The Maya were prolific makers of carved stone-slab monuments, or stelae, which were normally set up within architectural complexes and most often portray specific, named individuals who were members of the hereditary dynasties that ruled Maya city-states. This imposing figure is identified by the accompanying inscriptions as K’inich B’alam (Sun-Faced Jaguar), ruler of El Perú. The Kimbell stela was once part of a sculptural ensemble of three stelae displayed in a plaza at El Perú. The central monument, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, represents on the same scale an equally intimidating woman, who may represent K’inich B’alam’s wife. The third stela still in situ portrays an unidentified male figure. The principal event commemorated by the Kimbell and Cleveland stelae is the ending in A.D. 692 of a k’atun, or twenty-year period, a date of special importance in the structure of Maya rulership.
The primary elements of K’inich B’alam’s costume were intended to situate the Maya ruler not just locally and in his historic role but, more importantly, in his relation to the gods and the cosmos. The main headdress element, repeated in the ruler’s anklets, is the head of the Water-lily Snake, a deity symbolizing standing bodies of water and the earth’s abundance, and patron god of the number thirteen. The several representations of fish leaping toward water-lily blossoms—at the top of the headdress and, less recognizably, at the back of the headdress and at either knee––reinforce this symbolism. Through these devices the ruler is shown as guarantor of agricultural success. The mosaic mask represents a jeweled serpent, and the round shield he grasps in his left hand emphasizes the war role of Maya rulers. Partly hidden by his left thigh is a deified perforator, used by the ruler at important period endings, like this one, to shed blood from his penis as an offering to the gods.
New York art market by 1969.
(John A. Stokes, New York);
purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1970.