of an elite man, is unusual for the heavy beard.
The inscription on the vessel consists of four hieroglyphic blocks read from left to right. The name of this ruler remains undeciphered and the nickname “Casper” is sometimes used. Thanks to the inscription on the tablet in the sanctuary of the late seventh-century Temple of the Cross at Palenque, we know that this ruler was born in 422, acceded to his office in 435, and probably died before 487, when his successor became king. The fact that the inscription provides him with a full emblem glyph title and yet calls him “young” implies that the vessel was commissioned shortly after his accession, when he was still not of adult age and/or remained unmarried. The text does not confirm that the bearded man depicted on the work is Ruler 2, though it is usually assumed that the image is his portrait.
A testament to the skill of Early Classic Maya carvers, this remarkable stone bowl offers a unique glimpse into the origins of the rulers of Palenque, one of the greatest cities of the southern Maya Lowlands. Once the property of “Casper,” the second historical king in this dynasty, this vessel demonstrates his royal ambition and capacity to commission such an exquisite object, substantiating later written accounts from Palenque.
Pasadena Art Institute, Pasadena, California, 1963
"Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World", The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 11/19/11 to 4/9/12; Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau, 5/18 - 10/18/12.
Acquired by exchange from Alfred Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), 1966.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.