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Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya

Uniting the Esoteric and Commercial

The lures of the ancient Mayan civilization are many. The visual magnificence of surviving artifacts, bas-reliefs, sculpture, vases, beveled mirrors and bowls, and other items signifying luxury run rampant in the culture's surviving relics. However, the esoteric appeal of the civilization, with its extravagant goods, mysterious rituals, architectural sophistication, and ancient cache of symbols, is perhaps the strongest draw for the current exhibition at the Legion of Honor, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya.

Mayan civilization flourished between 600-800 AD, boasting royal city-states like Palenque, which had their own architectural and artistic styles. Proliferating from Southern Mexico through Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, this was a great civilization that, nonetheless, was never politically unified. Each of the approximately 50 Maya states were influenced by their own kings, who were often portrayed as inhabitants at the center of the world.

The exhibition, which features over 130 masterpieces from artists and scribes who worked under the patronage of royal figures, is peerless in its regional complexity and nuanced depictions of life at court, and is divided into various themed rooms. "Life at Maya Court," with its lavish renditions of reclining kings and decorative and functional art, is profuse with colorful images of dwarfs, hunchbacks, and other idiosyncratic courtly characters. "The Divine Court" depicts the Mayan belief that the cosmos existed on three levels -- earth, underworld, and sky -- and relates the function of deities to the cycle of royal life. "Women at Court" depicts historical female personalities who had prominent roles in courtly life. "Word and Image" outlines the sophisticated written language of ancient Mayan scribes, which translates to a codex of heavily veiled cultural symbols. "The Court at War" reveals perhaps the single most staggering artistic accomplishments of the Maya, with its various stone relief carvings depicting the immortalization of one of the kingdom's captives. Because military conquest in the context of trade routes and societal rivalries is so prominent in Mayan art, the presence of prisoners of war is a chief component of the artwork, lending a violent aftertaste to the pieces.

The stylization and intricate detail of the assembled works evinces the celebration of a culture of consumption and spectacle. Jade masks, finely wrought jewelry, bowls sculpted carefully from smooth shells, and carvings of white stone and pyrite reveal a culture whose use of materials reflects sensuous enjoyment. At the same time, the artwork retains both practical and ritualistic purposes. A limestone-sculpted throne dating from 700-800 AD shows a winged creature nestled between the sky god Itzamna and an unidentified female deity; it is a work that accompanies various images of deities that are incorporated into the symbology of court life, lending a mystery that awaits decipherment.

The eighth-century limestone relief known as Lintel 25 is perhaps one of the most complex and elaborate pieces in the exhibition, floating in a flurry of carved hieroglyphs that illustrate foreboding historical rituals in impeccable detail. The first panel of the carving is the most striking; it reveals Lady Xok, a revered queen, preparing herself for a royal ritual by drawing a rope studded with thorns through her tongue. The other panels are chronological symbols of Lady Xok's hallucinatory ritual, which enables her to give birth to a vision serpent, which in turn opens its mouth and releases a spear-bearing warrior. It's an elaborate sculpture that ties together themes of regeneration, sacrifice, and sustenance.

Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya provides a sometimes hazy window onto the lives and cultural legacies of those who created and influenced the work. While specific names, dates, and places replace myth and mystery with verifiable facts, exotic inscriptions and gestural abstractions imbue the assembled works with a mysterious beauty that is as haunting as it is revelatory.