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Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork



Many people find the ancient Mayan civilisation to be both strange and unnerving. Everything in 2012 revolved on the end of the Mayan calendar. Even if they were wrong in their prognosis, there is still a lot to discover about these remarkable individuals. The art of the Maya is fascinating and deserves a deeper examination.

The Maya: Who Were They?

The religious ideas, governmental systems, and social structures of many civilizations throughout history have all been distinctive. Because of these and other causes, they have developed a style of art that is uniquely theirs.

Consequently, familiarity with ancient Mayan civilization and culture is necessary for appreciating Mayan art.


Central America saw the emergence of its first agricultural settlements circa 1500 BCE. Collectively, these settlements would develop into the Maya culture we know today. While the Maya did not refer to themselves by that name, it has become the common moniker in contemporary times. It’s also important to remember that they didn’t consider themselves to be part of a single, unified community, but rather a collection of separate, individual entities.

The upshot is that we have identified at least 28 distinct Mayan languages, and there were probably many more.

Top 100 Masterpieces – World’s Most Famous Paintings PDF

The Maya, along with other pre-Columbian civilizations like the Aztecs, are often regarded as the spiritual heirs of the Olmec people. Their territory extended from southern Mexico to northern Nicaragua, covering most of Mesoamerica. Counting all of them, there were more than forty different Mayan settlements. They formed common religious ideas and rituals throughout the Preclassic era, despite the fact that they spoke various dialects (c. 2000 BCE – 250 CE).

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
Maya Temple of the Masks (Tikal Temple II), Petén Department, northern Guatemala; Mike Vondran derivative work: MrPanyGoff, CC BY 2.0, through Wikimedia Commons.

Between 250 to 900 CE, during what is now called the Mayan Classical period, the Mayan civilisation flourished. Nearly two million Maya lived during this period. Religion, art, mathematics, and science were all present, showing that their culture was advanced.

But from about 900 CE, they started to dwindle. It’s speculated that internal strife and bad weather were at blame.

Little of the Spanish empire’s past splendour remained by the time it reached the New World. They had given up many of their once-great cities in favour of simpler agricultural settlements. By the time the Spanish arrived in the Americas in the 16th century, almost all of the Maya had already been subjugated. Some of their offspring have persisted through the ages, and many of those who have are devout Catholics.


Historians often remark on the Mayas’ impressive level of agricultural expertise. They had to be resourceful in order to sustain enormous people on a little plot of land. As a result, they used an assortment of novel agricultural methods, the development of which spanned many centuries.

Among the Maya’s most important crops were corn, cassava, squash, and beans.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has a tripod bowl from the Early Classic era with a heron lid. Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Finding that these plants thrived in the same conditions led them to plant them in the same beds. Consequently, a great deal of food was generated for the community. Wild fruits, tubers, and other foods were also important sources of nutrition for the Maya.

Before this, it was thought that the Maya only cleared the land by using slash-and-burn procedures.

This land, however, may only be farmed for a limited time before it needs to rest and recover. Historians started to wonder how they managed to feed so many people. Inquiries revealed that these farms used sophisticated aquaponic methods, elaborate irrigation setups, and multi-tiered cultivation.


The Maya believed in a pantheon of deities. The number of gods they worshipped is unknown since many of those gods existed in different guises. The Maya, for instance, had several deities who represented the sun, moon, stars, and planets. When these stars disappeared during the day, worshippers thought that the gods they represented had passed away and been reborn as Underworld entities. The Maya believed in many gods, but one in particular, Itzamná (the deity of creativity and knowledge), was supreme. The Maya also held his wife, the goddess of healing and childbirth, Ix Chel, in high regard.

There was a lot going on in Mayan religion. They believed in a heaven made up of 13 layers, each with its own deity, as well as an underworld of nine tiers.

Earth was the intermediate world between the two. To them, the world was a flat stretch of land, which they imagined to be the back of a crocodile. The stars and planets were encased in the body of a two-headed serpent (commonly connected with Itzamná) thought to reside in the sky.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, United States, has a relief column from the Late Classic era; Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, through Wikimedia Commons.

The Maya thought that only by shedding human blood could their gods be appeased. During religious festivals and times of great need, it was standard practise to sacrifice animals and even humans. Captives and sometimes even members of their own population were selected for human sacrifice. They also made leaders frequently donate blood.

