- Rio Azul
About the Artist
We don’t know the name of the artist who made this vessel, but it’s apparent that they were very skilled. The artist was able to give the human figures depicted on the vessel depth and substance, conveying individual personalities and even humor. A hieroglyphic text encircles the top of the vessel and occurs within the painted scene. It took great skill to paint both the figures and hieroglyphs with such control.
The glyphic text indicates that this vessel was probably made in what is now Guatemala. Vessels like this were made from local clays and other materials that were added for strength. Before firing the vessel, the artist covered it with a white or orange slip, a mixture of clay and water, to serve as background color. The artist then painted images and designs onto the polished surface with mineral-pigmented slips. The last step was to fire the vessel in an open pit.
What Inspired It
This particular vessel tells a tale of social mobility. The inscription identifies the owner, the man seated on the dais with arm outstretched, as Naahbnal K’inich, a district governor (not a ruler) for the Río Azul area. Behind him are his brothers, and surrounding them are all his worldly goods, including three bags of beans, proudly presented as a display of wealth. That he, a secondary magistrate, could afford to commission this vessel, painted in the style of a royal palace scene but representing his household, signals his newly attained status. While the assembled men participate openly in the event, two women (seated on the right) are shielded from public view. Probably members of the noble household, they appear to listen to the discussion with interest.
Life in noble Maya courts was both luxurious and sophisticated. Maya cities incorporated elaborate stone and stucco architecture, carved ruler portraits on free-standing stone slabs, and painted large-scale mural scenes. Elegant, multi-colored painted ceramics were owned and used by the elite, that a member of the non-ruling class could afford to commission this vessel is a makes it unique.
The Maya used cacao as the basis for chocolate drinks and as a form of currency. Many cylinder vessels represent wealth via bags of cocao, but, uniquely the man who commissioned this vessel depicted three bags of beans on the step below him to represent his status.
Directly in front of the principle lord is a tall cylindrical vessel, most likely filled with a chocolate beverage.
A sloping forehead and elongated head shape were signs of beauty among the Maya elite. Sometimes, an infant’s still soft head was bound between boards to achieve the desired head shape, emphasizing a smooth unbroken line between the nose and the forehead.
A delicate pink wash shades the inscriptions and the scene. The colored wash provides the vessel with a distinct look.
The artist has arranged the ten figures in an interior space that features a two-level platform, curtains, and woven mats.
The painted inscription records the name of the large central figure, who is the ruler of the court (Nabnal K’inich Lakam). It also names his father (Yuknoom K’awiil), from the site of Rio Azul in present-day Guatemala. The inscription also identifies the vessel as a drinking vessel for cacao or chocolate.