mesoamerica and the maya world

Category: art

A new discovery at El Mirador

A pair of monumental (26-foot) stucco panels have been discovered at the important classic Maya site of El Mirador in the Peten by a team led by Richard Hansen of Idaho State University. The figures in the panels appear to represent the heros twins of the Maya creation myth.

This is clearly an important find. The panels can be dated to the Late Preclassic period, from about 300 BCE to a little after the beginning of the common era.


Video via MSNBC


Wilfredo Lam and Carlos Luna

Wilfredo Lam painting

Wilfredo Lam (1902-19982) was an influential modernist Cuban painter. Among those who acknowledge his influence is the contemporary painter Carlos Luna. While Luna was born in Cuba, his work “deals in part with the duality of Cuban and Mexican heritage,” according to the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in Long Beach, where a show of the artists’ work is being presented through the end of August. Luna’s work, like Lam’s, is rich in historical and cultural symbolism.

carlos luna, gran mambo


Above: Wifredo Lam, Untitled, ca. 1947, oil on canvas 49 x 59 ¼ in.
Below: Carlos Luna, El Gran Mambo, 2006, oil on canvas, 144 x 192 in.


Photo Wednesday: Painted table top

painted table top from Guanajuato, México

This photo of a table top painted with images of colorful fruit, taken in a crafts shop in Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, Mexico, is from Lucy Nieto’s photostream.


Juan Soriano at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

juan soriano, the dead girl (1938)

Juan Soriano (1920-2006) was born in Guadalajara, son of veterans of the Mexican revolution. Something of a prodigy, he developed his distinctive style after moving to Mexico City when he was fifteen.

According to the exhibition label for this painting (The Dead Girl, 1938, oil on panel, 18 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches (47 x 80 cm), Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Clifford, 1947, 1947-29-3),

Soriano painted this 1938 work shortly after seeing a Veracruz household whose front window displayed a dead child dressed like an angel, notifying the neighbors of the baby’s passing. Postmortem images of children were common in Mexican painting (and, later, photography) beginning in the colonial era. While this tradition originally developed in Renaissance Europe, it had a particular importance in Latin America. Mexican modernists Frida Kahlo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Julio Castellanos also created famous examples of this theme.

John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1852) makes an interesting contrast. Both figures are surrounded by flowers, but the flowers in Soriano’s picture only point up the starkness of the figure by their contrast; Millais’ Ophelia seems to be drifting into a flowery world — she holds flowers in her hand and even her dress echoes floral patterns. Millais’ Ophelia holds her hands open to her fate; Soriano’s girl clinches her hands together. In her madness Ophelia stares vacantly skyward; the eyes of Soriano’s girl are pressed tightly shut. The difference reflect the styles of the moment, but they also suggest something of the artists’ temperaments. Soriano’s world is one in which the very edges of the canvas seem to press in on the image with a suffocating force.

millais, ophelia, 1852

Fragile Demon: Juan Soriano in Mexico, 1935-1950 collects 16 early works by the artist. It runs through Sunday.


Mexico and the modern print

mexico y la estampa moderna

Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Arte is offering what looks like a strong show of Mexican printmaking from 1920-1950. The full title is México y la Estampa Moderna, 1920-1950: Una Revolución en las Artes Gráficas. Included are works by Diego Rivera, Clemente Orozco, Leopoldo Méndez, and many less familiar artists. Click the image above for a video preview on the museum’s website. The exhibition runs through June 8.


via Jim Johnston



The theft of Impressionist paintings in Switzerland has made news lately. In fact, it has caused the insurance on art exhibitions to go up for museums around the world (like the museum where I work).

But Mexico still holds the distinction for one of the most spectacular art heists. In 1985 thieves made off with 140 objects from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. To my knowledge, this is the largest number of objects ever stolen from a museum.

The theft occurred on Christmas day. There were eight guards on duty, but they don’t seem to have been very vigilant. And the museum’s alarm system had been broken for the past three years.

The objects — Maya, Aztec, Zapotec, and Miztec ceramics mainly — were small, but extremely valuable. One of them alone (a monkey-shaped vase) was valued at $20 million.

I never heard whether any of the objects was recovered.


Scratchboard Maximon

This Maximon image was created on scratchboard by student artist Edwin Harris, Jr., of Georgia. On his blog he gives a little background on the process.

maximon figure

Guatemalan paintings from Arte Maya Tz’utuhil

 Recorriendo Camino al Mercado, painting by guatemalan maya artists mario gonzalez chavajay

Arte Maya Tz’utuhil is a one-man business of Joe Johnston, based in San Francisco. Its website is Johnson travels to Guatemala once or twice a year to acquire paintings — mainly from artists in the Lake Atitlan area — for representation for sale. The website offers a wide range of painting (and calendars), from relatively inexpensive pieces to more substantial works, such as this large oil painting.

Shown is Recorriendo Camino al Mercado (Traversing the Road to the Market) by Mario Gonzalez Chavajay, 2003, oil on canvas, 36 x 56 in.

Maximon masks


El Curandero Gallery, located in La Antigua, Guatemala, looks like a good source for Guatemalan masks, wooden figures, slingshots, ceramics, paintings, and textiles. Among their current listings are these two Maximon masks. The one on the left dates from the 1950s and the other from the 1940s.

Maximon is an auspicious folk deity best known from his cult at Santiago Atitlan. He apparently blends aspects of the Christian Saint Simon with a Mayan god, perhaps Maam, an underworld god. I photographed a Maximon altar in Antigua a few years ago, and posted information about Maximon on that page.