The prospect of dying struck fear into the hearts of the Maya. The reason for this is that all people, according to their beliefs, went to the hereafter.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork

Normal people were stuck there forever, but kings and priests could leave at night (just as their gods did). Those who passed away were given a box filled with food and other belongings to take with them into the afterlife. The most prominent members of society were often burned, and sometimes mummified. Mummies need “feeding” by their families on a regular basis.

Mathematical study of the heavens

The Maya possessed advanced mathematical, scientific, and astronomical practises, all of which are hallmarks of a flourishing civilisation. Their use in the creation of religious calendars and the execution of monumental building is addressed in further detail below.

The Mayan Calendar and Mathematics

The Maya had a sophisticated system of numeration that included the zero early on. Unlike the other numerals, which were formed up of dots and dashes, this one was symbolised by a shell hieroglyph. They possessed an advanced system of numbers that made complex computations simple for them to do. Many of us are familiar with the story that the Mayan calendar, which prophesied the end of the world in 2012, was wrong.

Even though they missed that detail, their calendar is remarkable for its time. Their solar calendar was even more reliable than the Julian calendar employed by the Romans.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
A Maya-themed artifact with circular riffs on the Mayan calendar; theilrCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Maya had three separate calendars that all worked together. The haab lasted 18 months, with each month consisting of 20 days. This is the equivalent to our solar calendar and was calculated using planetary motions. It’s worth noting, too, that unlike our calendar, the haab only has 360 days. This occurred because of the five days of wayeb celebrated annually.

During wayeb, the Maya thought, the barrier between our world and the spirit realm was weakened, making it a particularly perilous period.

Tzolk’in, a sacred cycle of 260 days, was also celebrated with haab. This cycle likely took into account the typical duration of a human pregnancy. When all the haabs and tzolk’ins were added together, the result was a calendar round, or 52 years. Their poor life expectancy meant that this lasted almost two generations.

Among the ancient Maya’s many interests, astronomy had a special place.

They thought that there was a connection between earthly events and astronomical occurrences. Therefore, they could foretell the future by watching the stars. The sun, moon, and Venus were the primary comedic targets of their attention. Though they knew that other worlds existed.

The Maya had a deep reverence for Venus since it was believed to be the home of Kukulcan, their battle deity.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
Classical Era Effigy Vessel of a Deer (about AD 250 – 600). In most Maya artwork, the deer is shown as a victim of human activity, such as hunting or sacrifice. There are Venus symbols and conch shells etched on the deer, both of which are associated with death since Venus was thought to bring bad luck and hunters sometimes carried conch shell trumpets; Cleveland Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some others feared anarchy would break out if Venus were to rise in the morning sky. They planned military campaigns around this astronomical occurrence. Human sacrifices were common throughout this era as well.

The Maya considered solar and lunar eclipses to be as important as Venus.

They thought that an eclipse occurred when the two-headed snake in the sky bit off one of the celestial bodies, usually the sun or the moon. Certain ceremonies were performed at this time to pacify the snake.

Politics and Government

It is important to remember that the many Mayan tribes and chiefdoms did not saw themselves as part of a unified empire. Sometimes larger tribes will conquer and rule over smaller ones. Maya politics remained dynamic, however, because of the ongoing conflicts that plagued the region. It did seem that there was a clear chain of command inside each tribe.

There was a divinely-appointed monarch among the Maya. There was a widespread belief that the monarch and his family had divine origins and could do whatever they set their minds to.

Artwork from the Maya culture, which will be explored separately, unmistakably depicts the ruler as all-powerful. A king was traditionally chosen from from the male descendants of the previous monarch, much as in Western countries. Massive parties and intricate rituals heralded the crowning of a new monarch.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
El Castillo (pyramid of Kukulcán) in Chichén Itzá; Daniel SchwenCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The religious and military duties of kings were extensive. The belief was that their blood was required to establish a connection with the gods. Even potential successors had to start donating blood at the age of five for various rites. It was also anticipated of a king that he would prove to be a formidable military commander and ferocious fighter. Warriors, monks, and the very affluent populated his court. When a dispute arose among the judges, they would either perform a dancing ritual or bring about a human sacrifice.

The majority of Mayan civilization, about 90%, consisted of commoners. Those in this category included shopkeepers, traders, farmers, priests, and slaves.

