A Maya Pottery Vase

By: M. B.

Originally Published in 1935

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THE Maya Indians developed pottery-making into a considerable art. No other people of pre-Columbian America attained the same skill in decorating pottery vessels with carved and painted pictures of men, animals and strange mythological creatures. Their bizarre devotional scenes in gay polychrome, such as that on the famous Vase of Chama’. and the “Bat-God” vase, and amusing pictures like the hawk-beaked Maya chief proceeding haughtily through the jungle in an uncomfortable basket-litter, are familiar to visitors to the University Museum.

Orange vase with decoration showing the Maya god of the underworld in a band around the body
Plate I — Maya Pottery Vase From Guatemala
Museum Object Number: 12696
Image Number: 19557

The specimen shown in Plate I has had a far wider audience. Found near Quiche in the highlands of Guatemala, and presented to the Museum by Charles H. Cramp, it was exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 as well as at the contemporary celebration in Madrid.

Vases of this stamped red-orange ware are rare among Maya ceramics. The design was cut in intaglio on two stamps and then impressed upon the wet clay of the vase to form a raised relief within a sunken panel. It may be seen, even in the reproduction, that the stamps over-lapped slightly. Before firing, the vase was dried in the sun, and colored. It emerged from the kiln with the soft red it bears today.

The principal figures are two men dressed as birds. Their cloaks take the form of wings; they wear feather hats, from each of which rises a bird’s head. That on the right seems to be a vulture, the other possibly the rare quetzal. Each bird-man, holding out his hands to a conventionalized snake-head, sits on a grotesque head; from where its nose should be, come shooting flames.

The scene has no close parallels. It is an example of the religious symbolism that marks Maya art. We may explain it as a picture of two priests arrayed as bird-gods to conduct their ceremonies. Or we can interpret it as an artist’s conception of two divinities with their attributes: power over death, the cunning of the snake, the keen sight of the bird. However, it is not yet possible to speak with authority on Maya religion.

The scene is repeated on the reverse side. The height of the whole vase is about seven inches. Within its small panels the design is finely executed. On stylistic grounds it has been tentatively assigned to the first millennium after Christ.


Cite This Article

B., M.. "A Maya Pottery Vase." Museum Bulletin V, no. 6 (April, 1935): 78-79. Accessed July 23, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/bulletin/1590/

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