Maya art

Carved Mayan flint dagger.
A Maya temple at Tikal

Maya art, here taken to mean the visual arts, is the artistic style typical of the Maya civilization, that took shape in the course the Preclassic period (1500 BC to 250 AD), and grew greater during the Classic period (c. 200 to 900 AD), and went through a Postclassic phase until the upheavals of the sixteenth century destroyed courtly culture and put an end to their artistic tradition. The Olmecs, Teotihuacan and the Toltecs have all influenced Maya art. Traditional art forms have mainly survived in weaving and the design of peasant houses.



Detail work carved into granite at the ruins of former a government building of the Kingdom of Uxmal.
Rendering of government buildings in Palenque as they appeaered before the Spanish conquests.
Temple at Palenque.

Maya architecture is first of all the lay-out of the impressive houses, courtyards, and temples where the kings resided, characterized by the immense horizontal floors of the plazas located at various levels, and the broad and often steep stairs connecting these. Dam-like causeways spread from these 'ceremonial centers' to other nuclei of habitation.

A unique and spectacular style, Maya architecture spans several thousands of years. Yet, often the most dramatic and easily recognizable as Maya are the stepped pyramids from the Terminal Pre-classic period and beyond. Being based on the general Mesoamerican architectural traditions these pyramids relied on intricate carved stone in order to create a stair-step design. Each pyramid was dedicated to a deity whose shrine sat at its peak. During this "height" of Maya culture, the centers of their religious, commercial and bureaucratic power grew into large cities, including Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Uxmal. Through observation of the numerous consistent elements and stylistic distinctions, remnants of Maya architecture have become an important key to understanding the evolution of their ancient civilization.

Modern Maya architectural design in a skyscrapper lobby.

At the heart of the Maya city existed the large plazas surrounded by their most valued governmental and religious buildings such as the royal acropolis, great pyramid temples and occasionally ballcourts. Though city layouts evolved as nature dictated, careful attention was placed on the directional orientation of temples and observatories so that they were constructed in accordance with Maya interpretation of the orbits of the stars. Immediately outside of this ritual center were the structures of lesser nobles, smaller temples, and individual shrines: the less sacred and less important structures had a greater degree of privacy. Outside of the constantly evolving urban core were the less permanent and more modest homes of the common people.

All evidence seems to suggest that most stone buildings existed on top of a platform sub-structure that varied in height from less than a meter, in the case of terraces and smaller structures, to 45 meters in the case of great temples and pyramids. A flight of often steep stone steps split the large stepped platforms on at least one side, contributing to the common bi-symmetrical appearance of Maya architecture. Depending on the prevalent stylistic tendencies of an area, these platforms most often were built of a cut and stucco stone exterior filled with densely packed gravel. As is the case with many other Maya relief, those on the platforms often were related to the intended purpose of the residing structure. Thus, as the sub-structural platforms were completed, the grand residences and temples of the Maya were constructed on the solid foundations of the platforms. As all structures were built, little attention seems to have been given to their utilitarian functionality and much to their external aesthetics; however, a certain repeated aspect, the corbeled arch, was often utilized to mimic the appearance and feel of the simple Maya hut. Though not an effective tool to increase interior space, as it required thick stone walls to support the high ceiling, some temples utilized repeated arches, or a corbelled vault, to construct what the Maya referred to as pibnal, or sweatbath, such as those in the Temple of the Cross at Palenque. As structures were completed, typically extensive relief work was added, often to the covering of stucco used to smooth any imperfections; however, many lintel carvings have been discovered, as well as actual stone carvings used as a facade. Commonly, these would continue uninterrupted around an entire structure and contain a variety of artwork pertaining to the inhabitants or purpose of a building. Though not the case in all Maya locations, broad use of painted stucco has been discovered as well.


Maya jade mask.
Portrait of K'inich Janaab Pakal I, (g̊ʼinisʃ χanɑːβ pakal) (603-683 CE), Palenque king, stucco, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.

The Mayans created a great number of sculptures out of different materials, mainly of stone, wood, stucco, and jade. A common form of Maya sculpture was the stela. These were large stone slabs covered with carvings. Most of them depict the rulers of the cities they were located in, often disguised as gods. The stelae almost always contain hieroglyphic texts, which have been critical to determining the significance and history of Maya sites. The steles from Tonina and Copan approach sculptures in the round; those from Tikal have deep relief; from Palenque, otherwise a true Maya capital of the arts, no significant stelae have been preserved.

Another major group of stone carvings consists of stone lintels spanning doorways and relief panels set in the walls of buildings. A third group is constituted by altars, rounded or rectangular; those of the petty kingdom of Quirigua have an almost surrealist quality.