As with the nobility, there were likely other social strata among the commoners as well, but details on these are sketchy at best. It is well-known, however, that peasants were obligated to provide the nobility with tax payments of meat and crops.

Decline of the Maya Civilization

The Maya culture started drastically deteriorating about the year 900 CE. There was a general decline in population, and people returned to more primitive forms of community such as farming. Many causes have been blamed for this decline throughout history. Changing weather patterns are the most significant element that may have contributed to the decline of the Mayan kingdom.

The Maya had a period of abundant rainfall throughout the Classical era that lasted over 700 years.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
Panel 3 from Cancuen, Guatemala, representing king T’ah ‘ak’ Cha’an with two subordinates (second half of 8th century); User:Authenticmaya~commonswikiCC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Drought conditions, aggravated by the clearing of forests, were common beginning about 900 CE. Since this was the case, it was clear that their population levels were unsustainable. The Mayan people had also begun to suffer from the effects of centuries of internal warfare. Conflict is said to have altered trade routes and perhaps redirected water supplies. As a result, many different tribes saw a decline in their available resources. Therefore, they were already in a very poor position when the Spanish came in the 1500s.

The Spanish could quickly eradicate the Maya because of their superior military might and the introduction of new illnesses from Europe. The survivors were coerced into adopting Spanish culture.

The Maya and Their Art

After a brief introduction to Mayan history and society, we’ll move on to the article’s major topic: Mayan art. Several facets of Maya art will be discussed here. Who or what inspired them to make art, and what did it want to convey? Specifically, what kinds of artwork did they produce? Lastly, which of these ancient Mayan artworks have gained the greatest notoriety throughout the years since their discovery?

Is There Meaning Behind Mayan Art?

Everyone has a natural want to look their best all the time, and that includes you. It wasn’t any different for the Maya. They used art to decorate everything from their houses to temples to palaces to ceremonial courtyards to themselves.

The many types of Mayan art have been crucial in deciphering the culture’s past.

Expressions of creativity in the arts are indicators of a successful culture. If a society is self-sustaining, it implies its members are not just holding their own but prospering. It seems to reason that if one has the leisure time and financial means to make art, they also have the leisure time and financial means to acquire and produce items for their own pleasure. As a result, the vast majority of Maya artworks we’ve discovered date to the Classical era, when the Maya civilization was at its height.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has a male Maya figurine made of clay that doubled as a musical instrument during the seventh and eighth centuries;  Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Maya art wasn’t only made for aesthetic purposes, however. The religious beliefs of the ancient Maya were the primary inspiration for most of their art. Both the interiors and exteriors of temples were painted with murals displaying their pantheon of gods and legends.

Symbolism associated with certain ceremonies was used to decorate sacred sites. Cities and towns were adorned with statues honouring a wide range of gods. The ordinary Maya often displayed sacred art in their dwellings.

The Maya also produced art to document their culture’s past. More than a thousand different hieroglyphs were used in the Maya writing system. In most cases, however, these hieroglyphs were an afterthought. Since only a select few Maya elite were literate enough to decipher these hieroglyphs, Mayan art served as the major means of communicating the culture’s history.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, United States, is home to a vessel depicting a throne scene in the Chamá style (late 7th to early 8th century); Metropolitan Museum of Art CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Maya considered it important to chronicle significant events in their history, which were depicted in their art. Artwork was created to document and explain astronomical occurrences like eclipses. Combining mythology and realism, elaborate designs of ceremonies were widespread.

To ensure that their legacy would not be lost to history, several Mayan monarchs commissioned painters to create pictures of them.

Understanding Maya Symbolism

You may be asking what it all signifies now that you know the function of Mayan art. Many Maya pieces of art have religious imagery or symbolic meanings. So that you may appreciate Mayan art more fully, let’s take a look at a few of the recurring themes found in the culture’s visual works.

The Serpent

The Maya culture often used snakes as a significant emblem in their artwork. The Maya thought that snakes might cross the threshold between the physical world and the afterlife. Since they could easily shed their skin, they were also linked to the cycles of creation and destruction.

Kukulcan, the Mayan divinity, was often represented as a serpent adorned with feathers. As a result, he could move freely among our planet, the underworld, and the stars.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
Serpent head at the base of El Castillo, depicting a snake in Mayan mythology; Frank KovalchekCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Maya, along with other pre-Columbian civilizations such as the Olmecs and the Aztecs, revered Kukulcan as a deity of creation. Sculptures of feathered snakes cover the walls of the massive temples built in Chichen Itza as a tribute to him.

