by James Doyle, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Stephen Houston, Brown University
Expressing metaphors for a constantly shifting reality is a human universal, especially during the mid-8th century AD. At that time, in the center of the Yucatan peninsula, royal courts were on the cusp of political and demographic upheaval. Yet, in a signal irony—and perhaps as a cause?—they managed to sponsor innovative architectural and artistic programs. Consider the vase painters in and around Calakmul, Campeche, at c. AD 750.
The sheer volume of codex-style vessels, produced within a very few generations, suggest that ateliers were scaling up production for the struggling royal court and assertive sub-royals in sites nearby. Lack of archaeological context and legible texts impedes deeper understanding of the circumstances under which such paintings were produced (but see Delvendahl 2008:125-128; García Barrios 2011). A suggestive comparison, though, could be made with the proliferation of lintels and panels in the Usumacinta region within the Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras kingdoms: that is, art was distributed in exchange for loyalty and tribute when such had become, perhaps, more precarious (Martin and Grube 2008:135-137, 153).
Only slightly more than 20 painters are identified by name in the Classic period, far fewer than the ca. 120 sculptors who signed works in stone (Houston 2016; Houston, Stuart, and Fash 2014; Stuart 1987, 1989). Recent studies have traced the oeuvres of individual vase painters in specific temporal contexts (see Just 2012). Without scribal signatures, however, researchers are left to the detailed study of the “hands” of Classic Maya artists. This is an evaluation that rests on habitual, “unconscious” details, as pioneered by Giovanni Morelli, Bernard Berenson, and others for Renaissance masters such as Raphael, or by John Beazley for Classical Greek painters (See Beazley 1911, 1946; Berenson 1901, 1903; Morelli 1900; Wollheim 1974). Such work could be tedious to an extreme, and highly subjective. Morelli himself, founder of such studies, admitted that it required “long practice” and that each eye might see different patterns.
Certain Maya painting styles nevertheless lend themselves to identifying artists’ hands. The limited number of variables and limited palette within the corpus of codex-style painting facilitate that search. This opportunity was recognized by Justin and Barbara Kerr in the early years of their valuable and innovative documentation of Maya ceramics (Kerr and Kerr 1988). The Kerrs proposed the existence of several codex-style masters on the basis of details revealed through close study of brush flourishes or the execution of hands, feet, and other minutiae. We were recently invited by Mary Miller to honor Justin Kerr at a special session in the 2017 College Art Association meeting and decided to revisit this important contribution.
The presentation coincided with the publication of an article celebrating codex-style vessels in the recent Metropolitan Museum Journal, Creation Narratives on Ancient Maya Codex-Style Ceramics in the Metropolitan Museum, and a concurrent Maya codex-style installation at The Met. All depict the Classic Maya rain god, Chahk, in typical codex style. Red bands and black calligraphic line fill a cream or light beige background. Washes embellish figures, fluids, and the hieroglyphic texts that accompany them. In this genre, undulating shapes tend to dominate, along with a decided abhorrence of straight lines. Michael Coe called this “whiplash” calligraphy, endowed with lines that seem to curve and “snap” with vigorous energy (Coe 1973:91). New rollout photos, inspired by the Kerrs’ original work, include a hi-res image of the Metropolitan Vase and its visual narrative pertaining to the birth of a mythological infant jaguar deity. This vessel anchored one of the groups identified by the Kerrs, who identified a workshop controlled by a painter they dubbed the “Metropolitan Master.”
One codex-style masterwork not included in the Kerr’s original study was the unusually large tripod plate studied by Linda Schele and Mary Miller in their landmark exhibition, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Nicknamed the “Cosmic Plate” for its dense imagery, cosmogonic themes, and fineness of execution, it is a unique work, with few peers in terms of size, ambition, and care of painting (Figure 1, for a close competitor in quality, see, however, see Coe and Houston 2015:pl. XVIII). In producing a new line drawing of the plate’s great Chahk representation from Justin Kerr’s photos, Doyle quickly realized that advances in knowledge allowed for a fresh study of this masterpiece.
Fig. 1 Tripod plate showing Chahk as the great progenitor, 7th–8th century AD. Guatemala or Mexico, Maya, Late Classic. Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip, Diam. approx. 16 1/2 in. (42 cm). Private collection, photo by Justin Kerr, ©Kerr Associates.
The monumental plate is an object made for display, likely at feasting occasions in the royal court (in fact, few known Maya plates are so large—one example, impressive in size yet smaller than the “Cosmic Plate,” is a 31 cm-diameter Hutzijan polychrome plate excavated in Structure C-10 at Piedras Negras, see Muñoz 2004:103). A plate like this one could have been a grand diplomatic gesture, a gift between Maya rulers. The codex style is clearly a hallmark of the royal courts and loyal local palaces around the great city of Calakmul, straddling the border between southern Campeche and northern Guatemala (see Hansen et al. 1991; Reents-Budet et al. 2010). In our view, two potential models might explain the circulation of codex-style vessels: (1) non-royal political leaders commissioned them; or, more likely, (2) the most exquisite and elaborate were bestowed by the rulers of Calakmul itself. Perhaps local lords received handsome presents in return for their loyalty, through low-cost rewards distributed by the center. After all, a painted pot reveals deep training, but its making demanded only negligible expense in materials, time, and fuel for firing. Recall the high value that scholars had long-assumed for certain Athenian ceramics. In a provocative argument, Michael Vickers and David Gill (1994) suggested that this was a latter-day projection, one inconsistent with an actual, ancient emphasis on vessels of precious metals.
