When Hernn Corts landed in Mexico in 1519, he did not find the land of silver and gold, the "El Dorado," for which he thirsted. What Corts and the other Spanish conquistadors did encounter were astounding Indian civilizations, among which figured the Mayan. The Mayas have been called the Greeks of the New World.
But the Spanish were less interested in the languages, writings, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, and arts of the Mayas than in turning them from their "satanic" ways and converting them to Christianity. Within 50 years of the conquest, the Mayan civilization, already in decline in some areas, was all but destroyed - its statues and temples smashed, its written records burned, its governors killed, and its people enslaved.
Like the movie star or political leader of our day who dies young and becomes a legend, the Mayan civilization is all the more captivating to us because of its tragic fall. Now some of the awe-inspiring achievements of a people long considered little more than subhuman idolaters by those who vanquished them are on display in an ambitious exposition in Mexico City.
The show, entitled simply "Los Mayas," exhibits more than 500 pieces from 40 museums in Mesoamerica - much of southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador where the Mayas lived. It is another reminder that it is more difficult to build a civilization than to tear one down.
"The exposition demonstrates that the Mayas achieved not only great technical heights, but an astonishing aesthetic sense that permeated their art," says Mercedes de la Garza, director of Mexico City's National Anthropological Museum and the show's curator. "Mayan artists displayed many different styles," reflecting the Mayas' political organization into independent states, she says, and "suggesting a great artistic freedom."
But in the end, the Mayas' art, whether tall steles (inscribed stones) featuring plumed governors or short clay statues depicting nobles or ballplayers, came down to religion. Mayan cities were meticulously laid out with the cosmos in mind; the exhibition's entertaining funerary statues (with their big hats, oversized jewelry, and exaggerated poses) were buried with the deceased in a tomb. That every piece of their art had its place in cementing the Mayas' relation to their gods - and the sacred powers of the Mayan rulers - explains why the Mayas' conquerors wanted it destroyed.
One might wonder why mount a show now on the Mayas in Mexico, where much of the world's remaining Mayan art and architecture is already found?' The exhibition came out of a cultural exchange agreement between Mexico and Italy following a state visit by Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo to Italy. As part of a series of expositions on the art of the world's great ancient civilizations, the Palazzo Grassi in Venice decided to include the Mayas, with the understanding that the show would then move to Mexico City.
But the show is hardly "more of the same" for the thousands of Mexicans streaming through the exposition at the former San Ildefonso College, in Mexico City's historic center. According to Ms. de la Garza, it brings together this civilization's best existing artwork and organizes it into numerous themes ("Society's Fabric," "Man and the Gods") to demonstrate how art had a place in every aspect of life.
The unexpectedly large outpouring of interest in the exposition - on weekends crowds are being turned away for the long wait - can be explained by several factors.
The collection offers an unusual opportunity to see Mayan art in its entirety. For Mexicans, most of whom are mestizos with some Indian connection in their past, the exhibit offers more than an objective art lesson: They can imagine what some distant ancestor's life was like. Today about 2 million Mayas live concentrated in the area of their ancestors.
The exhibition doesn't present an idealized vision of the Mayan civilization. A section dedicated to warfare makes clear that it was a continuous part of Mayan life. A Mayan ballgame, resembling soccer, required human sacrifices - generally in the form of the victorious ballplayers.
It wasn't until the end of the last century that the world showed interest in rediscovering lost civilizations. The broadened interest in the Mayas doesn't mean that all their secrets have been revealed. Only recently have experts been able to grasp the sense of the Mayas' hieroglyphic writing, though not an actual translation.
As the Anthropology Museum's de la Garza notes wryly, that may be a good thing. "The Mayas of the Yucatan believe that at some future time all their deceased ancestors will rise to live again, and when they are resurrected they will join with the living Mayas to banish all foreigners, all non-Mayas from the Mayan lands," she says. "And according to their belief this great revenge against history will happen when all of their hieroglyphs are fully understood."
*'Los Mayas' is at Mexico City's former San Ildefonso College through Dec. 30.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society