Mayan Carvings, Subjects and Contested Understandings of Art

Depiction of a the goddess Ix Chel or Chak Chel, from the Dresden Codex,
a pre-conquest Mayan manuscript.

Jesús Marcos Delgado Kú representing
Ix Chel.

Art vs. Artifact.

Referring to an aesthetic artifact as “tourist art” affects the way we value, interpret, and attach meaning to objects created by artisans outside of the Western art world, and affects how we view the Puuc and other Yucatec Maya woodcarvings in this exhibition. Although the line between “high” and “low” art once seemed firm and durable, it is no longer so clear. Traditional “non-arts” (e.g. commercial art, tourist art, etc.) are increasingly being recognized as valid and vibrant expressions of visual culture and alternatives to the restricted attitudes of earlier discussions of art and aesthetics.

A romantic stereotype holds that ethnic and folk arts must emerge from a continuous “living” tradition, and must still serve a ritual or utilitarian purpose to be “authentic.” Although it is recognized that such objects were not created purely as “art for art’s sake,” there is also an expectation that they embody indigenous cultural concepts, and are not made only for the sake of commercial gain.  However, the reality of both historical and modern craft-producing communities reveals the vibrant commercial markets, savvy and experienced vendors, and artful and innovative objects that, although they may or may not be based on traditional forms, serve no “traditional” purpose outside of their creation for sale to foreign visitors and buyers.

Standard western definitions of art, and the system for classifying the arts, emerged during the Renaissance, which valued the personal creativity and genius of individual artists. Eighteenth-century philosophical studies of aesthetics, beauty, and taste had a profound impact on shaping the discipline of art history in the nineteenth century. These developments in critical thought informed the work of twentieth century critics such as Clement Greenberg, who set out to define the boundaries between “high” and “low” art. For Greenberg, painting and sculpture belonged to the former category and decorative arts and crafts to the latter. Pop art represented a response to and rejection of this Greenbergian prejudice, as well as the over-commercialization of art in the gallery system. Supporting the premise that industrialized and mass-produced images could be a redeeming rather than a threatening aspect of culture, the Pop artists drew inspiration from, and in some cases borrowed or “appropriated” imagery from Hollywood and entertainment icons, advertising, and objects of popular culture.

The approach of the Pop artists was not conceptually new. Artists have been deliberately “appropriating” aspects of the form and subject matter of other art works for their own purposes for millennia, yet some borrowing is viewed as part of valid “art” expressions and some is not.  The Puuc artisans knowingly and skillfully utilize pre-existing images that they understand are references to a Maya past and will appeal to those who visit the “Maya World” in the present. What prevents the Puuc artisans from receiving the same recognition as some other post-modernist appropriations? Clearly, this hinges as much (or more) on their artistic background and location in a field of cultural production as it does on their ability, skill, talent or intelligence.

Such challenges to the long accepted aesthetic definition of art, and categories designating art as “high” versus “low” are related to changing evaluations of Western art versus non-Western art. The low esteem Western critics generally placed on "kitsch", mass-produced and tourist (i.e. “low”) arts resembled common views of non-Western and “primitive” art until they were transformed from “artifacts” into “art” by their “discovery” by European modernists. But what happens when critics confront the unfamiliar styles, subjects and formats inherent in contemporary non-Western art?  Carolyn Dean, a Pre-Columbianist scholar, notes that “calling something art reveals nothing inherent in the object to which the term is applied; rather, it reveals how much the viewer values it.” Similarly, Susan Vogel, a specialist in African art, believes that designating a non-Western object as “art” is problematic, given that such “aesthetic recognition […] depends on changes in Western taste.”

James Clifford has discussed these issues and proposed that they have resulted in the establishment of an “art-culture system” where non-Western objects are “contextualized and given value” according to Western value systems. In this system particular objects are categorized either as “art” which is seen as something more original and singular, or as “artifact” which is traditional, collective, and representative of a “culture.” Until recently, the types of carvings shown in this exhibition might have fallen into Clifford’s category of “inauthentic artifacts.” Recognition of the aesthetic quality of previously ignored traditions allows some “artifacts” to be recognized as “art,” although in many cases they are valued not as the products of an individual artist, but for their association with a particular cultural group or historical tradition. Aspects of this process are being implemented in this exhibition centered on the display and analysis of the carvings by the four Yucatec Maya artisans. This is not surprising, since classifications and values assigned to objects in the “art-culture system” have regularly undergone change, sometimes in ways that seem arbitrary and based on context rather than any inherent quality of the object. Thus, although it has been common to classify the types of carvings created by the Puuc artisans as “tourist art,” this exhibition argues that, like all aesthetic artifacts, these carvings convey socially and culturally constructed meanings. Understanding what these messages are, and how they are perceived by the viewer/consumer helps us to gain a better understanding of aesthetic objects from other cultures, including the types of wood sculptures produced for sale to tourists considered in this exhibition.