On the Cosmic Plate, the outer walls of its sloping rim are boldly painted with watery motifs, visible from afar, that include swirls, registers of droplets, and waterlily vegetation (Figure 2). The delicate main scene on the upper surface, however, would only have been visible by those directly above the plate at close range. The potter and painter collaborated on a clever conceit. The three feet of the vessel imitate downpours, a vertical deluge of concentrated form—these occur routinely in the Yucatan peninsula. In this case, columns of rain appear to precipitate from the plate itself and the watery milieu on its exterior.
Fig. 2. Detail of the outside of the tripod plate and supports. Private collection, photo by Justin Kerr, ©Kerr Associates.
Traits on the Chahk plate—including the form of certain common motifs, the singular aspects of its composition, and the virtuoso brushwork over the large surface—distinguish it from almost all other Maya ceramic paintings. Some have argued that three vessels in the Princeton University Art Museum come from the same hand, executed by the painter ?-n Buluch? Laj, and painted around AD 755 (Robiscek and Hales 1983:249; see Just 2012). Indeed, the portrayal of a jaguar on the largest of those vessels invites close comparison with the howling jaguar growing from Chahk’s head. But the hypothesis that ?-n Buluch? Laj also painted the great Chahk plate raises a number of questions about painterly practice.
Maya vase painters appear to have experimented with different styles. The Princeton vases were likely commissioned by a Peten Itza king in north-central Guatemala. Hypothetically, the Cosmic Plate either came from there or from Calakmul, although still influenced by exemplary works to the south. The renowned “Altar vase,” clearly from the Ik’ kingdom near Peten Itza, proves that such pots traveled far and wide (Just 2012:142-149). Another source of inspiration might have been circulating books or paintings. Imperial China is known to have had such exchange, and scrolls gained uniformity, often over vast areas, by their energetic dispersion, study, and copying (see Miller 1998:216-218).
Whether the plate is the lone known work of a master or not, its unrecorded artist certainly fused the mythic and the historical in microcosmic form. The mythic frame of the narrative describes the context of the sprouting Chahk in deep time and in linked primordial locations. The fictive date of 13 Ok 8 Zotz must be significant to wider Maya myths: that Calendar Round appears in the Dresden Codex, in reference to the planet Venus, a point recognized by David Stuart (Miller and Schele 1986:310-312, pl. 122). Three Venus signs as well as the frontal and rear parts of the body of the celestial “starry Deer Crocodile” appear on either side of the upper scene, signifying the sky as the upper part of the composition (Martin 2015; Velásquez García 2006:Fig. 5). A celestial bird carries what appears to be the month name, 4 Ceh.
On the 13 Ok 8 Zotz date, an event “happened” (utiiy). This form of the verb has been suggested by David Stuart (personal communication, 1992) to refer to actions in remote time. The ancient subject seems to be k’uhul jinaj ? or “sacred milpa/planted-maize water,” perhaps a reference to the sprouting of maize, as part of a phrase consistent with the overall theme of emerging vegetation (Figure 3).
Fig. 3. Hieroglyphic text describing events in mythological time and the four god names.
The scribe went on to describe the mythological setting in triplet form: it “happened” (utiiy, this time in a more conventional, syllabic spelling) “at the black cenote, at the black water, at the five-flower house (?).” The agents at the event in deep time are probably described as the four gods of matawil (4 ma-ta-K’UH), which could be a reference to a watery paradise (Stuart and Stuart 2008: 211-215). The gods are named as a feline or jaguar (hi-HIX)—he appears here, roaring, head-back—we suspect (the text is eroded), the presence of two other gods in addition to the Chak-Xib-Chahk at the center (Stuart was the first to identify this version of Chahk—others are known in the Dresden Codex and at Itzan, among other places; the connection to “red,” Chak, may be purely coloristic or refer to a direction, East). The text accords with visual clues to that toponymy. The centipede’s jaws, in a reference to the black cenote, frame Chahk’s watery emergence from a heavy register marked with the same hieroglyph for black water. There might also be a specific seasonal aspect to the scene, found in the single glyph blocks that flank the jaguar. These are variants of Wind God and sun-related glyphs, similar to the two glyphs born by characters in the Lamb panel from “Laxtunich” (Schele 1990:2).