Sculptures in wood must once have been extremely common, but have rarely survived; the existent examples include, however, wooden lintels from some of the main Tikal temples, with their sharp detail.

Stucco sculpture adorned the facades of many buildings and was usually painted. Unique in Mesoamerica, it includes realistic portraiture of a quality equalling that of Roman ancestral portraits, with the lofty stucco heads of Palenque rulers and portraits of dignitaries from Tonina as outstanding examples. The portrait modeling recalls that of certain Jaina ceramic statuettes.

The Mayans were fond of jade. Many stone carvings had jade inlays, and there were also ritual objects created from jade. It is remarkable that the Maya, who had no metal tools, created such objects from jade (jadeite), a very thick and dense material. An example is the death mask of K'inich Janaab' Pakal, ruler of Palenque. A life-size mask created for his corpse had "skin" made from jade and "eyes" made from mother-of-pearl and obsidian.

Painting & Drawing

The Bonampak paintings
Two differing types of Maya cups with ink drawings and writing.

Due to the humid climate of Central America, few Mayan paintings have survived to the present day. The colourful Bonampak murals, dating from 790 AD and decorating the interior of a temple, show scenes of nobility, battle, and sacrifice. At San Bartolo, murals dating from 100 BC were recently discovered which relate to the myth of the Maya maize god; the colours are subtle and muted, the style, although very early, is already fully developed. Wall painting has also been found in caves such as Naj Tunich.

A beautiful turquoise blue colour has survived through the centuries due to its unique chemical characteristics, this color is called Maya Blue (Azul Maya). It is present in Bonampak, El Tajín Cacaxtla, Jaina, and even in some Colonial Convents. The use of Maya Blue survived until the 16th century, when the technique was lost.


Maya book written in the Maya script.
3rd Kankuen panel depicting King T'ah 'ak' Cha'an (d̻ʼaχ ˀʁag̊ʼ sʃɑ'ɒŋ).

The Maya writing system consists of about 1000 distinctive characters or hieroglyphs ('glyphs'), and like many ancient writing systems is a mixture of syllabic signs and logograms. This script was in use from the 3rd century BCE until shortly after the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Today, most characters have a reading, which does not mean that their configuration as a text can always be understood. The glyphs themselves are highly detailed, and particularly the logograms are deceivingly realistic. Side by side with the monumental forms, there existed a cursive script of an often dynamic character, used in the folding-books, on walls, and on ceramics. Often, the captions are enclosed in square 'boxes' of various shapes within the representation. Since there were many Maya kingdoms, there existed as many regional styles.

The books were folded and consisted of paper or leather leafs with an adhesive stucco layer on which to write; they were protected by jaguar skin covers or, perhaps, wooden boards. Since every diviner probably needed a book, there must have existed large numbers of them. What still existed in the Yucatec kingdoms once the Spaniards moved in, was confiscated and destroyed. Bishop De Landa writes: 'We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.' Three codices (from Dresden, Paris, and Madrid) are still in existence; the authenticity of a fourth one (Grolier) is disputed. They are largely of a divinatory and priestly nature, containing horoscopes, almanacs, astrological tables, and ritual programs; only the Paris Codex also includes katun-prophecies. Texts and illustrations (partly coloured) hold the balance.


Double chambered Maya vessel.
Maya urn found in Kinich Ahau.

Unlike utility ceramics found in such large numbers among the debris of archaeological sites, most of the decorated pottery (vases, bowls) once was 'social currency' among the Maya nobles, exchanged at feasts and ceremonial visits, and preserved as heirlooms; this is also the sort of ceramics which accompanied the dead aristocracy into the grave. These precious objects were delicately painted, carved into relief, incised, or show the Teotihuacan fresco technique of applying paint to a wet clay surface. The decorative programs vary: palace scenes, courtly ritual, mythology, divinatory glyphs, or even dynastical texts taken from chronicles. Sculptural ceramic art includes incense burners, particularly from the kingdom of Palenque, and hand or mold-made figurines, sometimes used as ocarina's. The figurines are often of an amazing liveliness and realism. Apart from deities and rulers, they show many scenes and characters taken from daily life and ritual. Some of these figurines may have been actually used in rituals, while others may have served more mundane purposes. The most impressive examples stem from Jaina Island.

Applied Arts

See also



  • Dale M. Brown ed. Lost Civilizations: The Magnificent Maya. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life books, 1993.
  • Carol Kaufmann. 2003. "Maya Masterwork". National Geographic December 2003: 70-77.
  • Constantino Reyes-Valerio, "De Bonampak al Templo Mayor, Historia del Azul Maya en Mesoamerica", Siglo XXI Editores, 1993.
  • Mary Miller. The Art of Mesoamerica. New York and London: Thames and Hudson. 1996.

Further study

External links

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