About the Artist
Maya peoples have lived in what we now call Central America for at least three-thousand years. Their territory included parts of present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. Archeologists divide the ancient Maya civilization into three major time periods: Preclassic Maya (1500 B.C.–A.D. 250); Classic Maya (A.D. 250–900); and Post Classic Maya (A.D. 900–1500).
This wall panel was created during the Classic Period, which is considered the high point of Maya culture. The Classic Maya built cities with palaces, pyramids and temples to honor their gods, and made works of art in a variety of media. They are well known for their sophisticated hieroglyphic writing system, a number system that included the concept of zero, and a calendar for recording both historical and mythological dates. Expert astronomers, the Maya observed the movements of the planets and accurately predicted eclipses.
Maya artists were specialists who produced ceramics, stone sculptures, and jewelry of jade and shell. The Maya word for artist is its’at, which means “wise man” or “sage.” Maya scribes carved inscriptions in stone, and painted them on ceramics and in books made of fig bark paper. Hieroglyphic inscriptions recorded dynastic histories, including births, deaths, and marriages. Military victories and religious ceremonies were also recorded. Like artists today, some Maya artists even signed their works.
What Inspired It
This carved limestone slab was a wall panel from a Maya palace or administrative structure. Maya rulers commissioned stone monuments to glorify their ancestry and to proclaim their wealth, taste, military victories, and spiritual power. The image shows a Maya ruler performing an incense scattering ritual that celebrates the end of a 10 year period called a lahuntun. Along the left side of the panel, and across the top are individual signs called glyphs. The glyphs represent words or syllables that can be combined to form words. The glyphs on this panel show the date December 2, A.D. 780.
We know of two other stone carvings of this ruler, one in a private collection in Mexico, and the other in an Australian museum. These carvings suggest that he was an important ruler in his day. In both carvings, the man’s distinctive facial features are clearly identifiable and he is shown grasping prisoners by the hair.
The hieroglyphic text forms a wall and ceiling around the figure, suggesting that he is standing inside a building. The Maya developed their own system of writing, which archeologists consider to be the most sophisticated ever developed in the Americas. The written language consists of hundreds of individual signs, called glyphs, which are paired in columns that read from left to right and top to bottom. The Maya writing system allowed room for artistic expression, so Maya glyphs are often quite elaborate. The first nine glyphs in this carving record the date; the tenth glyph is the verb; and the remaining thirteen glyphs describe the ruler. From the glyphs we know that the ruler was the master of a captive named Yax-ik’nal, and that he captured fourteen other prisoners, which suggests that he was very successful in battle. The glyphs also tell us that the ruler was at least 41 years old, and no older than 60, at the time the stela was made.
The man in the monument can be identified as a ruler because he wears a jeweled headband around his forehead called a sac hunal, which means “resplendent one.” It is similar to a crown and would have been tied around the ruler’s head when he came to power. In the center of the headband is the head of a deity, which was usually carved in jade. The deity wears a long, three-pointed cap and is nicknamed the “jester god.”
The ruler wears a jade ornament in the shape of a head on his chest. Long quetzal feathers decorated with jade beads fall down his back. Both of these ornaments are signs of his powerful status.
Notice the figure’s heavily lidded eye, the swirling line on his nose that could be a facial scar, and jade bead ornaments on his nose.
On top of the ruler’s headband sits a jaguar head. Above that is the glyph ak’bal, which means “darkness.” Smoke or fire rises out of the ak’bal glyph.
The man wears a knotted scarf around his neck and a long cape decorated with three human eyes. Both of these are part of the special clothing the Maya wore when performing sacrificial rituals.
In this ritual, the ruler is shown scattering incense. His left hand holds a long bag containing the incense, and his right hand is in the scattering gesture. At his feet is a large basket containing long strips of paper and a small tied bundle.
The empty space between the figure and the glyphs emphasizes the outline of the figure, particularly in the areas around his face and headdress.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- The Maya Stela includes both visual and written elements that celebrate the power and accomplishments of a Maya ruler. The glyphs that create the border of the panel tell us the date and describe the figure in the center. Have students pretend they are the ruler of an imaginary place and make a list of the characteristics they think they would need to fulfill that role. They will then design a panel that reflects these characteristics and includes both images and descriptive text.
- Use the Maya Stela to reinforce vocabulary words that you’re learning in class. Have each student choose a word from the list and create their own “glyph” to represent it. Each student will show their glyph to the class and have other students guess which word they chose.
- Imagine you’re a stone carver who has just received the commission to make the Maya Stela. Write a journal entry, from his point of view, describing what it must have felt like to take on such a monumental project. Are you excited or overwhelmed? Where will you start? How long will it take? What tools will you use? Will you need help from others?