Chahk is the undisputed protagonist as he rises waist-deep from the “black water.” He takes the form of an active, dancing character, perhaps a releaser of vegetation, and is shown in other depictions poised to chop with his axe. He wears his characteristic Spondylus earspools and holds the lightning axe symbolic of K’awiil. The main image of the scene is the branching head and left arm of the rain deity, with many sprouting beings (Figure 4). These include the large serpent to the left, the jaguar mentioned above, and a large “jester god” in the upper right that is recognizable by its crossed-bands motif. Th text is eroded and its details uncertain, but some of these could correspond the four gods of matawil mentioned in the text, including Chahk himself. Moreover, to lower right, that god’s left hand sprouts a personified version of obsidian. The branching Chahk with the other gods of matawil cue, as Karl Taube has suggested to us, the fractal forms of eccentric flints or obsidians. The overall being is both “hard” and “soft” in its asserted texture, material, and surface.
Fig. 4. Drawing of a detail of the plate by James Doyle.
The hieroglyphic text contains a disjuncture. The jump separates mythical events and deity protagonists from a likely historical frame of reference and a human owner (Figure 5). The damaged day sign probably carries the coefficient 12, and the Pohp month may be prefaced by a variant of the number 6, identified long ago at Palenque by David Stuart. Though pinning down the date is speculative, style and proximity to major period endings suggests the following possibilities:
126.96.36.199.18 12 Etz’nab 6 Pohp Feb. 26 AD 692
188.8.131.52.13 12 Ben 6 Pohp Feb. 17 AD 731
184.108.40.206.3 12 Ak’bal 6 Pohp Feb. 10 AD 757
220.127.116.11.8 12 Lamat 6 Pohp Feb. 7 AD 770
We find the latter two dates more likely, given the available evidence for the temporal distribution of codex-style ceramics, and the possible connection to the Ik’ painters who were active in the 750s-780s. The misalignment and asymmetry in the two sets of glyph blocks underscore the textual split between ancient time and contemporary events.
Fig. 5. Historical Text.
The action that follows the date is likely a variant of the verb for ceremonial “raising” of a jawte’, plate (not “death,” as posited by Schele). The execution of the dedication verb on the plate is coincidentally very similar to that on the vessel in the Princeton museum and another cup likely by the same painter from the Ik’ polity, the first dated to approximately AD 755 (18.104.22.168.14 4 Hix 12 Kumk’u). The name and title that follow almost certainly name an actual historic figure (la-ch’a-TUUN-ni si-k’u-AJAW), though this name does not seem to be attested elsewhere in the corpus of Maya writing.
The plate with the mythic scene thus belonged to a living, historical owner who carried the ajaw title. Presumably, maize tamales filled the plate during important meals. By another, clever conceit, the plate would have contained actual maize products atop a scene in which growth is shown at first emergence. The reference to the mythological creation of maize and the depiction of this watery Olympus of quadripartite gods of matawil is indeed cosmic, but with a terrestrial focus. See, for example, the three partially preserved figures between the black water band and the potential representation of the “five-flower house” below (Figure 6).
Fig. 6. Detail of personified plants: (left) “root” figure, possibly manioc or sweet potato (note sign for “darkness,” a feature first discerned by Marc Zender); (center) dancing Maize God with elongated cranium and breath bead; (right) “tobacco” figure (note sign for “darkness” on body of figure, a possible reference to nocturnal conditions or even a plant disease such as black shank?).
Accompanying the leafy plants is another upside-down figure on the left projecting downward from the water register. The scribe depicted this figure’s headdress as something close to the wi syllable, identifiable as a pan-Lowland word for “raíz, root,” in languages such as Ch’ol, Chontal, and Ch’orti’ (Kaufman and Norman 1984:126). This could refer to a type of indigenous root crop, such as sweet potato or manioc, the latter extensively documented as a staple in places like Joya de Cerén, El Salvador (Sheets et al. 2012). If so, this character may constitute a unique depiction of root crops in Maya art. Much like the vegetation around Pakal’s sarcophagus, these beings correspond to plants of economic import to the Maya, and to key elements of consumption.
Fig. 7. Comparison of wi syllable from Chahk plate and Palenque’s Tablet of the 96 Glyphs.
The deeper meaning of the plate thus comes into crisp focus. The object would have existed in two time frames, offering both real food and mythic food stuffs. In deep time, lightning and rain came together under the auspices of Venus and stars, at a location in or near the black cenote/black water place, calling together a dream-team of four deities. Chahk, as the central figure from which the other gods are sprouting, wields his axe to strike and release primordial vegetation: root crops, maize, and tobacco, in the form of godly figures. Fast forwarding to the 8th century, one can imagine a recitation by someone seated next to the plate. At a sumptuous feast, he or she would read the image and text and recount distant (yet close!) mythological events. The owner perhaps entreated the very deities pictured within, in earnest hopes for bountiful crops and plentiful rains in a time of impending social upheaval.
This post is dedicated to Justin Kerr, who built a life with his wife Barbara devoted to the study and preservation of Maya artworks. Mary Miller kindly invited us to the CAA meeting, where we had fruitful conversations with her, Claudia Brittenham, Bryan Just, Megan O’Neil, and Justin himself. Simon Martin and David Stuart also provided useful and timely comment.
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