Rarely Seen Ancient Maya Masterpieces Go on View at the Met

It’s the first exhibition of its kind in the United States in a decade

Throne 1, KK'in Lakam Chahk
Throne 1, KK'in Lakam Chahk (785) Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has unveiled a new major exhibition of Maya art. “Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art,” the first exhibition of its kind in the United States in a decade, features nearly 100 treasures dating from 250 to 900 C.E., including two massive stone sculptures that were installed last year in a makeover of the museum’s Great Hall.

From imposing stelae (stone monuments) to tiny ornaments carved from jade, shell and obsidian, these rare objects tell the stories of the ancient Maya deities. The exhibition was organized in collaboration with Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum.

“Recent advances in the study of Mayan hieroglyphs have made it possible to identify the names of dozens of artists from the Classic period, and for the first time in a major exhibition their names will be identified on labels,” the museum writes in a statement. “While artist signatures are scarce on ancient art across the world before the 19th century, Maya sculptors and painters did sign their works, occasionally prominently, on beautifully carved stone monuments and delicately ornamented vessels.”

Codex-style vessel showing the rebirth of the maize god (650–800) Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia

The exhibition is organized into seven sections, which “[follow] the arc of the lives of the gods and their place within a cosmological framework,” per the museum: Creation, Day, Night, Rain, Maize, Knowledge and Patron. Daytime gods evoke the sun; the moon goddess, a nighttime deity, is sometimes a wife and sometimes a mother to the sun. The jaguar is used to represent nighttime deities with an “aggressive, warlike personality.” Some gods, like the maize god, experience death and rebirth, likely in line with the growing season. When kings died, they were sometimes depicted rising into the sky like the sun to watch over their royal successors.

“These Maya artists gave form to the gods in inspired ways, through remarkable works of visual complexity and aesthetic refinement,” Joanne Pillsbury, a curator of ancient American art at the Met, says in the statement. “As archaeologists continue to make major discoveries, our knowledge of Classic Maya visual culture becomes enriched, and exhibitions—like this one—reveal new understandings of the relationships between ancient communities and the sacred.”

Maya artists lived in what are now Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. They depicted gods as semi-mortal beings and created representations of them at all stages of life, from infancy through death—and sometimes rebirth, too.

Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's new exhibition is the first of its kind in the United States in a decade. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 250, Maya civilization was steadily growing. Over the next 600 years, the Maya built a network of cities that supported millions of people. The civilization began to decline in the ninth century; Spanish colonizers arrived in the 1500s.

The Spanish bishop Diego de Landa was responsible for a host of atrocities committed against the Maya people in the second half of the 16th century, including the destruction of sacred statues and carefully guarded books and texts, during a larger period of Spanish military, religious and cultural repression and colonialization.

“Many of the books that existed in the Classic period were probably destroyed by neglect centuries before Bishop Diego de Landa’s time,” exhibition co-curator Oswaldo Chinchilla tells Hyperallergic’s Rhea Nayyar. “The climate in the Maya region is not conducive to the preservation of organic materials especially. But these objects on display were originating from cities in ruins. The Spaniards weren’t invading these ruins, so that’s likely how these sculptures and architectural structures were preserved.”

Because few written records from the height of Maya power still exist, art historians, scholars and contemporary Maya communities have been able to glean information about the ancient civilization through the rare art and objects that remain.

The Dance of the Macaws

Today, some Maya culture and traditions persist. The Met’s exhibition includes video of young dancers in Santa Cruz Verapaz, Guatemala, performing the Dance of the Macaws, which “explains the origins of social institutions and the rationale for religious rituals dedicated to the gods of the earth and the mountains,” per the museum.

Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art” is on display at the Met in New York City through April 2, 2023. After that, it will be at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, from May 7, 2023 to September 3, 2023.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.