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Polychrome Vase

Maya, Late Classic
650/750-900 CE
25.4 cm x 19.69 cm (10 in. x 7 3/4 in.)

On view


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This large, barrel-shaped vessel bears a polychrome painted image of a palace interior with nine figures that form two scenes. The dominant scene shows an enthroned ruler surrounded by attendants, and gifts or tribute are set before the throne. On another side of the vessel, two individuals engage in bloodletting auto-sacrifice—one figure through his tongue and the other through his penis. The two scenes are within the same pictorial and narrative space that wraps around the vessel, and it is possible that they portray concurrent events. Alternatively, these actions may be moments in a sequential narrative that involves at least one of the same characters, the enthroned ruler. The two scenes, in fact, may be interrelated, with the bloodletting rite a crucial part of the enthronement ceremony in which the ruler impersonates an aspect of the sun god.
In this palace scene, the ruler sits on a raised bench with a large white cushion at his back. The focus is on him: his centrality is emphasized both by the gaze of the other figures and by the overall pyramidal composition, of which his head is the highest point. This arrangement was common in ancient Maya art, especially in palace scenes. Six men surround the throne; all of them wear white hip cloths, and, like the ruler, the figures bear solar attributes—including a black hairy cape and jaguar pelage on the chin or a triangle of spots on the cheek—although none wear the elaborated centipede headdress of the ruler. The men are in two groups, distinguished by their headdresses and placement in the overall composition: three are to the right, behind the throne, and three are seated to the left, in front of the ruler. The three men at right wear the tall white headdresses of priests or other court functionaries; the two standing figures have brushes or pens sticking out of the base of their headdresses. The three men seated before the ruler wear compact but elaborate headdresses adorned with feathers, scrolls, and bright-orange jaguar ears. Behind the ruler, on the bench, is a large bowl on a stand, and before him, on the floor, are several bundles, one of which is topped with gray (once green) feathers, all gifts or tribute to the enthroned ruler.
Abutting one side of the palace scene are two standing males who face each other, and both men perform an act of bloodletting: one (on the left) runs a cord through his tongue; the other (on the right) pierces his penis with a sharp instrument. On the floor at their feet are two bowls; they are now gray but presumably were once green. One bowl has the bloodletting cord coiled in it. This cord hangs from the figure’s hands and drops into the bowl, where the shed blood pools. This man wears a white death collar with extruded eyeballs and a headdress consisting of a stacked turban and a bird. The bird resembles a parrot, but that may be due to poor modern restoration, for there is a crack through the bird’s head that was repaired. Instead, the long tail that curves back over the bird’s body strongly indicates it is a quetzal, an animal with solar associations.
The other male holds a pointed instrument in his groin area, and although his genitals are concealed, penis perforation for bloodletting is implied. This man wears the same headdress as the enthroned ruler, which consists of a winding centipede with death eyes on the body and quetzal feathers emerging from the mouth. He also has a cape of long cords adorned with white elements that may be flowers or Spondylus shells.
The vessel has an even background of light-tan slip with an orange or pinkish hue that is evenly spread around the exterior. Thin black lines edged with orange washes suggest architectural forms, and thin black outlines filled with color render the human bodies. Varying shades of brown, some with an orange hue, were used for skin colors on the bodies. White slip was used for costume and architectural elements, and green (now gray) was used for headdresses, jewelry, bloodletting bowls, and the feathers on the bundle. A bright-orange wash accentuates costumes and other elements, including the headdresses, the jaguar pelage on faces, and the bloodletting cord and penis perforator. A few vertical and horizontal black lines highlighted by orange suggest walls, a niche, a bench, and floors of an interior architectural space.

Baudez, Claude-Francois 2012 La Douleur Redemptrice: L'autosacrifice Precolombien. Riveneuve, Paris. p. 38-39, fig. Intro 9.

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. 445.

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. Palenque Round Table Series. 2 vols. Robert Louis Stevenson School, Pre-Columbian Art Research, Pebble Beach, CA. vol. 1, p. 110, fig. 3.

Coe, Michael D. 1975 Classic Maya Pottery at Dumbarton Oaks. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington. p. 25-26, cat. 15, pl. 15.

Joralemon, David 1974 Ritual Blood-Sacrifice among the Ancient Maya: Part 1. 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 2), Merle Greene Robertson Robertson, ed., pp. 59-75. Palenque Round Table (1 Session, 1973). 2 vols. Robert Louis Stevenson School, Pre-Columbian Art Research, Pebble Beach, CA. vol. 2, fig. 1.

Joyce, Rosemary 2000 Pre-Columbian Gaze: Male Sexuality among the Ancient Maya. In Archaeologies of Sexuality, Robert A. Schmidt and Barbara L. Voss, eds. Routledge, London; New York. p. 274-275.

Kerr, Justin n.d. Maya Vase Database: An Archive of Rollout Photographs. URL: <>. cat. K2783.

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. 344-353, pl. 62, fig. 187-192.

Schele, Linda and Mary Ellen Miller 1986 The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Repr. with corrections. ed. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. p. 201-203, pl. 68.

Exhibition History
"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.

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

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

Anthropomorphic | Mayas