Cruel Aesthetes
Treasures of Sacred Maya Kings at the Metropolitan Museum

MYTH AND BUTCHERY WENT TOGETHER IN THE MAYA WORLD but this exhibition admits only myths. “The Treasures of Sacred Maya Kings”  presents beautifully crafted artifacts of Maya civilization severed from the tribal practices that sustained it.  A box office expedient, the treasures-of  trope delivers less than meets the eye. It aestheticizes totems of cruelty and the insignia of a suffocating cosmology without revealing anything significant about the society that created them.

Kneeling Figure
Kneeling Figure

Originating in Los Angeles, the exhibition explores sacred kingship (“among the Maya and their descendants”) wholly in terms of royal spectacle. Accompanying scholarship air-brushes a pre-modern belief system common to history’s boundless despotisms. The sacralizing of blood lines appears as a splendid, cost-free phenomenon in pre-Columbian times and a vaguely edifying one in the present.  We end up with a visually compelling but sanitized effort at designer anthropology that does more to flatter the romantic primitivism of La Raza than to illumine Maya culture.

On display are objects dating mainly from 200 BC to 600 AD, lent from public collections in Mexico, Central America, Europe and the United States. Emphasis in on recently excavated objects — stelæ, vessels, incense burners, plates, pendants, scepters, portrait sculpture — exhibited in this country for the first time. Many are from renowned Maya sites: Copan in Honduras, Tikal in Guatemala and Mexico’s Calakmul. Included are Maya jade objects from tombs in the famous Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan, in central Mexico. All objects bear mythological references, the legitimizing symbols of rule-by-lineage.Several modern textiles and a wood carving illustrate the presumed continuity of traditional ways.

Brutal and resplendent, Maya civilization was a high neolithic theocracy that rose out of tropical forests and peaked around 900 AD. By the time the Spaniards landed in 1511, it was already in decline for reasons still debated. A loose federation of warring city-states, it occupied some 125,000 square miles, extending through Yucatán, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize to eastern Chiapas.

The Maya were master builders and architects, gifted potters and carvers of jade and wood. Their artists worked in fresco and in watercolor; they were great stone sculptors in relief and in the round. Priest-astronomers charted the planets — crucial to seafaring traders — and created a calendar more precise than that of the Greeks or Egyptians. They were one of three civilizations (Babylonians and Hindus were the other two) that independently invented the zero as a placeholder in mathematical calculations.

They were also prisoners of their own mythology. Among the Maya, every fault lay in the stars. All genius ministered to the star-bending, god-cajoling powers of divinely ordained elites. Knowledge for its own sake was unthinkable, absent from tribal psychology. The Maya created fine roads but had no wheeled vehicles, no dray animals, no plow. Prosperity was sustained by peonage and slave labor. Everything — from limestone blocks to timbers and produce — was carried on human backs. Warfare  supplied captives for the indigenous slave trade.

Divinities were numerous and hungry for human sacrifice. Propitiating a galaxy of gods was the job of an extensive priestly caste, a dynastic aristocracy and its reinforcing bureaucracy. Literacy, a symbol of sacred knowledge and divine sanction, was jealously guarded. Land belonged to the gods; only priests and princes could access the secrets of distribution, among other matters of ancestral wisdom.

The Maya were great craftsmen and held skills in high regard. Joe Mayan, though, did not necessarily live with this beauty himself. Much of it (royal burial pottery, interior temple and tomb decoration) was created only for the eyes of the gods and their human mediators. Punishment awaited artists — or dancers, singers and musicians — who deviated from protocol. In a culture that played ball games for keeps, beheading losers, incentives for good workmanship were strong.

Either the exhibition’s L.A. organizers are dishonest or they do not know what to be honest about. Either way, the result is a package of evasions that transfigures whatever was nasty, savage, stagnant or pathological in tribal culture into something estimable on the basis of artistry alone. Popular misconceptions of the Maya as peaceable agrarians remain intact. Museum-users, idlers in a garden of artifacts, stroll admiringly from delicately carved femurs to funerary effigies, incised masks, gorgeous ceramics and headdress ornaments. The elaborate refinements on view conjure a Rousseauean cultural fiction while historical realities shrivel to objets d’ art. Suddenly the Stone Age looks good.

Royal Maya tombs were “lavishly furnished with grave goods,” we learn. No one mentions that those goods included the kings’s slaves, killed for the occasion. Chat labels identify the rain gods by their symbolic insignia but not by their demand for oblations. Since rain gods were fond of small things, these were frequently children, hurled into deep wells still living or with their hearts torn out. (Children, prized for their virginity, gratified other Maya gods as well.)

A carved altar is displayed for its acrobat iconography; omitted is recognition of its function as a slaying stone. On altars like this, a sacrificial victim was laid on his back, arms and legs held down, while an executioner knifed out the living heart, Aztec style. The corpse was rolled down the temple steps and flayed, its bloody skin worn in dance by a priest. (The son of a modern Maya priest, featured in the catalog as an exemplar of tradition, makes do in a deer skin nowadays.) Maya connoisseurship extended to the arts of immolation and — what to call it? — the etiquette of a naked lunch. Better to examine the inscriptions on a lovely jadeite earflare.

The qualities of a good king consisted not in character but in the ability to manipulate the supernatural world through ritual activity: voluntary bloodletting through the tongue, ears and penis or liturgic slaughter of victims requisitioned from among slaves and peasants. (“A growing and hardworking populace,” chirps the wall label.) Curatorial tact winks at  the dubious particulars of bloodletting and skips ritual murder. Commentary takes refuge in the catchphrase “ritual activity” and concentrates, instead, on the pronunciation of Maya glyphs.

Eric S. Thompson, the distinguished Mayaist, wrote: “Maya prayer is directed to material ends. I cannot imagine a Maya praying for ability to resist temptation, to love his neighbors better.… There is no concept of goodness in his religion, which demanded a bloody, not a contrite, heart.” He records a prayer addressed to Kakal Ku, the fire god, during the sacrifice of two children: “Lord God all powerful, provide us with what we need.”

Maya temples were places of worship and prayer “like modern churches, synagogues and mosques”, the catalog intones. References to the Sistine Chapel or Sainte-Chapelle in Paris insinuate an equivalence between Christian and Maya habits of piety. Yet radical differences exist between worship of a God who frees man from cosmic necessity, and, say, Xipe, the god of flaying, or Ikal Ahau, who savors raw human flesh.

Profound civilizational consequences arise from those distinctions.  An exhibition that ignores or denatures them tells us nothing worth knowing about history. Or art.


“Treasures of Sacred Maya Kings” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, 212-570-3951).

This review first appeared in The New York Sun, June 15, 2006.

Copyright 2006 Maureen Mullarkey


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