Angel Ruíz Novelo, Portrait Head of the ruler K’inich Janaab Pakal II, based on the stucco portrait of the king found beneath his sarcophagus at Palenque, Chiapas.

Wilbert Vázquez, Maya ruler holding a ceremonial bar. This fine carving depicts of the king Aj Bolon Haabtal (formerly known as Ah-Bolon-Abta Wat’ul Chatel) seen on the mid-ninth century Stela 10 from Seibal, Guatemala.

Wilbert Vázquez, The “Diving God,” The name of these distinctive figures stems from the fact that they appear to be diving headfirst from the sky. The most notable examples come from Tulum (in Quintana Roo) and Mayapán (in Yucatán).

Jesús Marcos Delgado Kú, The ruler “Itzamnaaj Bahlam IV” (Chel Te) and a Sahal (subordinate lord) overseeing a presentation of captives, This carving is based on the Kimbell Panel, thought to be from the site of Laxtunich located near Yaxchilan, Chiapas.

Miguel Uc Delgado, Calendar Wheel with Kneeling Figure, This image is based on a well-known diagram in the book The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization by J. E. S. Thompson, this illustrates the working of the 260–day ritual prophetic calendar known as the tzolk’in (a concocted name). The figure in the center represents the concept of a deity carrying or bearing a time period. Although the image of the central bearer figure (cargador) stems from Classic period full-figure date glyphs, the circular calendar wheel does not appear in Classic Maya art. Yet, due to the popularity of Thompson’s book, this has become a common and easily recognized shorthand reference to ancient Maya civilization.

Maya Subjects — Interpretation of Common Motifs.

The Puuc woodcarvings display a set of common subjects, source imagery, and ways that the artisans reinterpret these subjects through their artistic influences and signature carving style. The favorite subjects among the Puuc artisans are highly detailed depictions of rulers from stone carvings at Yaxchilán, Palenque, or other Classic Maya cities, as well as deity images from the Dresden codex and polychrome Maya ceramics. Sculptures from Yaxchilan are a particular favorite, and two well-known models are Lintels 24 and 25. The first of these depicts the ruler Iztamnaaj Balam II (“Shield Jaguar”) and his wife Lady K’ab’al Xook engaged in a bloodletting ritual, while the second shows the aftermath of such rituals as the apparition of a distant ancestor is conjured and emerges from an S-shaped “vision serpent.” Palenque subjects include depictions of the ruler Janaab’ Pakal I, shown entering the jaws of the underworld against a cross-shaped world tree on his sarcophagus lid, or merging his features with those of the maize god in his famous stucco portrait sculpture. The Puuc artisans recognize that subjects taken from such Classic Maya sources are popular among their buying audience due to the highly naturalistic rendering of the figures, which is in stark contrast to the more geometric and stylized imagery found at the Puuc sites. In addition, their frequent reproduction in both scholarly and popular media has made them “iconic” representations of the ancient Maya. While each of the artisans reproduces many of the same subjects, no two figures are exactly alike.  Marked differences exist in the rendering of a figure, which is a result of differences in carving style, artistic influences and process.

Portrayals of Maya deities in the Dresden Codex, whose curvilinear treatment of figures lends itself to the preferred style of the artisans, are favored as subjects for smaller carvings. These include the long-snouted rain god Chaak (God B), whose visage also appears as masks on Puuc architectural facades, and the Maize god (God E), also known as Yum K’aax. Also popular are the old creator deity Itzamnaaj (God D) and creator goddess Ix Chel (Goddess O, also known as Chak Chel), often shown with her snake headdress and holding an inverted vase. These figures are almost exact facsimiles from the Dresden Codex, though, as with other figures, each artisan modifies these figures according to his personal carving style. Though much of this reflects aesthetic preference, each artisan also makes these modifications to reinforce the carving’s design so that the latter is less susceptible to breaking or cracking in the more fragile areas.

