A Universe in a Maya Lintel II: Mayuy and his Masterworks 4

by Stephen Houston (Brown University), James Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art), David Stuart (UT-Austin), and Karl Taube (UC-Riverside)

The concept of an oeuvre, a body of works created by a single artist, presents an interpretive risk. If taken too far, it implies that makers of things and images somehow know what is to come. Earlier works bind to later efforts, later ones to antecedents, in a coherent story where beginnings anticipate endings. After all, the same artist is involved, the same mind, the same set of hands. But think of Lucien Freud, the British painter. His Girl with a Kitten (1947)—the woman, a study in stiffness, close to throttling her pet—fails to predict a later, impasto oil of Leigh Bowery (cf. Tate and Hirshhorn). Both have a certain “realism,” a commitment to figuration, but they differ markedly as well. One portrays a lover, rendered in pale tones and shown close-up within a cramped frame, each detail observed; the other is a mountain of flesh in browns, greens, and greys. Gravity wins in the sprawl of Bowery’s body. According to one theory, Francis Bacon, a close friend, had come along to liberate Freud’s brush (Smee 2016:88–90). That contact and Bacon’s wild example prompted the shift in Freud’s handling of paint.

Yet the idea of an oeuvre helps in one important respect. It compels attention to an overall accumulation of artwork—the unpredictable arc of a career—and serves to unveil nuances of time and intention. This is why Alfred Gell, an anthropologist and theorist of time, looked at the challenges of oeuvre in his classic book, Art and Agency (Gell 1998). Of course, Gell’s ambition was to generalize beyond Western art, to find commonality behind “Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Constable” and Tahitian ti’i carvings or Marquesan tattoos (Gell 1998:232). What joined these artists and their productions were the acts of copying and innovation, the relation of one work to another, and the ways in which each piece might materialize thoughts or “internal states of mind” (Gell 1998:236). Cross-ties came about—Gell’s temporal interests intruded here—because that was how people create. No artwork was (or could be) an isolate, a de novo production. Each had antecedents to admire, repeat or reject.

Gell’s terms express the subtleties of these relations. “Preparatory” pieces bear a “strong” tie to “finished work” (Gell 1998:234), as in Michelangelo’s sketches for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (e.g., British Museum). Other artworks serve a “precursory” role, with a “weak” but perceptible link to later pieces (Gell 1998:234). An artwork could even be turned back to a precursor, so as to modify and develop that inspiration (Gell 1998:234). Heavily influenced by the philosopher Edmund Husserl, Gell called this a “retention.” “Protention,” another term from Husserl, described the relation between a precursor and later works.

These notions can be graphed (Figure 1). The dots, each an artwork, are connected by arrows into a mesh that spans and defines the start and end of a career. A protention darts forward, a retention backward. Together, the dots—a particular ti’i, a sketch by Leonardo—can be assembled into a catalogue raisonné, a comprehensive, annotated listing by media or by all media (catalogue raisonné)…and a basic resource for understanding the creative intellect over time.


figure 1 Mayuy.jpg

Figure 1. Alfred Gell’s concept of an oeuvre (Gell 1998:fig. 9.4/1). 


Gell’s thoughts are stimulating, but they present plenty of problems. Copies of earlier works and sketches for future pieces are not in mutual exclusion. They may be copies and preparations, as Gell himself acknowledged (1998:238). In some cases, the fidelity to past works and rigid planning for future ones are far looser than allowed by Gell’s map of poking, unidirectional arrows. Perhaps the maker was simply sorting through a visual dilemma and how to tackle it graphically.

Yet the oddest and least persuasive aspect must be his thin arrows jabbing forward as “protentions.” These are vague premonitions that veer close to metaphysics or the mysteries of time travel. And the conceit of a single career as an internal process is made implausible when the copying is of work by others, or when one’s own pieces inspire a catena of mimics. Indeed, what, really, is “individual” innovation and creative afflatus in places that value the constraints of tradition and ritual precedent, where even signed works have multiple craftsmen or makers (Houston 2016:414–415, tables 13.4, 13.5; also Montgomery 1995; Stuart 1989)?

