Updated: May 7, 2021
Just look at this figure as part of the façade of the tomb of a Maya king. Beautifully sculpted in the round with decorative belt, necklace, ankle and wrist bracelets, earrings and hair ornaments, this male figure sits (dare he?) in the corner of the eye of a god. Who braves to conceive of putting a man in the corner of a god's eye? Yet, there he sits comfortably, one leg hanging down, head looking down on those below, mouth in what I call, "the Maya pout." The startling beauty of its rounded form and the daring of its location draws attention, and the thought comes,"How very Maya."
Typical, yes there is such a thing. Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist, was criticized for the longest time for his representations of rather full-bodied figures. His response was that he was painting in the ancient traditions of the Mexican people, though there was no proof of it in anything know at the time. Then in 1946 a Lacandon Maya, Chan Bor, lead outsiders to the Temple of the Murals in Bonampak, still at the time a place of worship for the Lacandon. Once the information came out about the "discovery" of these walls of murals painted with stocky figures, the Mexican government flew Diego Rivera to the hard to reach location so he could see the murals. Upon seeing them, he cried.
The great event represented on the walls of Bonampak, a name which means "Painted Walls," is the ascension to the throne of a new ruler. The paintings fill three rooms at the top of a T-shaped platform and were done by artist from nearby Yaxchilan, which was tied by marriage to the royalty of Bonampak. The paintings were finished in 800 A.D. and the life of Bonampak a few years later, pointing out the great mystery of the Maya. What really happened in the 8th and 9th centuries to cause these great Maya cities and their beautiful art to disappear from history?
Among the great cities that shockingly disappeared was Copan. Ruled by one dynasty starting in c. 400 A.D. and lasting through 16 rulers, Copan benefited from its location far south of the central Maya area, which was filled with conflicts and wars between neighboring kingdoms. Copan used commerce and diplomacy to increase its power and wealth. It reached its height during the reign of the king featured here. A mistake in translation named him 18 Rabbit, but his real name is Waxaclajuun U'baah Ka'wiil, which had nothing to do with rabbits. It actually means 18 Images of the God of Blood. Sounds frightening, but this king ruled through art and diplomacy, establishing a cultural hegemony to go along with Copan's commercial clout. However, as all Maya kings did, he did ritual blood sacrifice, including piercing his own body to let the royal blood flow out.
I must say that I have always been drawn to the Maya lands, as I remember a wonderful trip in my youth to the Yucatan, where I felt quite at home. I was always attracted to Copan, though of the Maya ruins I have been able to see and study, far off Copan was out of my reach. However, I have always been struck by the beauty of the faces done in Copan and especially those of this king. The figure pictured here is surrounded by intricate designs carved into the limestone and originally painted. The eyes are cast down and the mouth is open, sometimes just barely, sometimes in a circle. The hands normally were delicately curled inward or with forefingers and little fingers standing out and the two inner fingers curled inward. One can be sure these gestures meant something, but I have yet to find any definitive meaning assigned to them.
However, art and culture were not enough. After 43 years in power, which represented the height of Copan's power and prestige, Waxaclajuun U'baah Ka'wiil's choice for leadership of the vassal state of Quirigua decided to rebel. The horror of it for Copan (every time I think of it, I feel somehow connected to that day in May of 738 A.D.) was that the King of Copan (it comes to me "our beautiful king") was captured and killed, ceremonially beheaded in fact. Well, things did not completely end as there were three more kings who managed the relationship with Quirigua. However, activity in Quirigua ended in 800 and in Copan in 820, after which dates they both disappear from history, followed by most of the Mesoamerican world from Teotihuacan to the Maya kingdoms. What happened?
Was it drought, deforestation, or all consuming war? Perhaps it was a trifecta of disasters that caused the people to try a remedy steeped in their beliefs about the cosmos.
It involved the calling of a Calendar Convention in a hilltop location considered neutral by all, Xochicalco, or The House of Flowers. The calendar was an important instrument not just for planting and sowing but for knowing which god to worship on which day. I am sure that the delegates there in 859 A.D. talked of things other than the calculations, things like crop failures, lack of rain, and incessant warring. By the way, Xochicalco is near the town of Cuernavaca, which sent a representative, duly noted on the commemorative pyramid proudly featuring the Maya in dominant display, as they probably called the convention. Our representative from Cuahnahuac (Cuernavaca) was a crouched man in a blanket holding a plant with three sprigs, a symbol still used in Cuernavaca. I say "our representative" because I was studying in Cuernavaca and going to Xochicalco was part of a course on Mesoamerican art history. Well, regardless of the convention, the Classical Maya Period came to an end by the year 900 A.D., with their great cities all being abandoned.
Current theories point to all consuming war as the main reason for the ultimate destruction. War took on a different form, one in which it was not just about killing the leader, but one that turned on the people of the conquered king, destroying their ability to produce what was needed to keep society going (see the video recommended below). So we are left with many beautiful things, like this vase with ornately decorated figures (just look at those headdresses) in a customary pose: having a smoke of tobacco. They were just going about their normal activities as though everything would continue as it always had. Of course it didn't for them, but another period in Maya history, now called Post-Classical, started in the Yucatan peninsula and lasted until the coming of the Spanish, which brought the great days of the Maya to an end.
There are currently millions of Maya in Mexico and in Central America, who live no more as lords of their own lands. I hope that they will soon no longer be sitting in the eye of the God of Blood, and come forth once again, as represented below, like gods born from the insides of flowers.
I dedicate this post to Waxaclajuun U'baah Ka'wiil, Lord of Copan.
How would you link Diego Rivera's love of mural painting to his affinity for ancient Mexican culture?
Watch the documentary, Who Killed the Maya? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQU56gqyQyU
I also used as reference, Les Mayas Tresors d'une Civilisation Ancienne by Davide Domenici
For my author page of art and travel-inspired writing,
amazon.com/author/marjorievernelle and for more info on a famous work of art, plus tidbits on good wine, go to my site
Photos are from public domain stock photos or my photos from Domenici's book and used in accordance with Fair Use Policy.
© Marjorie Vernelle 2019