Pre-Columbian, Mayan Territories, Honduras, Ulua Valley, ca. 550 to 900 CE. A large and impressive Mayan polychrome cylinder on three slab feet, highly adorned with an elaborate hand-painted iconographic/decorative program in black, red, and orange on pale orange ground, the forms and painting technique characteristic of the Ulua Valley in Honduras. The iconographic program is comprised of a large register that features four dancers donning elaborate feathered headdresses and spotted jaguar skin, all in profile, extending their arms with scepters in the upper hands and feathered wing like ornaments in their lower hands, all bowing their heads and torsos as if engaged in a rhythmic processional. The ancient Maya referred to these hybrids figures of deities, humans, and zoomorphic beasts who represented companion spirits and lived in the dream world as way (pronounced why). Further embellishing the piece is a band of mat glyphs beneath the rim followed by abstract geometric motifs. A magnificent, museum quality example, most likely a gift for an elite individual as such painted cylinders were treasured for their meaning and artistic expertise. Size: 5.25" in diameter x 7.75" H (13.3 cm x 19.7 cm)
The iconography of this vessel presents layers of meaningful symbolism. The jaguar was regarded as an important symbol of Mayan culture thousands of years ago, long before Chichen Itza was a major city. This magnificent feline captivated rulers, warriors, and priests. After all, it was the largest predator in the Americas and possessed distinctive features associated with the celestial realm. Most notably, as a nocturnal animal, its spotted coat was oftentimes compared to the starry night sky. The Maya believed that the jaguar played a critical role in the creation myth, and that all royals descended from the jaguar. The jaguar was also a symbol of life and fertility. Moreover, the jaguar was a significant entity not only for the Mayans, but for all ancient Mesoamerican peoples; even the early Olmec featured the feline in legends and traditions.
The bird feathers are also significant, as avian creatures were sky animals regarded as messengers between the deities and humankind. They may also refer to the feathered serpent Kukulkan (identified as Quetzalcoatl in Nahuatl), a powerful god among the indigenous of the Americas; in the words of the pioneering Mexican artist/anthropologist Miguel Covarrubias, whose classic tomes and illustrations continue to contribute to scholarly studies today, “Quetzalcoatl stood for all that was good in this world: peace, art, wisdom, and prosperity. Disguised as an ant, he discovered maize, the staple food of the Indians, hidden under the mountain of Substance, Tonacatepetl; he also invented the arts, the sciences, and the calendar. In fact, everything connected with wisdom and culture was attributed to Quetzalcoatl.” (Miguel Covarrubias, Mexico South: The Isthmus of Tehuantepec (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946), p. 130.)
Such vases were used as gifts presented to royals and to serve food or drink, most likely cocoa, at ceremonial feasts. They were adorned by highly skilled painters who had an advanced understanding of Classic Maya religious mythology, history, and ideology. In addition, hieroglyphs were used to explore the meaning of the figures and scenes depicted, imbuing each form with a poetic visual language. The artists themselves were highly revered and usually belonged to elite families. For the Maya, extraordinary painted ceramic vases like this example were gifted to elite individuals, akin to the gifts exchanged between high profile dignitaries today. According to Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education scholars Dorie Reents-Budet and Ronald Bishop, "Today, when high-profile foreign dignitaries visit the White House, they can expect to attend grand dinners and to receive gifts, often custom-made by the best artists in the country. The gifts honor the visitor and showcase the giver's fine taste. In the days of the Classic Maya (A.D. 250-900), state-level gift-giving was little different, and no gift reflected more meaning or artistic expertise than the painted ceramic vase. Twenty years ago, the hieroglyphs, images, and even origins of these extraordinary vessels were little known. Now, advances in decipherment and chemical technology have made these vases invaluable for exploring the economic, political, and social exploits of the Maya. The vases, used both to serve food at feasts and as gifts presented at such events, were created by highly skilled painters who had mastered the intricacies of Classic Maya religious mythology, ideology, and history, and used hieroglyphic writing as both communication and visual poetry. Artists were highly regarded and often members of elite families." (Archaeology Archive, Vol. 56,Number 2, March/April 2003, abstract)
Provenance: ex-private Florida, USA collection
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