For the Maya evidence, which concerns us here, Gell did not go far enough: why should a system that fuses pictorial writing with text-endowed pictures not include inscriptions and calligraphy in these diagrams of influence, design, and production? Consider stemmatology, a kind of research, a minutely argued procedure, by which the genealogy of certain manuscripts achieves a semblance of order (van Reenen et al. 2004). This document led to that one; both came ultimately from another source, one not necessarily preserved to the present, and so on. For Classic Maya texts and images, there can be no doubt, for example, that those shaping Tikal Stela 22, from the reign of Yax Nuun Ahiin II, were influenced by—as “retentions”—the details and messaging of Stela 21, a carving of his father, Yik’in Chan K’awiil (Jones and Satterthwaite 1982:figs. 29, 31).

Gell did not write on the Maya, but his ideas touch on the lintels seen in situ by Dana Lamb (Maya Lintel I). The scatterplot of dots, each an “individual work of art,” suggests a dismaying, unreachable goal. Sketches (done on palm leaf or bark?) do not survive, eliminating a good part of the plot, and most graffiti that do exist seem inexpert and rapid, evoking finished works nearby, showing the incision of a low-quality original or direct observation of events in plazas below (e.g., Źrałka 2014:figs. 69–80; Trik and Kampen 1983:figs. 38, 48, 71, 72, 73). Some scholars suppose that many were even the work of children or subadults, although that intriguing proposal may be hard to prove (Hutson 2011). The complex stemmata of well-executed texts on walls at Xultun, Guatemala, can only be guessed at, in that some may have been preparations for finished books, others a fair copy of the same (Saturno et al. 2012). In Gell’s terms, which are the protentions, which the retentions?

The idea of tendencies or retentions touches on four lintels that almost certainly came from the same hand or from carvers under the supervision of one person. Two are explicitly identified as such productions: Laxtunich Lintel 1, viewed by Lamb during his adventures (Figures 2, 3), and another now in the collection of the Kimbell Art Museum (Kimbell).



Figure 2. Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photograph by James Doyle). 



Figure 3. Laxtunich Lintel 1 (drawing by David Stuart).


The signature confirms such “authorship” (Figure 4): ma-yu-yu ?-TI’ or ma-yu-yu TI’-?. The tags both follow the signs for “his carving/3D shaping,” to some epigraphers yuxul but not securely so: too many examples append lu to the initial yu, casting doubt on that reading. Mayuy is probably the same as the Ch’orti’ word for “fog,” mayuy (Hull 2016:275), attested also in K’iche’, mayuy (Kaufman 2003:478). In modern usage, the term conveys a sense of smog or contamination, possibly an emanation. Maya art applies this to other noxious vapors from the “mouth,” ti’, a word present here. Indeed, a telling comparison comes from a Late Classic vessel in which glyphs describe a smoke-exhaling feline as “Smoking Mouth” (pi-bi li/le?-ti-‘i, pibil/pibel ti’, K1250; for a vase from the same hand or workshop see Burial 128 at Altar de Sacrificios [Adams 1971:figs. 77–78]). However, the mammalian head at the end of Mayuy’s name eludes decipherment. Marked with signs for “dark/night,” ak’ab, it may be a nocturnal animal with long ear (Stone and Zender 2011:144–145), but there are insufficient clues to clinch the identification. At an impasse, we simply call him “Mayuy,” drawing on the first elements of his name. Nor is there certainty that he lacked assistants. It would be surprising if he did not have such help, someone to rough out features or undertake the tedious polishing of backgrounds. Yet the amount of time for the lintels is sufficiently long to contemplate a single designer and, in details at least, a lone carver (the lintels span some 10 years or more, see below).