Another deity of creation with a snake motif is Itzamná.

The Maya thought he inhabited the sky in the guise of a two-headed serpent. It’s interesting to note that the Mayan terms for snake and sky sound similar to each other, leading many to identify snakes with the stars.

Cats: Jaguar

The jaguar is another common motif in Mayan artwork. The Maya revered the jaguar as a sign of power and courage. This is why many deities and deities’ symbols have jaguar characteristics. Of them, Ah Puch (God of the Underworld), Buluc Chabtan (God of War), and Ix Chel (God of the Sky) are among the most essential (Goddess of the moon and fertility).

Jaguar skins were a common item of armour for Mayan warriors. As a result, the Maya often depicted males with jaguar heads.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
Jaguar God of Terrestrial Fire on a cinerary urn from the Late-Classic period; see: File:Urna funeraria maya Kinich Ahau (M. América Inv.91-11-12) 01.jpgCC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In this manner, they reasoned, they might emulate the jaguar’s stealth and nimbleness. It was also done in respect to Buluc Chabtan, in the belief that he would bestow upon them success and protection in war. Humans-turned-jaguars are another recurring theme in Mayan art.

Shamans and even certain rulers were given the reputation of being able to transform into jaguars. One common way of illustrating this is by giving the face a human side and a jaguar side.

Mayan Identical Twins

The narrative of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, twin brothers, is one of the earliest Mayan myths that has survived to the present day. Hun Hunahpu, their legendary father, was lured to the underworld by one of the rulers of Xibalba and murdered for his head. As legend has it, their mother, the daughter of a ruler of the underworld, became pregnant after having a conversation with Hun Hunahpuh’s brain.

She ran away to Earth with the assistance of the owls to avoid being killed by her disbelieving father. She had twins here on Earth.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
Two lively were-jaguar babies on the left side of La Venta Altar 5. The two were-jaguars depicted may or may not be mythic hero twins essential to Olmec mythology; Ruben Charles, ( BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As a result of their prevalence in Mayan mythology, the twins are generally referred to as “the Mayan twins” and are shown extensively in Mayan art. Hunahpu, who is associated with illness and death, is invariably seen with a black mark on his face. Since Xbalanque is associated with the martial arts, he is often depicted as a jaguar.

Supposedly, the birth of the sun and the moon marks the beginning of a new age since the twins transformed into them. Some say the Mayan king and queen trace their lineage back to these two siblings.

In this case, the Eagle

Since eagles could soar to the clouds above, the Maya thought of them as godlike creatures. They worshipped Kinich Ahau, the sun deity, who provided the planet with energy and light. Eagles, being birds of prey, stood for determination and planning.

They became icons of the community because of the importance people placed on their ability to communicate and work together.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
A Jade vulture head pendant, made between 200 and 700 (Classic period); Walters Art Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sub-Genres Within Mayan Art

The Maya created works of art in a wide variety of mediums, including wall paintings, sculptures, and carvings. Temples, palaces, city squares, and private dwellings were all decorated with them. We’ll take a closer look at each of these subsets of Mayan art below.

Paintings from the Maya Civilization

The old artworks cannot be preserved in the hot and humid Central American environment. The original colours of many Mayan paintings have faded or been lost entirely. Those who did not perish, however, have taught us much about Mayan culture.

The Maya employed red (produced from clay, berries, and insects) and black as their primary colours (made using obsidian). The Maya had a plethora of these materials at their disposal.

Nonetheless, there’s proof that they experimented with other hues, too. The indigo plant’s leaves, together with a few other things, might be used to make a bright yellow paint. When this concoction was introduced to clay, a chemical reaction occurred that not only changed the colour of the material but also made it thicker.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
The east wall of room 1 depicting a musician’s mural found at Bonampak, an ancient Maya archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas; Arian Zwegers from Brussels, BelgiumCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bright turquoise, now called “Mayan blue,” might be created in the same way as yellow is. These complex procedures demonstrated the Maya’s relatively high level of scientific literacy. Recently, this method has even been replicated by modern scientists for use in dye production.

The Maya believed this special shade of blue paint to be the hue of the gods.

