Exhibit reveals ancient Maya as not so peaceful

National Gallery show uncovers a cruel culture

Arts: museums, literature

April 22, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

At the peak of their power from A.D. 600 to 800, the ancient Maya ruled a Meso-American empire stretching from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico to parts of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.

For many years, scholars believed the Maya were a relatively peaceful, contemplative people, unlike the fearsome Aztec of Central Mexico, who were renowned for their cruelty in war.

The Maya developed an elaborate system of writing and an accurate lunar calendar and built monumental temple complexes and stepped pyramids around which to perform their religious rituals -- achievements that were accompanied by an elegant court culture centered on the king and his retinue of priests, nobles, warriors and merchants.

This is the culture celebrated in Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, a dazzling exhibition of more than 130 artworks -- including sculpture, painting, ceramics, tools, jewelery and other ceremonial objects -- at the National Gallery in Washington.

But as our knowledge of this ancient culture has increased in recent years, thanks to the scholars who have begun to decipher the Maya inscriptions, the picture of their world that emerges becomes far less sanguine.

It now appears that the Maya were organized into at least 50 city-states that were engaged in more or less continuous warfare with each other, and that their most sacred rituals included human sacrifice and the torture and mutilation of prisoners. Moreover, much of their art reflected these practices in images of blood and sacrifice.

Bloodletting was a ritual to which both victors and vanquished submitted. In a magnificent relief sculpture from the court of Yaxchilan, Lady Xok, a Maya queen, subjects herself to a ritual bloodletting by drawing a thorn-studded rope through her tongue; in another relief, bound prisoners of war cower in fear or beg for mercy from the dreadful fates that await them. Maya wall paintings frequently depicted captives having their nails torn out, their bodies crushed and their eyes poked out with spears.

The deity the Maya sought to propitiate was the god of maize, the staple food on which their civilization was built. Their royal courts were a reflection of the divine order, and even their entertainments, such as the soccer-like ball games that dramatized the maize god's annual cycle of death and rebirth, may have required the ritual killing and decapitation of the players.

The more we understand about Maya society the more terrible as well as beautiful its art appears -- to the point where it becomes almost impossible to say which is more alluring, the terror or the beauty, for this is an art which so commingles the two that we can hardly tell them apart.

"Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya" continues at the National Gallery through July 25. The museum is at Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest. Hours are Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is free. Call 202-737-4215.

For more art events, see page 44.

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