Ancient Maya Art – Painting and Clay Figurines


Top: Uaxactun mural (department of Petén, Guatemala) depicting a 5th century royal family, visitors arrive at left, women appeared in a palace chamber beside an empty throne, and musicians attend at right. Bottom: The Mayan murals of Bonampak (Chiapas, Mexico), this one is located in the Temple of the Murals on the lower register of the east wall of Room 1 and represents a parade of musicians.

Due to its perishable nature, the Mayan mural painting has rarely been preserved, although it is presumed that it was used in all ceremonial centers. Murals of historical content (palatial ceremonies, battles, trials and sacrifices of prisoners, peaceful scenes, arrival of invaders) executed with great realism and technical mastery are known in Uaxactún, Bonampak, Chacmultún, Mulchic and Chichén-Itzá. Frescoes alluding to deities and religious rituals, very similar to those of the codices, appeared in Tulum and Santa Rita, both late Mayan sites on the Caribbean Sea coast.

The Mayan murals of Bonampak (Chiapas, Mexico). Top Left: The lower register of the north wall of Room 2 represents captives sitting or kneeling on the stairs. Top Right: The upper register of the east wall in Room 3 features noble women engaged in ritual bloodletting; immediately above, in the vault, is a supernatural entity spewing blood. Bottom Left: Detail of the Mural of the Battle in Room 2. Bottom Right: Reconstruction of the mural paintings at Room 1 of Bonampak.

The painting was also profusely used to decorate pottery vessels from the proto-Classic period (towards the beginning of our era) to the late Classic, in which it flourished like the other Maya arts did. The polychrome motifs were first symbolic, geometric or stylized in nature when they corresponded to animal figures (Matzanel and Tzakol phases, in Petén); later, during the late Classical period (Tepeu phase), they became naturalist, representing mainly lay themes (lords receiving offerings, or attending to groups of warriors or vassals, traveling merchants, rites to propitiate hunting, etc.).

Left: Painted Maya pottery from the Northern Petén area of Guatemala and Belize, ca. 400-550 AD. Center: Late Classic ritual drink vase depicting the birth of the so-called baby jaguar supernatural, flanked by seated male and female figures who likely are his parents, ca. 740–780 AD, found at El Petén (Guatemala), (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Right: Cylinder vase depicting the lord descending in Xibalba on the snout of a bearded dragon being welcomed by two deities with blood stained wrist-lets, Late Classic, ca. 755-780 AD.


Clay Figurines

Left: Mayan clay figure from Palenque. Right: Incense burner support, Classic Period, ca. 600-900 AD, found at Palenque (Chiapas, Mexico).

A synthesis of the Maya art can’t ignore the wonderful sculptures that, despite their small size and the brittle materials in which they were made, are still masterpieces of sculpture: like the clay figurines that have been found in many places, particularly in Palenque, Jonuta and especially Jaina. They were hand modeled or made in molds, perhaps all polychromed, and offer an incredible variety of subjects (animals, plants, humans, supernatural beings), an extraordinary fantasy in their attire, and a remarkable diversity of individuals (men, women, lords and ordinary people, priests, deities, human or mixed pairs -man or woman with an animal-, dwarfs, ball players, warriors, weavers, men and women with illness or body deformations, etc.). Made to accompany the dead in their graves, perhaps in their own image, they represented everyday life by their realism, authenticity, the extraordinary sense of observation they reveal, the ease with which the artist, or rather a whole legion of unknown artists, expressed, etc.

Jaina style figurines (Art Institute of Chicago).
Jaina style figurines.

Maya art was expressed in monumental architecture, sculpture or modeling of stucco and clay, painting on walls or ceramics, wood carving or bone engraving. The large architectural ensembles, the stelae up to ten meters high, the monolithic altars of several cubic meters, the gigantic sarcophagus of Palenque weighing 25 tons, the murals covering the entire inner surface of a temple, the mosaics and small jade jewels, the small statuettes in clay or bone, the scenes painted on plate’s surfaces, all the forms and techniques in which the Maya creative genius materialized, attest that Maya art at a universal level and in parallel with the art of the Old World civilizations and that of the rest of the American continent, was indisputably a great art of the antiquity. To recognize it as such and to spread its knowledge is an elementary act of justice.

Jaina styles figurines. Left: A servant carrying a headdress. Center: Figure of a standing warrior, Late Classic, 650-800 AD. Right: The seated figure of an important Mayan character (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City).
A Jaina style figurine representing a Lord (particular collection).