Skip to Content

Polychrome Vase

Maya, Late Classic
650-900 CE
23.18 cm x 10.8 cm (9 1/8 in. x 4 1/4 in.)

On view


Additional Images
Click an image to view a larger version

This slender vessel with incurving walls depicts a palace scene showing a seated lord on his throne framed by two standing attendants or courtiers looking at two kneeling figures. The object boasts a rather uncommon combination of colors—black, maroon, orange, yellow, pink, and gray over a white background— depicting the grotesque features of two individuals that may have been considered humorous, contrasting with the lord’s physical perfection and the elegant appearance of the courtiers.
The vessel contains a hieroglyphic band around the rim in addition to four captions that occupy blank spaces across the scene. The rim band includes at least two statements of possession. Rim texts are often variations of the Primary Standard Sequence, but no elements of this well-known sequence are recognizable here. Equally difficult to read are the four captions, which may contain the names of some participants.
The composition is typical of courtly scenes in Classic Maya art. The hierarchy of the court is evident in the location, relative elevation, and posture of the figures. The enthroned lord appears comfortably seated on an elevated bench that effectively places him above all others. By contrast, the two attendants who stand on the floor on either side of the scene are represented in profile. Their conical headdresses often denote a higher status, such as that of scribes or priests.
The courtier in front of the lord makes a curious gesture, hiding his mouth and nose under his left arm. Is he simply showing deference, or is he perhaps containing his laughter and trying to refrain from smelling the unsightly character that kneels before him? Both interpretations are possible, considering the latter’s awkward appearance. The toad in the headdress of the kneeling figure on the left is hardly an inspiring animal figure, and the black scroll coming out of his blunted nose may indicate foul smell or disgusting mucus. He is probably related with the personified form of the /pa/ glyph, a dark, big-nosed character interpreted as a ceremonial clown, one of several burlesque figures associated with humorous performance, drinking, and sexual excess. While the companion’s face is not as hideous, his black and gray body and bloated belly with gray circle in the umbilical area appear both amusing and repulsive. A black, long-beaked bird on his headdress completes his unusual appearance. Both characters kneel respectfully before the throne, perhaps presenting the lord with a basketful of unidentified goods.
Palatial scenes in Classic Maya art often include depictions of dwarves and other unusual individuals who probably served as court attendants and buffoons. In some cases, such figures may have been important officers involved in royal administration.
Physically unlovely, the two kneeling figures are nevertheless well dressed. They are draped in brightly colored skirts that are embroidered with colorful patterns. The standing attendant on the left holds a long piece of cloth in his hand. The king himself wears a long mantle with complex designs that folds around his leg and hangs down casually in front of the bench. The artist who painted this vessel was especially preoccupied by the rich quality of clothing, giving us a glimpse of the grandeur of Classic Maya courts.

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. 447.

Coe, Michael D. 1975 Classic Maya Pottery at Dumbarton Oaks. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington. p. 22-23, cat. 13, pl. 13.

Kerr, Justin n.d. Maya Vase Database: An Archive of Rollout Photographs. URL: <>. cat. K2780.

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. 334-336, pl. 60, fig. 183.

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