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Photo Credit: © Dumbarton Oaks, Pre-Columbian Collection. Photography by Joseph Mills.

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Figurine of Embracing Couple

Maya, Late Classic
650-800 CE
25.72 cm x 13.34 cm x 8.57 cm (10 1/8 in. x 5 1/4 in. x 3 3/8 in.)
post-fire painted ceramic

On view


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An amorous old man and a young maiden stand in three-quarter view, each with an arm around the other’s waist. He has a shriveled face and bald head, but his huge deer headdress identifies him as a person of importance. The woman is young and beautiful, with a rounded face, closely set eyes, and a flattened forehead that is accentuated by her elaborate coiffure. Both she and her lover are richly attired, and while he lifts her skirt with his left hand, she caresses his cheek with her right hand.

A Classic Maya viewer would likely have found the figure shocking or grotesque. Although the pairing of an old man and a young woman may have been quite natural in a polygamous society, its representation in art was not. Maya artists of this period portrayed men of all ages as young and strong, and they seldom depicted women except in secondary roles (see PC.B.528). Moreover, they generally avoided blatantly sexual themes, except in a few cases such as this, where a woman invariably embraces either an elderly man or an anthropomorphized animal. This has confounded scholars; some suggest that the embrace refers to the mythical pairing of deities, while others argue that the scene is deliberately burlesque, a visual parody of inappropriate sexuality.

This figure is in the Jaina style, named for an island in the Gulf of Mexico where many were reportedly found in burials. It is hollow, made partly with a pottery mold and partly by hand. The back incorporates a whistle that can be played if the figures are turned upside down. The brilliant blue of the figures’ accoutrements is known as Maya blue, a durable pigment made by mixing and heating indigo (a vegetable dye) with a special clay found only in Yucatan. The resulting pigment, highly resistant to the effects of lights, acids, and time, gives Jaina figurines their vibrant hues.

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Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, July 1954 to July 1962.

(photo only) "The Arts of Latin America", UNESCO traveling photographic exhibition, Paris, France, no. 52.

"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.

"Lasting Impressions: Body Art in the Ancient Americas" , Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2011 - 3/4/2012.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1954.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1954-1962.

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

Anthropomorphic | Jaina | Mayas