Other motifs and figures include hieroglyphs (including individual full-figure date glyphs, more complete Initial Series dates, or images of the “calendar wheel”), diving gods of the type that appear on structures at Tulum, jaguars (particularly those seen on the Eagles and Jaguars Platform at Chichén Itzá), and God L (shown as the cigar-smoking “fumador” from the jamb of the Temple of the Cross at Palenque), among others. A significant number of relief and full-round carvings depict so-called chacmools (a name given to them by the eccentric nineteenth-century explorer Augustus Le Plongeon). With their recumbent pose and holding a plate or bowl on their stomach, these figures been interpreted as intermediaries that carry messages to the gods. The chacmool’s prominence at Chichén Itzá, along with its use in advertising for Cancún, has made this figure a popular image in various types of craft media.

The source of the imagery for the artisans’ carvings comes from predictable references such as popular scholarly texts or exhibition catalogs on Maya art and archaeology and personal photographs from the sites during their own travel experiences, but they also use less conventional sources such as children’s coloring books or more popular guidebooks with drawings of Maya monuments and motifs. Puuc artisans generally have a basic knowledge of the meaning and history of the images they carve, based on a mix of personal study as well as from their contact and conversations with scholars working in the Puuc region and elsewhere in the Maya region.  This intimate relationship with individuals who are personally involved in Maya archaeological studies puts the Puuc artisans in a special position that provides them with a substantial understanding of Maya iconography that is reflected in their work.

Miguel Uc Delgado, Chacmool Figure, A significant number of Puuc relief and full-round carvings depict motifs from Chichén Itzá. Quite popular are images of chacmools, distinctive figures in a recumbent pose holding a plate or bowl on their stomach. They have been interpreted as intermediaries that carry messages to the gods, with the circular plate perhaps holding sacrificial offerings, or serving as a platform for drilling sacred fire.

The famous stucco portrait head of the Palenque ruler, K’inich Janaab Pakal I serves as a model for several carvings by the Puuc artisans. This plaster cast of the head is displayed in the Hacienda Uxmal Hotel. Photography by Jeff Kowalski.

Jesús Marcos Delgado Kú, The rain god Chaak, The Puuc artisans also base many of their carvings on the images of deities from the Maya codices, particularly the Dresden Codex, whose more curvilinear treatment of the figures lends itself to the preferred style of the carvers. Particularly numerous are low-relief portrayals of Chaak (Schellhas’ God B), the Yucatec Maya god of rain and lightning.

Angel Ruíz Novelo, The ruler K’inich Janaab Pakal II entering the underworld, The stone relief carving on the sarcophagus lid depicts K’inich Janaab Pakal I on the threshold of death as he is descending into the open maws of a skeletal earth monster and entering Xibalba, the underworld. Behind him rises the world tree, or axis mundi, which places the dying ruler at the center of the universe and simultaneously connects the
upper and lower worlds.

Miguel Uc Delgado, Yum K’aax, the Maize God or Lord of the Forest Field, The maize god, or God E, is another important ancient Maya deity who still resonates with local people in Yucatán and is frequently depicted by
the Puuc carvers.

Puuc carvings are based on well-known Classic Maya monuments such as Lintel 24 from Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico, shown here. The scene shows the local king Itzamnaaj Bahlam III (Shield Jaguar) holding a torch while his principal wife, Lady K’abal Xook (Lady Xoc) performs a bloodletting ritual of ancestral veneration (after Maudslay 1889–1902, vol. II, pl. 86. Image reproduced from the facsimile edition of Biologia Centrali-Americana by Alfred Percival Maudslay. Published by Milpatron Publishing Corp.,
Stamford, CT 06902.

Jesús Marcos Delgado Kú, Three-dimensional portrait head of the ruler K’inich Janaab Pakal II, The stucco portrait head of K’inich Janaab Pakal I that was found beneath his sarcophagus in his burial chamber within the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, Chiapas, has been illustrated countless times.

The symposium is free and open to the public.

We encourage attendees to contact Connie Rhoton (, or 815-753-1474) to give us an idea of the audience size. Those who would like to purchase an on-site lunch, which will cost  $8.00, must pre-register by contacting Connie Rhoton.

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