Figure 4. Sculptor’s signatures of Mayuy: Laxtunich Lintel 1: I1–J1 (upper, photograph by James Doyle); Kimbell lintel (Mayuy Series, Lintel 1:J2–J3 (lower, photograph by Justin Kerr, K2823, used with permission).

As Marc Zender has shown, another component of his name spells out a place of origin: AJ-K’IN-‘a, “he of the sun-water” or “he of the warm water” (Figure 5, Zender 2002:170–176). The compelling argument is that this location, perhaps a hot spring or some sunny spot, forms part of the ancient kingdom of Piedras Negras. But this presents a real historical puzzle, in that the carver would have come from a polity detested by those indirectly responsible for the lintels (Houston 2016:409, fig. 13.11). That is, both kingdoms were hereditary enemies, and there is evidence for only a brief entente between the two (Martin and Grube 2000:127; 2008:127). Thereafter, the dynasties returned to their more usual state of mutual loathing. Thus, Mayuy did not just arrive from a different kingdom. He was a turncoat, lured away for better employment or, perhaps, taken as a captive of war. Such monuments on the frontier with Piedras Negras could represent an affront, a kind of “border rhetoric” or taunting between polities (Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2017).



Figure 5. Muyuy’s place of origin, K’in’a, with mention of same location at Palenque: (A) Laxtunich Lintel 1:K1 (photograph by James Doyle); (B) Mayuy Series, Lintel 1:J4 (photograph by Justin Kerr, K2823, used with permission); (C) West Alfarda, Temple XXI (Zender 2002:fig. 10.7c; adjusted from Schele and Mathews 1979:#555); (D) Tablet of the Slaves, Palenque:D3l (photograph by Linda Schele, #20080 in Linda Schele Photograph Collection, Schele Photos). 


There are four lintels in total, including two without signatures. One, Laxtunich Lintel 2, was photographed by Dana Lamb near Lintel 1. It obviously pairs with that carving, appearing at some point in the same Swiss vault as its companion and with the same mounting of cross-bars (Figure 6).



Figure 6. Two views of Laxtunich Lintel 2, in situ and in Swiss storage (photograph by Dana Lamb, April 1950, and photographer unknown, image supplied by Justin Kerr). 


The others are: the Kimbell panel, equipped with a Mayuy signature in the place between the commissioning noble and his overlord, Chelew Chan K’inich or “Shield Jaguar IV” (Figure 7); and a piece known only from a grainy photograph, also in the same set of Swiss photographs (Figure 8; for the overlord’s name, see Zender et al. 2016). For reasons to be explained below, these are labeled “Mayuy Series Lintels 1 and 2.” Future work may supplant these labels, however, and situate the carvings in the palace group visited by Lamb. When that happens, with corroboration from sawn remnants, we can and will call them “Laxtunich Lintels 3 and 4.” As noted in the first essay (Maya Lintel I), the photos from Lamb demonstrate that these were lintels rather than wall panels, if considerably shaved down and cut into pieces for transport by mule or human tumpline. Laxtunich Lintels 1, 2, and Mayuy Series Lintel 2 are, in fact, so fragile that only adhesive and the cross-bars mentioned before hold them together.



Figure 7. Mayuy Series Lintel 1, Kimbell Art Museum, AP 1971.07 (Kimbell, photograph by Justin Kerr, used with permission). 


fire drilling.jpg

Figure 8.  Mayuy Series Lintel 2, fire-drilling scene (Drawing by Stephen Houston, after photograph provided by Justin Kerr).


The sequence of dates is straightforward (all are Julian Dates in the Martin-Skidmore correlation [Martin and Skidmore 2012]):

  • Feb. 19, AD 769 (Mayuy Series, Lintel 2 [] 1 Kawak 2 Wo);
  • Nov. 6, AD 772 (Laxtunich Lintel 2 [] 5 Men 3 Muwaan);
  • March 18, AD 773 (Laxtunich Lintel 1 [] 7 Manik 10 Sip);
  • Aug. 20 and 23, AD 783 (Mayuy Series, Lintel 1, Kimbell Art Museum, [] 5 Ix 7 Sak and [ 8 Kaban 10 Sak]), the latter date corresponding to the presentation of war captives on the carving.

