‘Maya 2012’ at Penn Museum shows pre-Columbian sophistication

Figure of the Maize God in Shell. Royal Maya Tomb II
Figure of the Maize God in Shell. Royal Maya Tomb II
Posted: May 14, 2012

When I was in high school, students were almost entirely ignorant of the fact that the Americas were already densely populated when Columbus bumped into the island of Hispaniola in 1492.

Some of these civilizations, particularly the Aztecs, the Maya, and the Inca, were as sophisticated as any pre-Columbian European cultures, in some instances more so.

As it was, I and my cohorts accepted the “conquistadors-and-Indians” version of American history as right and true.

Where am I going with this? Right through the entrance to an exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology called “Maya 2012: Lords of Time.”

The show explores the art, architecture, and intellectual achievements of one of the major Maya cities, Copan, a World Heritage site in what is now western Honduras.

The Penn museum has been involved in digging Copan out of the forest since 1989. In partnership with the Instituto Hondureño de Antropologia e Historia, it has put together a display of about 150 objects, some recently excavated, augmented by reproductions of large-scale stone monuments and interactive video programs.

Although art plays a significant role, “Maya 2012” is mainly concerned with the broader culture represented at the remains of Copan, particularly the elaborate timekeeping systems devised by Maya astronomers and mathematicians.

The Maya used several calendars of varying cycles that nested like the Russian dolls called matryoshka.

One of these, the so-called Long Count, has a period of 5,125 years. The current phase will end on Dec. 23 (or, as some scholars think, Dec. 21), when something portentous, perhaps the end of time, is supposed to occur.

The “apocalypse scenario” gives Penn a wonderful marketing peg for the show, but I’m supposed to be talking about art, so I’ll go there now. We know that time isn’t going to end this year or next, so there isn’t much point in speculating about Maya cosmological projections.

As with ancient Greece, the art that survives from the most prominent pre-Columbian cultures of Central and South America often involves sculpture and ceramics (along the dry Andean coast it also involves textiles).

From Copan during the classic Maya period (250 to about 900 A.D.), the exhibition offers examples of pottery and elaborate ceramic sculpture. The pottery forms are basic, such as hemispherical bowls or covered jars that sit on three raised feet.

The pottery was usually painted after firing, sometimes over a thin coat of stucco, not glazed.

The fully decorated pots include a cylinder jar with scenes of bloodletting and a covered jar on a tripod base — a modern replica that substitutes for the original, too fragile to travel from Honduras.

(One senses, without being told, that it’s a replica because the colors are too fresh and bright for an object that’s supposed to be centuries old. This is one of the problems with using replicas; the feeling of antiquity, and the touch of the artist, is lost.)

Maya iconography, like that of Hinduism, is typically dense and stylized, and consequently challenging for Western eyes to decipher.

One pot, a shallow covered dish, is much closer to contemporary Western aesthetic. Its black surface is decorated with abstracted jaguar pelts highlighted by red coloring (probably cinnabar) in the grooves.

The cover finial is a skillfully modeled jaguar head, that animal being a Maya symbol of power.

The most spectacular ceramics are three large royal figures that functioned as chimney lids for censers — bowls in which incense was burned. One figure bears some lime-green coloring and traces of orange, but otherwise they’re biscuit color.

In terms of presence and projection of power, not to mention their intricate composition and technical mastery, these figures are the equal of anything from European antiquity. They were found smashed to bits, and have been painstakingly reconstructed.

Ceramics and power aren’t words that one usually uses in the same sentence. If you prefer, as I do, to think of ceramics as projecting more poetic sensibilities, then you’ll be impressed, as I was, by an effigy vessel in the shape of a small deer.

The maker of this container, which once held a food offering, shaped it by bending the animal’s body into a sinuous curve.

Far from expressing anything as aggressively masculine as power, the small, gracile head suggests fragility and vulnerability.

Even more than the jaguar dish, the deer vessel represents supplicatory humility, something one doesn’t expect to find in warrior cultures.

Though the Maya lacked metal tools, they were capable of virtuosic feats of carving. One of the more majestic examples of this is a sand-colored stone figure of the Maya maize god created about 725 A.D.

Still more impressive, for their scale and density of detail, are the massive stelae and similar stone monuments, particularly a cubic structure called Altar Q and a relief mural called the Margarita Panel.

These, too, are replicas, made by translating three-dimensional laser scans into high-density foam. Replicas are the only practical way these monumental architectural elements could be displayed in a museum.

The detail of each — such as the glyphs and the 16 royal figures that circle the altar — makes one marvel as the skill of the anonymous artists who made them.

One further realizes that production of monuments of this kind, not to mention the enormous pyramidal temple buildings at Copan and other cities, represented a substantial civic investment in an arts establishment.

And yet there is a secondhand quality to these replicas that is slightly off-putting, like looking at a lithographic reproduction of a Rembrandt. The connection between viewer and the artisan’s touch is lost in translation from stone to plastic.

When you experience this phenomenon at such imposing scale, or even in a painted pot, you understand how important that link is to fully entering the spirit of the work.

That’s a minor cavil, but I think one that’s important to consider when visiting any museum. Part of art’s magic is the opportunity to directly engage a creative intelligence from another era. When a machine replaces the artist, the message is compromised.


Powerful Pottery

“Maya 2012: Lords of Time” continues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 3260 South St., through Jan. 13, 2013. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, to 8 p.m. Wednesdays. Admission by timed ticket is $22.50 general, $18.50 for visitors 65 and older and members of the military, and $16.50 for full-time students with I.D. and visitors six through 17. Information: 215-898-4000 or www.penn.museum.

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