In Mayan paintings, subjects range from major wars to religious celebrations. The bulk of the murals that have survived focus on aristocratic subjects. To ensure that they would never be forgotten, kings would routinely have portraits made. Murals depicting typical Maya life have been unearthed in recent years. These provide us crucial details about the population’s backbone, the vast majority of its inhabitants.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
Mayan mural from Tikal; ENRICO FERORELLI, DOUG STERN, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

These paintings depict farmers tending to a wide range of crops. Scholars were aided in deciphering a much wider range of glyphs because of the labels attached to each picture. The glyph for maize, a staple food in Mayan culture, was one such symbol. The Maya painted murals for more than just show.

Walls of temples were often used by priests to display astronomical and calendrical information. When they ran out of wall space, new calendars were simply painted over the old ones.

In 2008, archaeologists in Xultn, Guatemala, found what they claimed to be the world’s oldest calendar painted on the walls of a structure. But in 2022, a piece of the calendar going back to 200 BCE was discovered in San Bartolo. Larger Mayan settlements would have adopted calendars much earlier than the relatively developed San Bartolo.

sculptures from the Maya

It is well-known that the Maya were masters in the art of engraving. limestone, wood, and even expensive stones like jade and obsidian were all used to carve elaborate patterns, figures, and hieroglyphs. There is a wide variety of Mayan sculptures out there. In this part, we’ll examine stelae, zoomorphs, and wooden sculptures in further detail.


A massive stone slab known as a stela is set into the ground at an angle so that it may stand upright. Limestone, which is both soft and simple to carve, would be the material of choice for most of these objects. Typically seven metres in height, stelae were placed in the middle of town to ensure that everyone could see them. Historians believe that they were made to decorate religious altars.

The Maya used a carving technique known as relief carving to create their works of art in stone. Images in relief carving have their backgrounds removed to create a three-dimensional effect.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
Detail of Stela B, a high relief sculpture from Copán, depicting the king Uaxaclajuun Ubʼaah Kʼawiil; Talk2winik, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Images of gods and monarchs, frequently surrounded by intricate Mayan designs, are often seen on stelae. They felt these pictures represented their allied alter. Many were discovered unpainted, but experts think they formerly had bright red, blue, and yellow hues.

Based on the aesthetic, we may deduce that stelae were most popular during the Mayan Classical era.

All of the main Mayan cities contain stelae, and scholars speculate that even smaller villages would have had one to embellish their town square. Nearly two hundred stelae, or stone slabs, were unearthed in the Mexican city of Calakmul, proving that the Mayans regularly used this art style.


Animal-shaped sandstone rocks, known as “zoomorphs,” were a popular feature of ancient Mayan art. Such creatures would have included jaguars, snakes, and crocodiles, all of which had special sacred importance to the Maya.

The zoomorphs would be decorated with Mayan patterns and hieroglyphs that relayed local history and mythology.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
This is a plaster replica of a Mayan zoomorphic monument that stands in Quiriguá, Guatemala; the original may be seen in  Daderot CC0 public domain photo.

Guiriqua, in Guatemala, has the greatest number of zoomorph discoveries. Archaeological evidence places their creation between the years 746 and 805 of the common era. Many zoomorphs were discovered to be in pristine condition, proving their resilience. After declaring their independence from Copán, historians think the Maya in Guiriqua started producing zoomorphs at a prolific rate. This is because a lot of people worship K’ak Tilw Chan Yopaat, the liberation leader.

An example of a zoomorph that combined two significant Mayan gods—the crocodile and the jaguar—was the Xibalba.

When it comes to zoomorphs, Guiriqua is home to one of the biggest—Zoomorph P. One of its rulers, Sky Xul, is seen coming from a turtle’s mouth. The Maya considered the turtle to be sacred because of its association with the creation of the world and with the many gods of maize worshipped by the Maya. Most likely, this zoomorph was made to symbolise a connection between the royal family and the origin of the planet.

Carvings in Wood

Sadly, just a few of Mayan woodcarvings have made through to the contemporary day. Since the wood was decaying and the Maya were converted to Christianity by force, no wooden idols survived. Wooden carvings, however, are thought to have been prevalent in Mayan civilization, according to historians.