The events are readily understood, in sequence:

  • (1) Mayuy Series Lintel 2, fire-drilling by the local sajal, “guardian of Bawayib,” here as a youth impersonating the duck-billed wind god, and under the supervision of the king of Yaxchilan, “guardian of Taj-Mo'” (Chelew Chan K’inich)—note the duck-billed figure on his forehead and as the small jewel on his back. The overlord, the figure from Yaxchilan, impersonates what may be a centipede with watery associations. The fish reveals some of that aquatic background, as does the deity name B3. A wind and water trope loom large in Maya notions of order (Stuart 2003), but perhaps the concept here involves the emanation of wind from watery caves.
  • (2) Laxtunich Lintel 2, the elevation as sajal of Aj Yax Bul K’uk’ while Chelew Chan K’inich, labeled mostly by his Emblem glyph and as the “guardian of Taj-Mo,” sits on his throne.
  • (3) Laxtunich Lintel 1, the impersonation of Aj Yax Bul K’uk’ as a maize god of night (to be discussed in the fourth essay) and Chelew Chan K’inich as the sun god.
  • (4) Mayuy Series Lintel 1, the Kimbell sculpture, in which Bawayib is said to have been captured, his captor firmly identified, Aj Sak Ma’x (AJ-SAK-ma-xi), “He, the White Spider Monkey” (from Common Mayan *maax, Kaufman 2003:561; but see Robertson et al. 2007:38, for the internal glottal)—precisely the same person who, 14 years earlier, drilled fire as a youth in the company of his overlord, Chelew Chan K’inich. In the latest date from the Mayuy series, he offers captives to that lord.

What can be said here of original context? Even after trimming, the measurements of the lintels offer some clues (see Mayer 1995:82 for dimensions of the fire-drilling lintel; the others come from the Kimbell website and measurements by the authors):

Laxtunich Lintel 1                                     Ht.  129.5 cm (left)      Width 94.5 cm (bottom)

Laxtunich Lintel 2                                     Ht.  118.1 cm                Width 94 cm

Mayuy Series Lintel 1 (Kimbell)             Ht. 115.3                       Width 88.9 cm

Mayuy Series Lintel 2 (Fire-drilling)     Ht. c. 100 cm                Width 80 cm

The Laxtunich lintels are relatively close in size, with allowances for mutilation by looters, and show an unusually deep relief (Figure 9). All carvings, including the Mayuy series, display a similar treatment of feathers, often neatly beveled away from the central rachis, and a marked sensitivity to the weight of gravity on flesh and cloth. Belly fat, for example, pushes up from cinched garments. These are likely the attributes of Mayuy’s carving, what appealed to him, in “retention” and “protention” from earlier and later works.



Figure 9. Deep relief on Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photographs by James Doyle).


There is another detail worth noting, one that relates to Mayuy’s probable origins in an enemy kingdom. Late carvings at Piedras Negras itself, not by Mayuy but by sculptors active during his lifetime, flaunt a three-dimensional virtuosity, an undercutting or gouging out that resulted in partly detached, elevated limbs yet careful (if largely invisible) details underneath. Panel 3 at Piedras Negras, dating to Mar. 25, AD 782—a little more than a year before Mayuy Series Lintel 1—has the same audacious undercutting (Figure 10). Mayuy’s place of origin may account for this daring approach to surfaces, in that he brought with him a technique or practice from his home kingdom. Perhaps, even probably, he trained in its ateliers, a Freud (or Bacon?) to his peers. There are no known instances of such undercutting from the greater kingdom of Yaxchilan. Of course, another reason for the deep relief might have been practical. The vigorous relief made the carving stand out in dim or raking light.



