Breaking New Ground With Mayan Art

Posted March 31, 2004 at 1:50pm

For those gallery-hoppers whose taste leans to the ancient side, the National Gallery of Art will unveil Sunday — for the first time in the United States — an exhibit showcasing more than 130 objects from the golden age of Mayan court civilization, which reached its apex in the seventh and eighth centuries.

Through myriad sculptures, steles, lintels and panels, “Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya” provides an unparalleled glimpse into the inner workings of the well-heeled pre-Columbian set. It offers everything from the aristocratic class’s relentless emulation of the Maize God, their deity of choice, to the predilection of some for being buried with shell-carved cacao beans and tiny ceramic figurines representing various court functionaries so as to have both spending money and attendants on hand in the afterlife.

Divided into six sections, the exhibit touches on daily life, divinities, writing, women and war in the Mayan courts, with one section expressly devoted to the court at Palenque, a powerful city-state once nestled among Mexico’s Chiapas rainforests.

Given the Mayans’ predilection for producing all manner of artworks “by the court, for the court and about the court” (to quote curator Mary Ellen Miller), the offerings, while thematic, are also highly eclectic.

Highlights include a trio of eighth-century limestone reliefs — commissioned by the redoubtable Lady Xok of Yaxchilan, chief wife to King Shield Jaguar — depicting interactions between husband and wife and shown together for the first time since two of the three were acquired by the British Museum in the early 1880s.

For sports enthusiasts, a grouping of miniature Mayan ballplayers padded down to appear like Telatubbies will likely elicit more than a few chuckles.

Meanwhile, America’s armchair cultural anthropologists may find a diminutive figurine of a couple embracing to be revealing — on more than one level. Here, an older man slides his hand up a nubile, young woman’s skirt. Proof positive that some things at least remain reliably constant across the millennia.

The exhibit, organized in conjunction with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, runs through July 25 in the National Gallery’s East Building. On Sunday at 2 p.m., Curator Mary Ellen Miller will deliver a lecture titled “An Introduction to the Exhibition: Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya,” in the East Building Auditorium. For a complete listing of events related to the exhibit, go to www.nga.gov.