Inside a pyramid at Tikal, Guatemala, archaeologists uncovered intricately carved wooden lintels.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
Mirror-bearer, a man Mayan wood sculpture carved from wood with red hematite and housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, United States (6th century); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Images of Mayan monarchs and other significant symbols, such as jaguars, feathered serpents, and details associated with the Mayan deity of death, are shown. Wooden imprints were discovered at other Mayan temples, but the wood itself had rotted away. That carvings and ornamentation were often made out of wood was shown by this. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is home to one of the few remaining free-standing wooden sculptures.

The sculpted wooden figure depicts a sitting guy with his arms outstretched. It is presumed that this was used as a support of some kind, maybe for a mirror.

Stone Replicas of the Maya

Even with their crude and restricted sculpting tools, the Maya were skilled artists. In the 1st century BCE, they apparently started making sculptures. Mayan sculptures had a variety of purposes, including aesthetic, religious, and even utilitarian ones. All sorts of materials were used since they were plentiful in the Maya homeland. We shall focus on sculptures crafted from stone, porcelain, and jade for the remainder of this piece.

Artwork Carved Into Stone

Archaeologists have uncovered a large number of stone Mayan sculptures. Limestone and sandstone, being relatively soft and simple to carve, were the most popular choices. The wealthy frequently commissioned stone sculptures to adorn public spaces like plazas, palaces, and temples.

Kings, both past and present, and gods, both of equal importance, were common subjects for stone sculptures.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
The 151st monument of the Tonina dynasty in Chiapas, Mexico, depicts a man in chains. The statue dates back to the Classical or Nearby Ancient period, and it was carved out of limestone (600 – 900 C.E.) Musée du quai Branly, CC0 through Wikimedia Commons; these hieroglyphs identify the guy shown as an aj k’uhu’n, a prominent religious and political leader.

In or around 2011, archaeologists in Tonina, Mexico, uncovered a Mayan figure that was in almost pristine condition. As its captive’s wrists are tied, experts think it depicts a prisoner captured from Palenque during a fight. Glyphs adorn the statue and provide information on the fight, including when it took place and who won.

This Mayan stone figure is among the best examples of this kind that we have seen.

Ceramic Sculptures

Numerous Mayan towns have yielded abundant clay sculptures. The two main functions they served were functional and decorative. The Maya would often decorate the tops of their pots with little clay figures.

Nobility who chose cremation were often interred in elaborate porcelain urns.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
The Cowboy, a famous Maya clay sculpture; by Gary Todd – Public Domain through Wikimedia Commons – discovered on Jaina Island, Campeche

Artisans would create clay sculptures and idols as decorations for use on altars during rituals. Images of gods or sacred animals would be common examples of this. Gifts of clay statuettes were common among the wealthy Maya, who used them to adorn their dwellings and, subsequently, their cemeteries.

The ancient Mayan pottery discovered on Jaina Island have made the island famous.

Carvings in Jade

The Maya considered jade to be the stone of eternity because of its mystical associations. For the Maya, this stone had great significance, especially when tinted green. Because it looked like corn leaves, it was worshipped alongside their deity of maize.

Since this was the case, they reasoned that acquiring a jade would result in financial success and maybe even a cure for disease.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
The Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, United States, is home to this jade belt plaque with a ruler from the Early Classic era (Kimbell Art Museum,Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

The Maya called jade and other green stones they came across chalchihuti. Mayan jade objects are often recovered in pristine condition because the chalchihuti used in this location was far more durable than jade used in the Far East.

Statues made entirely of jade and others built of limestone with jade details have been unearthed by archaeologists.

Historic Mayan Art

Archaeologists have made significant efforts in recent years to learn more about the Mayan culture. Mayan art uncovered in abandoned metropolises is one method they’ve accomplished this. Below, we’ll take a look at a few of the more interesting and enlightening articles.

Monumental Stone Inscriptions at Quiriguá, Guatemala

Date Range of the Identified Artwork 426–810 CE

It was uncovered in 1881 on the Guatemalan island of Quiriguá.
The height of the tallest structure is eight metres, and it can be seen at the Archeological Park and Ruins of Quiriquá.

Although the Maya used stelae often, none are as spectacular as those discovered in the Guatemalan city of Quiriguá. First, the stelae are the biggest yet discovered in Central America. The biggest monolith ever erected by an American civilisation is located here; it is known as Stela E.