Figure 10. Undercutting and partial “detachment” of limbs on Laxtunich Lintel 1 and Piedras Negras Panel 3, broken-off areas highlighted (photograph on left by James Doyle, on right by the University of Pennsylvania Museum). 


Yet there are differences too. The Laxtunich set is rectilinear and taut in its overall composition and placement of figures, while the Mayuy series tends to a pronounced looseness, even drooping, of its masses. Glyphs are more casually picked out in, say, the lines within a ni syllable. To be sure, there are notable symmetries in how both present information. The Laxtunich set has one mythic scene (to be described in the fourth essay here) and one dynastic (the accession). The first concerns a mythic opposition of night and day, the second a validation for local rule. So also for the Mayuy series. There is a fire-drilling on a mythic hole or centipede, described as ma-ta-wimatawil(?)—the dry cenote mentioned by Lamb at El Tunel? (Maya Lintel I)—and a bold display of dynastic might and martial obedience when captives are presented to the overlord. Here the mythic opposition contrasts deities of wind and water/caves but still commemorates the creation of light-by-fire. In each group there may be a scene taking place at Yaxchilan. These portray the overlord on his throne, which, in the case of Laxtunich Lintel 2, is remarkably close to an actual bench, Throne 1, found at Yaxchilan in the main plaza near Structure 33 (contact sheets are on file in the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Archives, Peabody Museum, Harvard University; see also Tate 1992:fig. 122).

The Laxtunich lintels probably came from one building. They display the same overlord, the king of Yaxchilan, and the same nobleman, Aj Yax Bul K’uk’. This holds equally true for the Mayuy series, which highlights the king of Yaxchilan but now with a different nobleman, Aj Sak Ma’x. A reasonable guess is that the Mayuy series also came from one building but of later date. This would account for the differences in style between the two sets of lintels yet also fold in the operative hand and style of Mayuy. Whatever the sequence of dates, the two groups of lintels reveal events in the lives of two nobleman under the same overlord. Aj Yax Bul K’uk’ came to high office and then, at a later date, impersonated a god with his overlord. A second nobleman, Aj Sak Ma’x, drilled fire with that overlord while a young man, engaged in impersonation as well, and then presented captives as part of his obligations to Shield Jaguar IV.

There are several scenarios here, but one may account for the most variables. A solid chance exists that these lintels came from different structures at Laxtunich itself, each erected by a nobleman, one (Aj Sak Ma’x) succeeding the other (Aj Yax Bul K’uk’, Figure 11). The earlier sajal had either died or been replaced by the second, yet the second wished to show, through a retroactive scene of fire-drilling as a youth, that he was already in close relation to the overlord. The change in color scheme was systematic, the Laxtunich lintels having a red background, the Mayuy series a blue (see the third essay in this set of blogs). The internal consistency provides added support for the coherence of the two groups. Each pair of lintels required one signature only, hence the uneven dispersion across the four carvings. Doorways equipped with such tags might have had some special or central position. In this they resemble the three lintels over the doorways in Structure 1 at Bonampak. Only one, the middle, Lintel 2, has a sculptor’s signature. Presumably, that authorship was extendible to Lintels 1 and 3 (Mathews 1980:figs. 5–7).



Figure 11. Comparison between a sequence organized by date and a conjecture about placement in two buildings.


Notably, the manner in which Laxtunich Lintel 1 was sawn by looters resembles that of the Mayuy Series Lintel 1, a.k.a., the Kimbell carving (Figure 12). The Kimbell has the same vertical cut, just to the side of the ruler of Yaxchilan, and a right, medial cut across the midsection of a figure. The only difference is that, unlike the Kimbell, Laxtunich Lintel 1 already had an angled, natural break. The cuts and sawmarks hint that the same people were involved in looting the pieces from Laxtunich and from whatever site or building yielding the later Mayuy series. And, if the same people, perhaps this occurred at the same place. The extent to which the backs were shaved off can be appreciated on the Kimbell lintel (Figure 13).



