Lives of the Gods: Met exhibition on Maya art guided by Yale scholarship
“Lives of the Gods: Divinity and Maya Art,” a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, explores how people give material shape to their religious beliefs. When it came to capturing this universal human endeavor, the ancient Mayans had few peers, said Yale archaeologist and anthropologist Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, who co-curated the show.
“We have a wealth of artistic representations from the Maya that relate to their deities and religious beliefs,” said Chinchilla Mazariegos, associate professor of anthropology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “It’s among the richest artistic traditions from anywhere in the ancient world.”
The show — the first major exhibition of Maya art in the United States in more than a decade — features nearly 100 rarely seen masterpieces and recent discoveries, including massive stone stelae, ceramic jars and vases painted with images of gods and goddesses, and ornaments and figurines carved from jade and obsidian, mostly dating from the Mayan Classic period between 250 and 900 A.D. The objects are drawn from museums across Latin America, Europe, and the United States, including the Yale University Art Gallery.
Chinchilla Mazariegos, an expert in the ancient societies of Mesoamerica, brought his scholarship to bear on the exhibition, which he organized with Joanne Pillsbury, the Andrall E. Pearson Curator of Ancient American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (commonly known as The Met), and Laura Filloy Nadal, an associate curator at the museum. His 2017 book, “Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya” (Yale University Press), examined Maya mythology through the lens of ancient artworks and mythical narratives recorded during the colonial period, particularly the Popol Vuh, a mid-16th-century text written by Indigenous authors in the Guatemalan highlands.
Advancements in deciphering Maya hieroglyphs have provided scholars a deeper, more nuanced understanding of their mythology, Chinchilla Mazariegos said.
“Now we can learn the names of deities in Classic-period texts — such as carved inscriptions — and read mythical passages that relate to the gods and goddesses, which we could not do several decades ago,” he said.
The Popol Vuh, and other texts written by Maya authors shortly after the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica in the early 16th century, augment the information available in the classic sources, Chinchilla Mazariegos explained. Additionally, modern ethnographic reports from modern Maya communities revealed a surprising degree of resilience in Maya religion, despite the changes introduced by colonization and the subsequent spread of Christianity, he said.
“In organizing the exhibition, we’ve taken into account the beliefs of modern Maya peoples and collaborated with some members of their communities,” he said.
The show, on view through April 2, 2023, is divided thematically into sections that trace the arc of the deities’ lives and their positions in the cosmological framework. Sections explore Maya creation myths, the solar gods and the gods of night, and the maize god, who embodied the Maya’s staple crop and is often depicted as eternally youthful and graceful. Another section introduces visitors to Chahk, the god of storms, and K’awiil, the god of lightning, fertility, and wealth.
“K’awiil is related to the Maya’s idea that lightning fertilized the Earth,” Mazariegos said. “Kings are shown holding scepters with his effigy. Chahk is shown holding axes bearing the head of K’awiil.”
A section highlights the work of Maya scribes whose work is so vital to people’s understanding of their culture today. Several of the objects on view bear the signatures of the artists and craftspeople who created them.
“It’s one of the first exhibitions to name Maya artists as the authors of the respective works, just as we name any artist in the modern western world,” Chinchilla Mazariegos said.
The exhibition’s final section presents artwork in which Maya kings and queens take on various attributes of the gods, which underscores scholars’ enhanced understanding of Maya culture, he explained.
“Inscriptions describe how the kings impersonate deities,” he said. “Very often the deities they refer to are not necessarily the major gods — some are patrons of the ruling dynasties — linked to the dynasties’ mythical origins. We wouldn’t be able to understand this well without reading the inscriptions.”
An object from Yale’s collections, a small painted ceramic vessel, is exhibited in this section. It bears images of “wahy,” bizarre creatures that combine animal features with other unnatural attributes and which are described as appearing in dreams and identified with one of several kinds of souls of kings and other powerful people.
Another ceramic vessel, on loan from the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, also has a Yale connection. The late Michael Coe, the esteemed Yale archaeologist whose work illuminated the earliest cultures of Mesoamerica, was the first scholar to comment on it. Coe, who served as curator of the anthropology collection at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History from 1968 until his retirement in 1994, was able to identify characters depicted on the vessel, including a lunar goddess.
“Much of my own research on Maya art and religion builds on Mike’s work,” Chinchilla Mazariegos said. “He was the first who seriously tried to link ancient Maya ceramics to the narratives in the Popol Vuh.”
In his 2017 book, Chinchilla Mazariegos presented an interpretation of the same scene. He linked the vessel’s artwork to modern mythical narratives, shared in Guatemala and parts of Mexico, that concern a god who disguised himself as a hummingbird to approach a young goddess while eluding her watchful parents.
The exhibition includes a video of “The Dance of the Macaws,” performed by a group of young people in Santa Cruz Verapaz, a colonial and modern town in Guatemala, based on a story very similar to tale depicted on the ceramic vessel. Speaking in their Indigenous language, the actors present a story of a suitor stealing away a young woman from her protective parents.
“We wanted to incorporate content that informs the public about the resilience of Maya religious belief and to convey the point that Maya are living people, not something archaeological or from the past,” Chinchilla Mazariegos said. “These are living communities that still preserve aspects of the ancient religious beliefs depicted in the ancient objects presented in the exhibition.”