Some of the most well-preserved stelae from the Mayan culture may be seen at Quiriguá.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
Stela E at Quiriguá, with hieroglyphic writing on it; by  Stuardo Herrera from Guatemala, Guatemala; used under CC BY 2.0 from Wikimedia Commons.

Because they are carved into a very hard sandstone, they will last for a very long time. They were able to carve the stelae in a style called middle or half relief because the stone was so strong.

This effect made it seem as if the figurines were rising up out of the stone.

Carvings of former Quiriguá rulers may be seen on the stelae. Cauac Sky, one of the most famous monarchs of Quiriguá, was one of these rulers. More than sixty of the Maya Classic Period’s years were during Cauac Sky’s reign. Given that the average Maya life expectancy was less than 30 years, this achievement is all the more remarkable.

The Red Queen’s Morbid Funeral Mask

Artwork Unearthed in the Year 672 CE

  • Found in 1952 in the Mexican state of Chiapas
  • Location Dimensions (36.7 x 23 x 8)
  • The Palenque Site Museum in Mexico

Queen Tz’akbu Ajaw was laid to rest in Chiapas, Mexico, in what is considered to be one of the most ornate Mayan burial complexes ever discovered. Due to the fact that her corpse was discovered painted red, archaeologists refer to her as the Red Queen. The Maya often engaged in the practise of body painting for both ceremonial and social purposes.

During the Classical era of Mayan history, Palenque was governed by Tz’akbu Ajaw and her husband, Janaab Paka I.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
Jade plaques form the Red Queen’s funerary mask; image by Wolfgang SauberCC BY-SA 3.0, (licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)

The fact that she was buried beside male monarchs attests to the high regard in which she was held throughout her lifetime. Archeologists were astounded by the number of elaborate objects they found in her grave. There was a mask made of limestone and decorated with jade, malachite, and obsidian among the objects discovered. Her face was covered with the mask when she was buried.

For the Maya, the usage of jade and malachite was crucial because of its connections to the afterlife.

Lords’ Crowns of Xibalba

Artwork from the period between 900 and 1000 CE

  • Nakum, Guatemala, in 2007: discovery
  • Nonexistent Measurements in That Area
  • The Penn Museum of the United States

An ancient Mayan site at Nakum, Guatemala, has being investigated by archaeologists since 2007. Because to drug gangs operating in the vicinity, archaeological exploration of the site had been put on hold.

And because of all the looting, nobody knew for sure whether there was anything left to discover at the site.

Explore the Origins of Mayan Artwork
Photographed by  Jorge Antonio Leoni de LeónCC BY-SA 4.0, through Wikimedia Commons, is the temple at Nakum in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve.

However, with backing from the government of Guatemala, an expedition was ultimately undertaken. The amount of ancient items they unearthed was astounding, especially considering how much had already been stolen. The nine clay skulls were one of the most intriguing discoveries.

These nine porcelain skulls were created sometime after the end of the Classical Maya civilization, during the years 900 and 1000 CE.

It was believed that the nine carved heads, done in a Naturalist style, were the nine Lords of the Night. These Mayan gods presided over Xibalba’s distinct tiers (the Mayan underworld). The discovery lent more credence to the Maya’s view of these gods.

The Mayan culture was exceptionally prosperous and advanced for its time. Science, governance, religion, and especially art were all present, showing that this was a flourishing culture. The ancient Maya created stunning pieces of art that are intriguing to explore. If you found this article interesting, we recommend learning more about Mayan art.

Check out the webstory we’ve created with Mayan artwork right now!

Questions & Answers

Just what did the Maya have in terms of visual art?

The Maya demonstrated their creative prowess in a number of mediums. Most people think of Mayan art as murals or buildings covered in vibrant colours. Mayan painters, however, were also skilled carvers, producing stelae, zoomorphs, and wooden carvings of exceptional quality. Stone, pottery, and even valuable stones like jade were used to create works of art.

What Sets Mayan Art Apart?

To begin, the Maya employed a wide variety of vibrant, locally sourced colours in their artwork. Furthermore, they had an exceptional talent for creating lifelike sculptures of monarchs and other iconic animals. The fact that they managed to do this with such crude equipment is even more astounding. Finally, their artwork stood out from the crowd because it often depicted religious themes. Artwork from other pre-Columbian cultures, such as the Olmecs and the Aztecs, reflects those civilizations’ distinctive worldviews.