The art of the Maya is principally the art of the ruling elite. Vessels were made to honor and commemorate once-living rulers and to venerate their gods and ancestors; these objects, laden with power and symbolism, were then buried in tombs alongside their royal or noble owners. Much of the pottery found in Maya tombs was made especially to accompany the soul on its journey through the Underworld, Xibalba, a watery world that could be entered only by sinking beneath water or by passing through a maw in the surface of the earth. Funerary vessels of the Early Classic period (A.D. 250–600) often represented the watery surface of that Underworld and its inhabitants, shown either in narrative scenes or in processions.
The stuccoed body of this vessel is delicately painted with images of four chimerical creatures, each with a feathered, snakelike neck and head, a body containing the head of an aged divinity that may be Pawahtun (the god of the end of the year, and bearer of the sky and earth), spondylus shells for “wings,” and bird feet. Each figure is distinguished from the others by a different form of decorative “wing” and by colors that indicate its directional orientation. The cover is adorned with a small sculpted head, Maya in profile, having distinctive ear and nose plugs and an elaborate coiffure. The six glyphs on the cover represent a standard dedicatory verse found on ritual drinking vessels. The iconography, inscription, and very high quality of this vase all suggest that it was a ritual vessel containing the Maya chocolate drink, to be placed in the tomb of a nobleman.
Herbert L. Lucas, Los Angeles, since the early 1970s;
(Ancient Art of the New World, New York);
purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1997.