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Polychrome Cup

Maya, Late Classic
650-900 CE
11.43 cm x 11.75 cm (4 1/2 in. x 4 5/8 in.)

Not on view


Additional Images
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The Maya lord on this vessel sits cross-legged, facing the viewer, and leans to his right to stare into a large mirror. He is assisted by two male attendants, facing him on the left, one of whom holds the mirror while the other looks on, bringing both hands to his mouth. Between them is a bowl or basket that contains regalia. The mirror, depicted in black, would have been made of obsidian, hematite, or iron pyrite. It is encased in a large frame made of ceramic, basketry, or more probably wood, like the mirror in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection (see PC.B.078).

The scene takes place inside a palace or temple. The architecture is suggested by the red stripes lining the top and bottom of the vessel and the walls of the palace are decorated with small pseudoglyphs that convey only the concept of recorded speech. The artist may have been illiterate or, more likely, he considered that the graphic detail of this scene spoke for itself without the need for glyphic interpretation. Maya languages do not distinguish between drawing, painting, and writing—all modes of visual communication that require the use of a brush.

A decorated vessel displayed prominently to the left of the lord makes a clever selfreference to the importance of ceramic arts in Maya courtly life. Finely painted pottery was used as high-status serving ware during ceremonial events. Ceramics also held special offerings in dedication or burial rituals. Moreover, some vessels were traded or offered as gifts among the elite of different sites as a way to cultivate relationships and cement alliances, crucial measures in the complex political climate of the Late Classic period.

Barbachano Ponce, Manuel 1978 Los Mayas: The Manuel Barbachano Ponce Mayan Art Collection. Rothmans of Pall Mall Canada, Toronto. p. 4.

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. 446.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1974 Gestures and Offerings. In Primera Mesa Redonda De Palenque: A Conference on the Art, Iconography, and Dynastic History of Palenque, Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, December 14-22, 1973 (Part 1), Merle Greene Robertson, ed. 2 vols. Robert Louis Stevenson School Pre-Columbian Art Research, Pebble Beach, CA. vol. 1, fig. 11.

Bühl, Gudrun (ED.) 2008 Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 218-219.

Coe, Michael D. 1975 Classic Maya Pottery at Dumbarton Oaks. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 21, cat. 12, pl. 12.

Coe, Michael D. and Justin Kerr 1998 The Art of the Maya Scribe. Harry N. Abrams, New York. p. 96, 98, pl. 26.

Fernández, Justino and Donald Robertson 1977 Del Arte: Homenaje a Justino Fernández. 1st ed. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, México, D.F., fig. 13.

Gallenkamp, Charles 1985 Maya: The Riddle and Rediscovery of a Lost Civilization. 3rd ed. Viking, New York. ill. 56.

Jackson, Sarah 2009 Imagining Courtly Communities: An Exploration of Classic Maya Experiences of Status and Identity through Painted Ceramic Vessels. Ancient Mesoamerica 20 (1):71-85. p. 74-75, fig. 4.

Jones, Julie 2010 From the National Gallery of Art to Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Peru. In Adventures in Pre-Columbian Studies: Essays in Honor of Elizabeth P. Benson, Julie Jones, ed., pp. 23-48. Pre-Columbian Society of Washington D.C., Washington, D.C., p. 38, fig. 11.

Kerr, Justin n.d. Maya Vase Data Base: An Archive of Rollout Photographs., URL: <>. cat. K4338.

Maurer, Kathryn Elizabeth n.d. Ancient Images, Modern Visions: Representations of Maya Identity in Belize. Ph.D. doctoral thesis, Department of Folklore and Mythology, University of California, Los Angeles, 1997, Los Angeles. p. 2, fig. 2.

Miller, Mary Ellen, Simon Martin and Kathleen Berrin (EDS.) 2004 Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Thames & Hudson, New York. p. 33, pl. 4.

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. 322-325, pl. 57, fig. 178.

Reents-Budet, Dorie 1994 Classic Maya Pottery Painting. American Ceramics 11 (3):28-33. p. 30-31.

Reents-Budet, Dorie (ED.) 1994 Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period. Duke University Press, Durham. p. 91, 142, 321.

Werness, Hope B. 1999 The Symbolism of Mirrors in Art from Ancient Times to the Present. Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY. p. 68-69.

Exhibition History
"Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period", The Duke University Museum of Art, Durham, NC, 1/15 - 3/27/1994; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, 4/15 - 6/26/1994; Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO, 7/15 - 9/15/1994; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, 10/6/1994 - 1/8/1995; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, 2/10 - 4/23/1995 (catalogue # 40).

"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.

"Pass It On: Visual Communication in the Pre-Columbian World", Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 10/10/2008 - 5/1/2009.

"Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World", The Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, 11/19/2011 - 4/9/2012; Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau, 5/18/ - 10/18/12.

"Drink and Prosper", Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 4/1/2015 to 8/24/2015.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Alphonse Jax, New York (dealer), by Dumbarton Oaks, 1969.

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

Glyphs | Mayas | Mirrors | Palaces | Vases