Recent Acquisition: Maya Plate with Hunting Scene
By Dr. Kristopher Driggers, Assistant Curator, Schmidt Curator of Latin American Art
Maya, Late Classic, 550-950, Polychrome Bowl with Hunting Scene, clay, pigment, 2.75 x 13 in. Collection of the Tucson Museum of Art. Gift of Martin C. Macaulay. 2020.29.1
As the TMA collection grows, we are able to tell more stories about the artists who created the works in our collection and about the ideas that they considered important. One recent gift to the museum’s collection is a painted plate created by Maya artists during an era known as the Classic period, roughly between 500 – 900 A.D. The plate represents a scene of hunting, with three human figures carrying large animals back from the hunt.
Animals were important subjects in Maya art. Some animals, like the jaguar (known as baalamo’ob in many Mayan languages), were associated with night and darkness, and were associated with royal authority. Others, like deer (kejo’ob) were closely tied with the realm of the forests. Works of Maya art frequently depict these animals as characters in scenes or show humans wearing their features as part of costumes. In some cases, like on a painted vessel from the TMA collection, we even see several aspects of different animals combined onto one body – in this case, to depict hybrid creatures of the night, known as waayo’ob.
Maya Culture, Northern Petén Basin, Guatemala, Vase, Codex Style with Three Gods, 600 – 900 A.D., polychrome earthenware. Museum purchase. 1980.12
On the plate depicting a hunting scene, three human figures are represented with their faces and bodies blackened. In some Mesoamerican cultures – like in Aztec art – religious elites covered their bodies with a black pitch as a mark of sacredness as they prepared for religious performance. On this Maya plate, the hunters’ darkened bodies may also be showing us their sacred quality, perhaps identifying them as gods related to hunting. Further suggesting his deity status, one of these gods is shown with a large conch shell on his back, a unique feature that associates him with sacred status. In terms of the objects they carry, two of them are armed with spears; they also hold net bags that are used throughout Mesoamerica by gods associated with hunting (like the Aztec lord of the forests, Mixcoat). All of these figures lean forward as they carry their prey. Their postures suggest the heavy weight of the burdens that they bear.
The Aztec hunting god Mixcoatl, detail, Codex Durán folio 256 recto, Biblioteca Nacional de España VITR / 26 /11.
It is difficult to identify exactly which animals these hunters carry. One is a deer; another seems to be a jaguar; and the last may be a peccary, a coati, or another animal. In detailing each of these animals, the artist was careful to delineate features of these animals like patterns in their hair and textures of their pelts.
In ancient Maya thought, the forest and the animals that inhabited it were considered to be outside of order and civilization. When ancient Maya workers cleared the forests for their homes and fields, they were symbolically bringing order to their world, contrasted with the unordered forests. Maya texts and stories suggest that to enter the forest, the world of the hunt, was to enter into a place of great power. This painting, with its rich and vibrant energy, gives us a look into that world and the powerful figures who occupied it; in that way, it is an important testimony to Maya ideas about humans, deities, and the natural world.
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