The face that appears on this plaque is probably that of an Olmec deity associated with young, growing maize. The cleft on the central brow is a sign of fertility, and the short vertical lines at the sides of the brow are characteristic of the foliated aspect of the maize god. His fanged mouth is somewhat unusual and more typical of the feline features of the Olmec rain deity. The panels on either side of the face have a symmetrical pattern of crossed bands that is partially obliterated by a pair of large funnel-shaped holes that may represent or could support earspools. Worn as a pendant, belt ornament, or part of a headdress, this plaque would have made a remarkable statement in the accoutrement of the Olmec individual who owned it.
Many centuries later, it was acquired and probably worn by a Maya lord. The back of the plaque is incised with the image of a seated figure who is named in a glyph above his left shoulder and in the four-column text that records his accession to a seat of power. He is richly attired with an ornate belt, necklace, and ornaments around his upper arms and wrists. His large headdress is adorned with the head of the Jester God and topped by a personified tree, the axis mundi, both of which are symbols of kingly authority. The Maya emphasized veneration of the ancestors and the cyclical nature of time and the world. By reusing an object from an earlier era, the plaque’s new owner established a connection to the ancient past that may have enhanced his status and enabled him to claim special powers in the present. Courtly scenes and portraits from various sites show Maya nobles wearing Olmec-style jade ornaments. The fact that the Maya etchings were invisible when the plaque was worn suggests that this piece was valued, not as recycled raw material, but for the same beauty and antiquity that continue to impress the viewer to this day.
"The Blood of Kings: A New Interpretation of Maya Art", Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX, 5/17 - 8/24/1986; The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH, 10/8 - 12/14/1986.
"Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 6/30 - 10/20/1996.
"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/ - 9/10/06.
"Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico", Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, 10/2/2010 to 1/9/2011; de Young, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, 2/19/2011 to 5/8/2011.
"All Sides Considered: New Research on the Maya Collection:, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 9/8/12 - 6/2/13.
"Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas", The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles CA, 9/16/2017 - 1/28/2018; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York NY, 2/27/2018 - 5/28/2018.
Acquired from Mrs. Katherine W. Merkel by Dumbarton Oaks, 1964
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.