Figure 12. Cuts by looters in yellow, natural break in red, Laxtunich Lintel 1 (ultraviolet photography by Metropolitan Museum of Art, lines added by Stephen Houston). 



Figure 13. Left and right sides of the Kimbell lintel, AP 1971.07, longest side 45 3/8 x 35 in. (115.3 x 88.9 cm, photographs courtesy of Jennifer Casler-Price and Shelly Threadgill, Kimbell Art Museum).

Yet this reconstruction of physical setting requires caution. Much is unknown. The Mayuy series could have derived from a site near Laxtunich but distinct from it, under separate governance by a sajal. There is hope of resolving the puzzle, however. With effort, much survey, some digging, the remaining pieces of thinning and shaping will surely be found, even the missing, triangular wedge of Laxtunich Lintel 2. Most likely it is still in place under doorway collapse.

The historical milieu of the lintels involves a figure named on many carvings at Yaxchilan and in several subordinate sites. He lived almost at the tail end of his dynasty, seemingly the last ruler to be effective and energetic (Figure 14). An attribute on the Mayuy carvings in general is that his regnal name, “Shield Jaguar [IV],” is never mentioned. He is identified solely by his personal name (Chelew Chan K’inich), his guardianship over an important captive, and his Emblem.



Figure 14. Final rulers of Yaxchilan, Mexico, with Shield Jaguar IV highlighted (Martin 2014:fig. 136). 

The paleography of his names and other glyphs can be evaluated as well (Figure 15). Mayuy (or one of his assistants) worked variably, flattening glyphs in some cases, or, in the Laxtunich Lintel 1 and parts of Lintel 2, indulging in rounded surfaces. Later glyphs (Figure 15c, d) seem to sag, slightly off-kilter, according with the looser handling of his later works. There is also evidence of consistency, a favoring of a particular variant of U, Emblems with beaded K’UH[UL] and no other appended elements, K’IN logograph within the chi hand. The largely syllabic spelling of k’inich is almost unknown at Yaxchilan itself, although it also rare to non-existent at Piedras Negras as well—this is a true idiosyncrasy of Mayuy.

Figure 15. Paleographic comparison of lintels.

A final comment can be made about the oeuvre of this singularly gifted sculptor. Intrepid in infusing delicate, even vulnerable flourishes on stone, he showed remarkable ability in devising multiple registers within a single image and in arranging complex dispositions of bodies in spatial and social hierarchies. His political landscape must have been complicated too, involving sajal, basajal (“head sajal,” on Laxtunich Lintel 1), and, within one monument, an intermediate level (a magnate rank?) of someone labeled as a Chak Tok Wayib (Figure 16, see Beliaev 2004, for discussion of this title; a possibility exists that it pertains to oracles [Beliaev 2004:127] and directions, in this case to the east, a sector associated with chak, “red” [n.b., a K’AN-to-ko-wa-WAY-bi, k’an [“south”?] tok wayib, a baah-sajal at Yaxchilan, impersonates a wind god on that site’s Hieroglyphic Stairway 2, Step X:B1; see also Yaxchilan Lintel 6:B6]). The masterworks of Mayuy may not permit Gell’s time travel or give much evidence of “protention.” But they looked back to earlier works, modified that legacy with aplomb, and, towards the end of the Classic period, flourished at the physical margins of a Maya kingdom.



Figure 16. Possible hierarchy of nobles and overlords in the kingdom of Yaxchilan.


Acknowledgements. Justin Kerr was generous as always with use of his photographs. Parts of this were presented at the European Mayanist Meetings, Moscow, Russia, October 2016, after a kind invite from Dmitri Beliaev, and, in April 2015, by Houston, at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Jennifer Casler Price and Shelly Threadgill of the Kimbell Art Museum gave generously of their time for the photographs in Figure 13.


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