Letter to Linda 2: The Maya Exhibit

(C) 2012 Text and Images by Metta Anderson  –  All Rights Reserved

Facade of the Museo de Oro as seen from Parque Santander, Bogotá

This is the new entrance to the Gold Museum in Bogotá.




Sorry to be late with this, but as I tell my nephew, life intervenes.

I’ve been trying to write about something else related to art in Colombia but was sidetracked because I wanted to write a review of the Mayan exhibit at the Gold Museum here in Bogotá, with pictures, no less. Got that done and will add it here. Hope you like it.

Even though much has been written in the last few years about predictions in the Mayan calendar for the end of the world on December 21, 2012, this show originated as a collaborative effort between the Gold Museum in Bogotá, and two organizations in Mexico–the National Council for Culture and Art and the National Anthropological and History Institute. According to Eduardo Londoño, head of the Gold Museum´s Information Office, there is a special exhibit at the end of each year dedicated to a display of cultural and artistic artifacts from different countries or regions. The Colombian public thus gets a chance to learn about different peoples with a small but in-depth exhibit that is didactic without being a class lesson. In this case, the Gold Museum had made inquiries about showcasing Mayan objects before that culture’s prophecies became fashionable, allowing the Mexicans to send 96 pieces, along with documentation, that stressed a less sensationalist point of view. The result has been a concise and beautifully-designed exhibit in the Gold Museum’s hall for travelling shows with an excellent catalogue.

The Mayan concept of time is almost never-ending. They believed in cycles and eras, with two calendars (one secular, 365 days; one sacred, 260 days) running concurrently. Essentially, by the time we get to the future, it will be the past and events from the past will be experienced in the future, but with perhaps a different understanding of them. There is no real prediction of an ending, but rather, that the current era will be over approximately between December 21 and 23, 2012, the Winter Solstice, after 5,125.36 years, and a new era will begin.

It’s possible, however, that predictions for the end of the world come from the pages of one of the three Codices still in existence–the Paris Codex, the Dresden Codex and the Madrid Codex, also known as the Trocortesiano Codex. Originally, a Spanish bishop, Diego de Landa, in 1566, tried to decipher the complex glyphs and elegant artwork as an alphabet, but in the 1970s, researchers understood them as logo-syllabic (symbols) made up of one principal sign to which were attached pertinent and descriptive signs (as suffixes). A page in a codex will be read starting at the top left, then right to the next glyph and down to the left. Two glyphs constitute a column going right-to-left and down to the end of the column, and then back up to the next column of two glyphs and so on. Interestingly, a page from the Madrid Codex showing gods with writing and drawing tools is laid out like a contemporary magazine page–left-to-right, top-to-bottom and full-edge bleed. Another page from the Dresden Codex showing the God K, lord of the morning star, has the same layout.

The Codices are books, not scrolls, with pages made from the bark of the kopo  tree  (Ficus cotinifolia).  Each page is a collaboration between the scribes who knew the written language and craftsmen skilled in drawing and coloring. These latter individuals understood anatomy and perspective with elegance. The line drawings indicate the proportions, gender, clothing and objects related to the figures as both artistic design and a visual identification.

A fascinating feature with the ceramics and the codex pages is the use of a blue pigment in a very liberal manner. It is primarily a light, powdery blue which might seem greenish or even turquoise, depending on the color next to it. It could be mixed to produce green (a crocodile on a page in the Dresden Codex) or a faint violet (using red ochre, which seems to have been abundant). The catalogue does not indicate whether the blue had any significance within Mayan culture, and since it can be found on pottery as well as in the texts, it’s probably safe to say that the Mayans simply like the color.

But where did this primary color come from? Surprisingly, it had an “ecological” source, according to Eduardo Londoño. The Mayans discovered that if snails are angered or irritated, they produce a blue substance that mixes into the slime they leave behind. The slime is collected, dried and pulverized to produce the pigment, but the snail is not harmed.

Whatever its source, the Mayans’ blue pigment did not fade. The huge headdress on a small ceramic figure shows a strong blue with slightly green tint still covering it. A female figure in a ceremonial robe still has the blue pigment applied to badges on the front of her dress. And this same pigment appears on several codex pages on display, although it must be said that the pages are reproductions of the originals.

