Climb enough steep stairs in the ancient city of Calakmul on the Yucatán Peninsula and you emerge above the jungle canopy. The tops of other stone towers seem to float on an ocean of greenery. All that’s left of the tens of thousands who lived here is a population of howler monkeys violating the silence. In the distance, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala converge, their artificial boundaries cutting through the heart of what was once all Maya territory, known as Petén.
The vivid mystery of that place permeates Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art, the Metropolitan Museum’s rare exhibition of carvings and sculptures from Calakmul and other Maya metropolises. The Maya occupied an intensely ornamented and expressive world, where walls and household objects told stories full of drama, disaster, creation and sex. Finely wrought figures dance and grin and sport extravagant plumage. Humans morph into gods and vice versa, sharing space with serpents and piglike peccaries.
This selective and dazzling anthology, organised by the Met with the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, centres on the classic period (AD250-900) and classic questions: what were its people like? What did they believe, fear and enjoy? And why, around 1,300 years ago, did their cities empty out and a great culture dwindle?
The answers are neither straightforward nor definitive, but the exhibition cuts through the complexity by focusing on iconography that merges the mortal with the supernatural. In nearly 100 whistles, jade carvings, stone portraits, painted ceramics and ceremonial objects, we see gods take on human form and human foibles: divinity made flesh.
The Maize God, one of the central figures in the Maya pantheon, is born, drowned and then reborn from a mountain crevice or a cracked turtle shell. He grows up and assumes his godly responsibilities; in one scene painted on a cylindrical vessel, a group of women dress him in the robes and accessories of his office.
The Sun God, another Maya VIG, is not merely celestial or aloof but suffers like mortals through the night, ages, weakens, fights back. Divinity can be dangerous. One fearsome ceramic censer lets us see him in his nocturnal guise as the Jaguar God of the Underworld, sitting cross-legged and wearing a fiery headdress. A younger, smaller captive buried neck-deep in clay squirms below. Power appears stable and oppressive here, but in other vignettes, a group of young lords rise up and set fire to their master.
Even with the Met’s careful lighting and cogent explanations, non-specialist viewers will find it a challenge to decipher illustrations of tales that are only partly understood, from places that have been only partially excavated. In some of the tinier and more intricate works, just making out what’s going on requires Holmesian powers of observation. One plate design I would have pegged as a crustacean of some kind turns out to be the Maize God wearing “a protective belt that denotes him as a ballplayer”.
Maya cities relinquish their secrets slowly, not to swashbuckling Indiana Joneses who go hacking through the jungle, but to patient scholars who pore over eroded artworks, cross-reference different versions of the myths, translate inscriptions phoneme by phoneme and glyph by glyph, and patiently connect the dots. This has been the work of generations, an ongoing collective investigation with the contents of this show as evidence.
“Only by combining the disciplines of archaeology, art history, ethnography, and linguistics, can [meanings] be discerned,” a catalogue essay declares. Recent advances in reading texts and piecing together myths have yielded much more context. Even so, the object descriptions are filled with words like “may”, “conceivably” and “probably”. Interpreting the iconography can be frustrating for the uninitiated.
Despite the interpretative murk, many of the artefacts are so sharp and eloquent that they could be used to illuminate the social and cultural faultlines of today. Take the Maya attitude towards ageing, in which reverence is, not surprisingly, shot through with ambivalence and alarm. There are plenty of examples of veneration. A painted ceramic whistle shows a shirtless elder, bedecked in a necklace and oversized earrings, emerging from the head of a cornstalk. “In Maya thought,” the text panel informs us, “the bones of the dead are comparable to plant seeds that carry progeny and fertilise the earth. The old men here are ancestors, growing like flowers in the afterlife.”
The living aged have their uses, too. In a comic-strip-like scene on a painted cup, a young woman harassed by an overenthusiastic suitor takes refuge behind her father, a firm and protective god. Here and there, the catalogue waxes rhapsodic about the virtues of seniority. “Aged spirits were the keepers of knowledge, the banks of intergenerational healing, oral histories and hope.”
But there are equally frequent instances of ridicule and humiliation. Old men, especially, are shown as superannuated gods, geezers and leches. When you see a bellicose figure raising a blowgun, it’s probably some young David aiming to bring down a potentate past his prime. A section of the exhibition optimistically titled “Knowledge” includes a series of grotesque stone heads with bulging eyes, grooved brows and toothless mouths. One memorable terracotta figurine presents an amorous couple clearly intended to elicit an “ew” rather than an “oh!”: a short and leering ancient nuzzles a young woman while his left hand creeps beneath her robe. Respect and scorn can be hard to tell apart.
Some slow-moving calamity — war, drought, disease, or just an over-extended economy — caused this rich urban society to collapse, though not even the Spanish Conquista 500 years later could eliminate it completely. A group of Maya languages, spoken by millions, still endures in the transnational Petén. So do contemporary costumes and rituals that anthropologists pick through for clues. Objects like those at the Met function as a ravishing code, linking the vivid past to the impoverished present. The unresolved mysteries are a relief, in a way, because they place the scholar and the dilettante in overlapping circles of uncertainty and excitement. You may not know how to parse arcane myths or identify a bas-relief jaguar pelt, but you can feel the exhilaration of wild dances, terrors and biting humour. Those require no codebook to understand, only an eager eye.
To April 2, metmusem.org