This spring in cultural Washington, D.C., the ancient Mayans rule. The "Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya," a landmark exhibition at The National Gallery of Art, brings this Central American culture to life in the most extensive display of Mayan sculpture, jewelry, and artifacts ever seen in the United States. More than 130 Mayan works of art from collections in Mexico, Central America, Europe, and the US are featured in a show that vividly illustrates the intersection of art with social history.
The complex, highly artistic civilization of the ancient Maya brought culture in the Americas to its apex of development from about AD 600 to 800. The elaborate courts of Mayan city-states in what are now Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, featured sumptuous surroundings complete with pet jaguars, fan-bearers, and fly-sweeps to attend kings who were regarded as semi-divine. Among their accomplishments, the Mayans devised a sophisticated hierarchical form of government, a polytheistic religion, hieroglyphic writing, and a national sport (now called "the Mesoamerican ballgame") that they endowed with sacred, symbolic dimensions.
The Mayan elite valued artistic and religious expression and often fused the two. Fundamental to Mayan religion and culture was the life cycle of the Maize God. Maize (corn) was the staple of the Mayan diet and was regarded as holy. A ceramic plate featured in the exhibit shows the Maize God emerging from a turtle shell which, in Mayan culture, was a symbol of the earth. Mirrors, such as the one on display made of pyrite (fool's gold), were also important to Mayans. The mirrors were fashioned in a mosaic style so that they resembled turtle shells. Similar mirrors - thought to have supernatural powers - were frequently possessed by the nobility.
Among the many small Mayan sculptures is this ceramic ballplayer (one of a pair), which was excavated on Jaina Island, off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Like today's baseball catcher or hockey goalie, this athlete is well padded against the exigencies of playing "the Mesoamerican ballgame," which featured an eight-pound ball. To the Mayans, the sport symbolized a life-and-death contest among the gods. Even the physical aspects of the ball court held religious meaning.
In fact, all aspects of Mayan royal life were regarded as echoing the divine and, in essence, Mayan art is the enduring illustration of this sophisticated culture's colorful concept of the mythological cosmos.
• 'Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya' is at Washington's National Gallery of Art until July 25. It opens at The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco on Sept. 4.