‘Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art’ at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

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‘Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art’ at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

At The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition ‘Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art’ brings together nearly 100 rarely seen masterpieces and recent discoveries in diverse media, from the monumental to the miniature, that depict episodes in the life cycle of the gods, from the moment of their birth to resplendent transformations as blossoming flowers or fearsome creatures of the night. Created by masters of the Classic period (A.D. 250–900) in the spectacular royal cities in the tropical forests of what is now Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, these landmark works evoke a world in which the divine, human, and natural realms are interrelated and intertwined.

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above and cover: Installation views of Lives of the Gods: Divinity In Maya Art, on view
November 21, 2022 – April 2, 2023. Photo by Richard Lee, courtesy of The
Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Exhibition Overview
The exhibition is organized thematically, following the arc of the lives of the gods and their place within a cosmological framework.
The first section of the exhibition, “Creations” presents mythical episodes related to the origin of the world. On August 11, 3114 B.C., before the advent of cities and writing in this part of the world, inscriptions tell us that the deities “were set in order,” and the gods placed stones in mythical locations. Maya kings replicated these divine actions at celebrations marking the ends of calendrical periods, each calculated at regular intervals from 3114 B.C. Sculptures and ceramic objects highlight the aged god Itzamnaaj (the name of a major deity in colonial Yucatán) and its avian avatar, who played important roles in primordial myths.
The section “Day” explores the balance between the gods of the day, such as the Sun God K’inich, and the nocturnal gods like the Jaguar God in the section “Night, to follow.
The sun was associated with life-giving forces, and rulers who identified closely with this power would often add the title K’inich to their name. Many deceased kings were portrayed as glorious new suns rising in the sky, overseeing their successors’ performance of royal duties. Equally imposing and dignified, Maya artists created imaginative and terrifying images of nocturnal deities.
The “Rain” section features depictions of two important and interrelated gods—the powerful rain god, Chahk, and the god of lightning, fertility, and abundance, K’awiil.
Rain gods were venerated throughout the Maya region, and acts of appeasement to them were, and still are, critical for the well-being of communities. The section on “Maize” chronicles this god’s life, death, and rebirth through an assemblage of stunning and inventive masterpieces. The Maize God represented the beauty of the Maya staple crop, and is often depicted by Maya artists as an eternally youthful, graceful being. The Maize God was also associated with two of the most valuable items in ancient Maya economies—jade and cacao. Episodes from the Maize God’s mythical saga appear on some of the ancient Americas’ finest ceramic vessels. “Knowledge” delves into the work of the scribes, who spent long years learning the intricacies of Maya writing and employed hundreds of signs in varied combinations, which can be seen throughout the exhibition. Only four of the books created in the pre-Hispanic period have endured to the present day, but texts that survive on relief sculptures and delicately painted ceramics provide a resource for understanding Classic Maya alliances, conquests, and spiritual beliefs. The final section, on “Patron Gods” includes a striking series of works depicting kings and queens taking on various aspects and attributes of the gods.
Maya artists created monumental sculptures to celebrate events and depict the perceived connection between rulers and the gods. Freestanding slabs known as stelae stood in the large plazas of Maya cities, and some of these sculptures bear the signatures of sculptors.
Also on display will be a remarkable lintel—a horizontal support spanning a doorway—made of zapote wood. There are a few Maya works carved in wood in antiquity that survive to the present day, and this lintel represents a celebration in the wake of the victory of Tikal (and its king Yihk’in Chan K’awiil) over rival Naranjo. Sculptures and vessels in the exhibition demonstrate the intimate relationship between Maya royalty and the gods and underscore the role of religion in the establishment and maintenance of Maya political authority.

The exhibition is organized by Joanne Pillsbury, Andrall E. Pearson Curator of Ancient American Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, with Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, Associate Professor of Anthropology

1. Whistle with the Maize God emerging from a flower_Mexico

Whistle with the Maize God emerging from a flower. Mexico, Late Classic period (600–900).
Ceramic, pigment, H. 8 1/8 in. (20.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller,1979. (1979.206.728)

Lo-Took-Akan_-Xok_Squared-vessel_Naranjo-or-vicinity-northern-Peten-Guatemala.jpg

Lo’ Took’ Akan(?) Xok (Maya artist, active 8th century). Squared vessel. Naranjo or vicinity, northern Petén, Guatemala, 755–80. Ceramic, slip, stucco, H. 9 5/8 in. (24.5 cm).
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Anonymous gift.

7. Sak[. . .] Yuk[. . .] Took’ and Sak[. . .] Yib’ah Tzak B’ahlam_Stela 51_Calakmul, Mexico

Sak[. . .] Yuk[. . .] Took’ and Sak[. ..] Yib’ah Tzak B’ahlam (Maya sculptors, active 8th century).
Stela 51. Calakmul, Mexico, 731. Stone, H. 10 ft. 2 7/8 in. (312 cm).
Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, SECRETARÍA DE CULTURA – INAH.- MEX.- Reproducción Autorizada por el Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

8. Throne back_Usumacinta River area, Guatemala or Mexico

Throne back. Usumacinta River area, Guatemala or Mexico, 600–909.
Limestone, W. 66 ½ in. (169 cm). Museo Amparo, Puebla, Mexico.
SECRETARÍA DE CULTURA.-INAH.-MEX.
Reproducción Autorizada por el
Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

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K’in Lakam Chahk and Patlajte K’awiil mo[. . .] (Maya sculptors, active 8th century), Throne 1.
Piedras Negras, Petén, Guatemala, 8th century. Limestone, W. 78 3/4 in. (200 cm).
Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City, Ministerio de Cultura y
Deportes de Guatemala.

‘Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art’
November 21, 2022 – April 2, 2023
The Met, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York – NY 10028
https://www.metmuseum.org/

Pictures courtesy of The Met Fifth Avenue


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