Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 13, 2018
Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. 304 pp.; 99 color ills.; 71 b/w ills. Hardcover $65.00 (9780300207170)

The works of art commissioned by ancient Maya royal courts captivate and confound. Hieroglyphic captions accompany images of kings, queens, and noble families, but ancient voices on gods, the cosmos, and epic heroes are idiosyncratic at best, opaque at worst. Intuition guided early scholarly interpretations, buttressed by colonial texts, such as the sixteenth-century K’iche Maya Popol Vuh, which seemingly held a wealth of analogous descriptions for colorful Classic-period (ca. 250–900 CE) characters. As decipherment has progressed in recent years, a clearer vision of Precolumbian Maya thought became possible, but considerable insights can still be gained from later stories on the rich mythological world of Mesoamerica. Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya zooms out from Classic Maya mythological imagery and places it within a broader framework of Mesoamerican myths of presumably deep antiquity. To accomplish this goal, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos includes exhaustive discussions of variations on myths from the Classic period, colonial ethnohistoric documents, and modern ethnographic tales. This book is a welcome comprehensive update to the field of Maya studies and Mesoamerican art in general.

For English speakers who are not familiar with the innovative narrative catalogue (in Spanish) of the collection of ancient Maya art in the Guatemalan Museo Popol Vuh that Chinchilla (now assistant professor of Anthropology, Yale University) created during his tenure as curator there, this volume is an illuminating window into this scholar’s wide-ranging and deep understanding of Maya art and history (see his Imágenes de la Mitología Maya, 2011). As with the earlier book, Chinchilla provides provocative interpretations that depart from widely held or assumed readings of well-known scenes in Maya art. The current volume also provides a significant methodological contribution to the iconographic analysis of Maya imagery in the first chapter, especially the application of Alfredo López Austin’s concept of mythological “nodal subjects.” As defined, nodal subjects are “underlying narrative structures, which tend to remain stable in different versions of a myth” (24). Nodal subjects identified from Mesoamerican myths, therefore, could form the basis of a comparative analysis of Maya visual narratives. Subsequent chapters zero in on these nodal subjects: the Maiden, the Grandmother, the Sun’s Opponents, the Sun, the Perfect Youth, and the Father.

Inflected with rich art-historical descriptions of some of the undisputed masterpieces of Maya art, Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya is in line with current scholarship reexamining the connectedness among peoples of Mesoamerica and, indeed, the Americas in general (see Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy Potts, and Kim N. Richter, eds., Golden Kingdoms: Luxury Arts in the Ancient Americas, 2017). The illustrations are useful to Maya scholars as are the rare pre-restoration photographs along with historical drawings and new renderings by the author of relevant details. Though comprehensive, the collection of images published here pales in comparison with Chinchilla’s indispensable and highly detailed accounts of many well-known, and some quite obscure, textual sources for Mesoamerican myths from the colonial and modern eras.

In fact, one new and controversial approach employed here is to give seemingly equal weight to the information gleaned from hieroglyphic inscriptions, colonial texts, and modern oral tales recorded in the twentieth century. Chinchilla states this explicitly, calling it a “mistake to take mythical accounts from the Palenque or Quiriguá inscriptions as paradigmatic of Maya mythology in general” (41). To double down on this contention, the second chapter provides a detailed historiography of the oft-cited colonial Popol Vuh to anchor it in its historical context, just as epigraphers have done with the Classic Maya mythological texts at Palenque and Quiriguá. The author does not, however, adhere to a mechanical devotion to the Popol Vuh, or to colonial texts in general; he acknowledges that the K’iche story and related Maya and Central Mexican myths exclude “entire regions and linguistic groups” (50). In this way, Chinchilla successfully strikes a balance between earlier studies that yearned for Popol Vuh equivalencies and others that shy away from the colonial sources altogether.

The most important contribution of this volume is the cogent argument that ancient Maya myths should be “best understood as Mesoamerican myths” (5). Chapter 3 is a straightforward structuring of Mesoamerican creation through a Maya lens, but with helpful discussions of alternative versions of various stories through time and space. While this chapter underscores the importance of the Popol Vuh among contemporaneous or later versions of thought, it leaves the reader wondering what if any evidence the Classic Maya visual narratives contain. For example, in the discussion of “the eras” (60–62), how did the depiction of the Classic Maya 4 Ajaw “creation” in 3114 BCE depart from or align with Mesoamerican ideas about previous eras? The fact that the Vase of 11 Gods (or the comparable Vase of the 7 Gods) refers explicitly to the “ordering” of gods (or, in Chinchilla’s gloss, “alignment," 36) on a date of creation implies an unordered moment before this scene. Even though the author downplays the possibility later (79–81), what is to be made of this implicit account of a previous era? He does this successfully elsewhere, as in the discussion of the Three Gods Enthroned Vase, where the Classic characters are connected to similar archetypal roles in modern myths of a suitor, a father-in-law-to-be, and a youthful maiden to be married off. Overall, this chapter serves as a vital resource for a succinct and coherent reading of diverse sources on Mesoamerican cosmogony, complete with a rich bibliography for all those studying Maya religious concepts through time.

The author’s treatment is most successful when discussing certain visual narratives that appear across time and media in the ancient Maya context, such as the avian creatures in the chapter on the Sun’s Opponents. Although underscoring the importance of the Popol Vuh for interpreting Classic Maya subjects such as the so-called Headband Twins and the Maize God, Chinchilla prefers instead to eschew the one-to-one correlations of previous authors. His updated interpretation of the diverse depictions of the Maize God is most welcome, especially the discussion of lunar aspects of the deity. This section draws most closely upon Classic Maya sources, and serves as a model for how to reconstruct the ways in which artists aestheticized the divine aspects of their staple crop. Chinchilla also points out some inconsistencies with current interpretations that deserve more attention; for example, Classic Period artists seem to depict the Maize God and the Headband Twins as the same age, or from the same generation, rather than as father and sons, as is suggested by the Popol Vuh (223). Similarly, a lack of explicit depictions of the Headband Twins as part of the extensive iconographic complexes that the Classic Maya employed for the sun and the moon does not align well with solar and lunar associations of modern mythic heroes.

In some places, especially chapter 7 on the Sun, Chinchilla does not delve into Classic representations of other deities not featured prominently in colonial or modern sources. It could have been worth revisiting the Sun God pictured in the Regal Rabbit vase. This god was so intertwined with Classic Maya royalty that many take part of its name (K’inich) as their regnal moniker. In the same chapter, perhaps an inclusion of recent research on what has been argued to be the nighttime version of the sun, a major feature of Classic Maya art only briefly mentioned in this text (75), would have complemented the solar discussion (see Karl Taube and Stephen Houston, “Masks and Iconography,” in Temple of the Night Sun: A Royal Tomb at El Diablo, Guatemala, 2015).

Certain features of oral myths or colonial descriptions, such as the vagina dentata, may be borne out as additional Classic Maya discoveries comes to light. From current evidence, it seems that Classic Maya painters and sculptors did not depict toothed vaginas on painted ceramics, or even on humans in general. Chinchilla suggests that serpents or centipedes may be allegorical images of such among Maya queens, though some serpents are explicitly mentioned by name as having been conjured by said queens in the hieroglyphic texts. Other concepts described by Chinchilla that survive in later myths, pertaining to the Grandmother particularly, serve as potential road maps for interpreting new imagery from future archaeological excavations. This sophisticated, stimulating book provides many such tantalizing food-for-thought moments for both specialists and admirers of Maya art.

James A. Doyle
Assistant Curator, Art of the Ancient Americas, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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