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This cylindrical, polychrome vessel exemplifies the Late Classic Maya court as a physical establishment and a collection of people. For it decoration, a white underslip over burnished clay is covered first by an orange slip and then, depending on the part of the vessel, a sequence of black, red, and a variety of near-purple slips. A final application of Maya blue was painted over areas of exposed white, which were reserved by the painter for this final, luminous touch. Glyphs in the rim-band text were created with broad outlines, and interior details were picked out with two increasingly thin sets of lines. Glyphs in the scene below receive a further refinement of mottled detail, of a sort attested on a few other Maya vessels. The glyph band above the second and third individuals in front of the ruler is outlined in white, recalling the white-rimmed palace walls shown nearby. Introducing the main caption in front of the ruler, another glyph is white and covered with blue pigment, as though in emphasis. A small caption near the lips of the principal interlocutor with the ruler has a text in alternating red and white. The paint may stress the unusual nature of these glyphs, which appear to report conversation.
The interior was adorned with vertical streaks, roughly executed, and wavering bands that appear to have been made with a large brush of multiple tines. The intent may have been to emulate the play of liquid within the vessel. For a cylindrical object, the pot has an unusually low ratio of height to diameter and a width of opening ill-suited to drinking. As with other large cylinders, it may have served more for frothing and storage of chocolate beverages before these could be dispensed to smaller containers. Both wide and narrow vessels appear in the image on the Dumbarton Oaks work, seeming to self-reference the staged use of the pot.
As with many such scenes this vessel shows only a small subset of the court, with no more than six individuals out of the dozens or hundreds who must have served the king. The work highlights a palatial setting, offering a glimpse of what must have been an imposing sprawl of buildings. The scene is one of charged interac¬tion. A ruler is on his throne, attended by oth¬ers, addressing or being supplicated by people seated in front of the royal dais. Protocol and etiquette—acted out by rules, gestures, and bodily dispositions—dominate the interaction. A collection of significant objects play a role, too. Other scenes of palace life focus on tribute, accenting the influx of wealth to the court. The Dumbarton Oaks vessel projects a tableau of measured hospitality, spare dress, and ornament, along with a prefiguring of athletic competition in the form of ballgame paraphernalia. A depiction of the favored few, the object could be appreciated by only a handful of viewers at a time. Presumably, those people would need to hold and turn the vessel, else it be difficult to understand in its totality. Grander productions of Classic dynasties broadcast their messages. A pot such as this one fostered instead a sense of close and privileged access, both in its content and mode of viewing.
The setting consists of pillars that support a horizontal mass—the roof of a palace. Pillars and roof alike are rimmed by white painted bands. Yet the space thus defined obeys no Euclidean rules: the figures appear to be in front of the pillars, yet the figure to the far left, in rollout view, is partly obscured by another vertical support.
Three heads are shown on the upper facade of the palace, and each represents the Jaguar God of the Underworld, a nocturnal aspect of the sun. Each head is partly surrounded by cloth and hung with three or four celts or polished adzes. Painted on one pillar is the head of a water-lily skull, read nahb, “lily, pool,” in the language of the Classic Maya inscriptions. Here, the nahb sign may express either the name of the building, the “structure of the lily” or “pool,” or its symbolic associations with a watery locale. Many Maya buildings of the elite or royalty were painted red, as here, but by serendipity the color happens also to mark Late Classic polychromes of this time, which had orange backgrounds, red foregrounds, and details given in other colors.
A throne, known to the Classic Maya as a teem, dominates the image. Circles and geometric shapes ornament its front side. A mat or cloth, delicately draped over one edge of the throne, gave the ruler some greater comfort, as did a pillow behind his back. To the right, also on the throne, is a set of ballgame gear shown as the Maya would have stored such items: a black cylinder serves as a last for a protective girdle, presumably easily warped in the tropical climate, and in front leans the main yugo (“yoke”) or protective element, here with small, illegible glyphs, that would have been lashed above the girdle. The yugo was likely of fixed size—most may have been carved of wood despite the many simulacra in stone—but the girdle, held fast by knotted cloth, could have been tightened or loosened depending on the wearer and his changing girth. In many scenes of ball play, the Maya would wear animal headdresses. As possible allusions to mythic opponents or passion plays of origins, these headdresses could even include, as in the example above the girdle, the head of a crocodile with an upturned snout. Two cylindrical vessels below imply future refreshment. Acts of consumption are more overtly shown by the servant offering dainty, bite-size tamales to the ruler; a plate below is filled with larger tamales, and the figure to the far left holds a drinking cup. Rather than redistribution, however, with food and drink bestowed on all, the scene points to the ruler’s meal only.
The figures in the scene are shown wearing heavy, dark body paint. Faces and hands are left exposed, except on the individual with feline headdress to the far left. The only exceptions to such paint are the servant and a second person seated in front of the throne. The hands were probably left unpainted for obvious reasons, as the pigment would have marked objects held in the scene. Throughout, ornament is spare—a few beads around the neck and ear ornaments of jade, cloth, or even flowers. Hair has been gathered, swept forward above the brow, and fastened with cloth. Several individuals, includ¬ing the ruler on this throne, have inserted bundles of quills into their headdresses. The loincloth wraps and kilts are held in place by twisting and knotting or by belts, their decoration includes glyphs. The servant differs in his use of a leather kilt, denoted by the crenellated edge that results from the process of preparing hides. First tacked onto a hard surface, the skin is then dried by exposure to heat or sun or daubing with salt; the skin retracts away from the attached areas, leaving the distinctive crenellation. The headdress of this figure is more that of a tributary in that it contains plumage and two Spondylus shells, both of which exemplify items of tribute worn by messengers and ambassadors. The hide, too, may have been taken off later for delivery to the ruler. The two figures directly in front of the throne are the only figures with sandals, the stitching clearly visible on the bottom of their feet. The others appear to be barefoot. Footwear may distinguish those who are local from those who are visiting.
A principal figure sits on a throne, torso oriented to the viewer. A servant or emissary is to his right, in profile, along with two other profile figures, possibly the two supplicants addressing the ruler. The figure on the viewer’s left side of the ruler crosses his arm in the customary pose of a subordinate figure. The other two individuals, positioned behind the others, seem to be lost in animated conversation. They are present physically but less involved in the principal focus. Their scene may represent the conversation between two possible visitors and the lord who condescends to receive them in a relatively intimate setting. The ballgame paraphernalia hint at actions just past or soon to come.
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"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 # 14).
"Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom", Princeton University Art Museumm, Princeton, NJ, 10/6/2012 - 2/17/2013
Purchased from Alphonse Jax, New York (dealer), by Dumbarton Oaks, 1968.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.