The Mayans were fond of and adept at ceramics. Even though these are low fire pieces, they have almost miraculously survived and reveal a society that decorated almost all surfaces around them. There are tri-footed bowls and plates in red ochre with designs created from the glyphs for stars, gods and animals, who in turn can represent the gods. Some pieces are incised with meticulous geometric patterns, and then color is added. In fact, some of the designs in the bowls are so geometric they seem to be modern Art Deco, while others display very stylized humans or animals. One polychrome tri-footed plate contains a complicated design of a personage emerging from the glyph for “star.” The background is red, but the figures are in light or dark ochre and black outlines. Another tri-footed plates uses a green pigment on a parrot and the coils of a snake moving around the bottom of the plate. A small jar is finished in an off-white slip and its top features a graceful bird’s head and neck, accompanied by a black and red design on top of the off-white slip.

All these designs, while aesthetically pleasing and the product of an artisan class, have multiple meanings. This is a key element among the Mayans. The undefined god can be depicted as a human, an animal or an object, but its identity is inferred by accompanying objects. This underscores a flexibility in the Mayan belief system and general way of life. The underworld,  Xibalbá,  is presided over by Ah Puch, the god of death. He was accompanied by demi-gods who spread pestilence, could produce boils and other systemic diseases or cause people to drown in their own bodily fluids. While humans did not willingly go to Xibalbá, the dead could return from there and cause problems among the living. Ah Puch could morph into another form, human, animal or object.

A place of honor in the exhibit has been given to Chaak Mol, the god of rain, in the form of a large stone sculpture on a pedestal. He could cause floods or just fill rivers and streams, and was known to fly up into the sky to empty the clouds. Frogs were associated with him, and used as emissaries between humans and the gods. Chaak Mol is portrayed as holding a plate or tray, on which offerings from human sacrifices were left. He would then take the offerings up to other gods, providing a communication between humans and the gods. Generally, he was found in wells and underground water-filled caves.

The supreme god was KuKulkán, the feathered serpent, and he too is on display. Feathers are chiselled into his sculpted stone body and his mouth is open in his upraised head. He too can be found on his own pedestal and can be admired from many angles.

At the entrance to the exhibit is a curious figure. He is a ceramic man approximately 18″ tall, wearing a feathered helmet, tunic and round chest plate, with amulets on his bare feet. Tied to his back is a hollow form which is easily mistaken for an arrow quiver, but is instead an incense holder. He is frankly in wonderful condition for his age, and the color on his 2-inch blue-green earrings is quite vivid. The pigments on his tunic are easily identifiable–red-purple, an off-white slip and the blue which repeats in the strap that goes around his helmet and down to hold the quiver/incense holder. A little pigment remains on some of the other ornaments on his body, such as the arm bands holding stylized feathers and the discs forming a bracelet on his right wrist. Despite the fact that he’s lost his hands, he smiles. He is the sun god Kin, and he has four brothers who hold up the sky. Each brother has a specific color–yellow for Hobnil the South; red for Cantzicnal the East; white for Zaccimi the North; and black, associated with Hosanek the West. But the central and most important color is a blue-green, the color of jade, which represented water, the color of corn when it first comes through the soil and other things of value. The Mayans also created a kind of quatre-foil  object which referred to Kin, and could be used as pendants, earrings or a religious symbol in the house.

The exhibit was designed by the Gold Museum, a division of the Colombian Bank of the Republic, with elegance. It is low-key, with the pieces easily visible from different angles, which allow visitors to study objects without feeling rushed. Many small pieces are in wall cases, but their display allows observations without jeopardizing their security. Visitors are allowed to take pictures, as long as they do it without flash. Much of the work is free-standing, so even though there is a kind of path, no one feels pushed to follow it. In fact, the exhibit is very tranquil, and a visitor probably doesn’t feel hurried to go through it. It’s worth the time it takes.

The exhibit will be open to the public at the Museo de Oro, Carrera 6 with Calle 16, in Bogotá, until February 12, 2012, and will travel to other venues in South America.


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