Maya Art - Stone Sculpture

Stone Sculpture

The main Preclassic sculptural style from the Maya area is that of Izapa, a large settlement on the Pacific coast where many stelas and (frog-shaped) altars were found showing motifs also present in Olmec art. The stelas, usually without inscriptions, often show mythological and narrative subjects, some of which appear to relate to the Twin myth of the Popol Vuh. Nonetheless, it remains uncertain if the inhabitants of Izapa were ethnically Mayan. For the Classic Period of the Mayas, the following major classes of stone sculpture may be distinguished.

  • Stelas. These were large, elongated stone slabs covered with carvings and inscriptions, and often accompanied by round altars. Typical of the Classical period, most of them depict the rulers of the cities they were located in, often disguised as gods. Although the rulers' faces, particularly during the later Classic Period, are naturalistic in style, they usually do not show individual traits; but there are notable exceptions to this rule (e.g., Piedras Negras, stela 35). The stelas from Tonina and Copan approach sculptures in the round; those from Tikal have deep relief; from Palenque, otherwise a true Maya capital of the arts, no significant stelae have been preserved.
  • Lintels spanning doorways, and panels and tablets set in the walls and piers of buildings and the sides of platforms. Particularly Palenque and Yaxchilan are renowned for this kind of art works - Yaxchilan chiefly for its long series of lintels in deep relief, some of the most famous of which show meetings with ancestors, Palenque for the large tablets adorning the inner sanctuaries of the Cross Group temples, and for refined masterworks such as the 'Tablet of the Slaves' and the multi-figure panels of the temple XIX and XXI platforms. King Pakal's carved sarcophagus lid - without equal in other Maya kingdoms - might also be included here.
  • Altars, rounded or rectangular, sometimes resting on three or four boulder-like legs. They may be wholly or partly figurative (e.g., Copan turtle altar) or have a relief image on top, sometimes consisting of a single Ahau day sign (Caracol, Tonina).
  • Ball court markers, or rounded relief carvings placed in the central axis of the floors of ball courts (such as those of Copan, Chinkultic, Tonina), and usually showing royal ball game scenes.
  • Monumental stairs, most famously the giant Hieroglyphic Stairway of Copan. The hewn stone blocks of hieroglyphic stairways together constitute an extensive text. Stairways can also be decorated with a great variety of scenes, particularly the ball game (La Corona). Sometimes, the ball game becomes the stairs' chief theme (Yaxchilan), with a captive depicted inside the ball, or, elsewhere (Tonina), a full-figure captive stretched out along the step.
  • Thrones, with a broad, square seat, and a back sometimes iconically shaped like the wall of a cave, and worked open to show human figures. Examples from Palenque and Copan have supports showing cosmologic carriers (Bacabs, Chaaks).
  • Stone sculpture in the round, represented by idols, such as the seated Copan scribe, by certain figurative architectural elements, and by giant sculptures, such as the symmetrically-positioned jaguars and simian musicians of Copán, that were integral parts of architectural design. The so-called 'zoomorphs' (large boulders sculpted to resemble living creatures), especially known from the petty kingdom of Quirigua, may have functioned as altars.

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