Museums in Merida

macay museum, merida, yucatan, mexico

Working Gringos has put together the best list of museums in Merida that I have seen. They include

  • Yucatan Museum of Popular Art (Museo de Arte Popular de Yucatan)
  • Galeria Merida
  • The Yucatan Music Museum (Museo de La Canción)
  • Olimpo
  • Governor’s Palace (Palacio del Govierno)
  • MACAY (Museo de Contemporaneo Ateneo de Yucatan)
  • Merida City Museum (Museo de La Ciudad)
  • City Museum of Merida Yucatan – Upstairs Gallery
  • Galería at the University Cultural Center (UADY)
  • Yucatan Painting Gallery (Pinocateca del Estado de Yucatan)
  • Jose Peon Contreras Gallery
  • Gallery in La’Kech
  • Art on the Street
  • Galería Manolo Rivero
  • Centro de Artes Visuales
  • La Quilla
  • La Luz Galeria
  • La Casa de los Artistas
  • El Dragón Sabio (The Wise Dragon)
  • Anthropology Museum
  • Casa Museo Montes Molina
  • Galeria Tataya
  • Georgia’s House
  • Casa Catherwood
  • Centro Cultural Ricardo Lopez Mendez
  • Habemus Gallery

I took the picture above at the MACAY in February.

From trash to cash

tres personajes, by rufino tamayo

While we’re on the subject of Rufino Tamayo paintings, I should mention, in case you haven’t heard, this story. It seems not everyone is a fan of brightly colored abstraction. At any rate, someone threw Tamayo’s 1970 painting Tres Personajes into the trash.

The painting had been stolen from its owner in 1987. Nothing was heard of it for years, until in 2003 it was found on a New York City curb. Eventually the work was sold at auction for more than $1 million.

$3 million Mexican painting removed from auction

el trovador, by mexican artist Rufino Tamayo

Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo’s Trovador (Troubador) has been removed from a Christie’s auction after fans of the painting filed a lawsuit challenging the work’s sale by Randolph College. The painting was to be the “crown jewel” of the Latin American-focused auction, in which twelve sales records were broken, as 65 items sold for 21.6 million dollars. Trovador was expected to fetch a price of as much as $3 million.


Cell phones in Cancun

cell phones in cancun That’s the title of this colorful painting by Namaste Nancy.

The painting’s effectiveness comes from its reduction of elements to just what is essential.

Read more at her site.

Dia de los Muertos: A New Beginning

dia de los muertos art exhibition

That’s the name of an exhibit that uns through December 16 at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, “the nation’s largest Latino arts institution and the only Latino museum accredited by the American Association of Museums.”

On blogs from Mexico and Guatemala this year there has appeared some discussion about whether Mesoamerica should observe Halloween or Dia de los Muertos — apparently Halloween is making some inroads south of the border. According to the Chicago exhibit,

Whereas Americans typically celebrate All Saints and All Souls Days with Halloween, treating dead spirits as frightful ghouls who adolescents emulate while knocking on doors and asking for candy, in Mexico and other parts of the world this time of year is treated as one of remembrance, when the lost souls of loved ones return to be with their friends and families before moving on to a better place. While it may seem like a potentially heavy-hearted occasion, it is mostly one of joy; instead of mourning loss, one looks back fondly at the time the departed had spent on earth, and wishes them off with the best of fortune for their new life—and new beginning—to come.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, the Oakland Museum traditionally does an excellent job of presenting art and programs for Dia de los Muertos.

Sites we like: La Antigua Daily Photo

You can hardly go wrong with Antigua, but Rudy Girón goes the extra mile. Every day he posts a new photo from the city, along with some pretty interesting commentary. Some of his favorite topics are food, architecture, and signage, but really nothing is out of bounds. Well worth checking out (click iamge below).

la antigua daily photo

Robert Hansen’s Yucatan photography

While we’re on the subject of Yucatan art, let’s check out some black and white photography. Robert Hansen, who has been photographing the Yucatan for the past eight years, has collected his photos in a large-format book called Yucatan Passages, published by Laguna Wilderness Press. The image shown is Loltun cave, “a large cavern showing evidence of human occupation for as long as 10,000 years.” The cave is located south of Oxkutzcab. It is very difficult to photograph is these kinds of lighting conditions, and this image turned out splendidly. For information, visit his website (images are copyrighted; used here by permission).

loltun cave, by robert hansen

Samuel Barrera

barreraYucatan Living has a nice article on the Merida-based painter Samuel Barrera. Trained in law, Barrera developed a passion for painting while designing and creating theater sets. After years of struggle, most recently selling his art in the Parque de la Madre outside of the Jose Peon Contreras Theatre, Barrera seems to be breaking through, with several gallery exhibitions coming up. His canvases are often displayed in iron frames, like the example shown here.

View of temple 1, Tikal, from east plaza

This is a watercolor I did some years ago.

watercolor by thomas christensen, first view of temple one, tikal, from east plaza

Maya stela

 de young stela

This stela was purchased by the de Young museum in San Francisco in 1999. According to the museum, the stela’s origins are unknown. “It could not be identified by site, epigraphy, or style, and its imagery represented a blend of elements from works found in both Guatemala and Mexico,” said the museum in a statement. “This fact was corroborated by the many key art historians, archaeologists, and epigraphers whom we subsequently contacted.”

The relief appears to depict a standing female ruler. A snake wraps around her body, and out of its head appears the deity K’awil. This is the iconography of the vision serpent. Dates on the sculpture give the dates March 13, 761, and August 10, 760. Both the dates and the style suggest an origin in the southern Maya lowlands.

Antigua Door Knockers

Tigre fe54 has a nice set of door knocker photos from Antigua, Guatemala, at his flickr site. Clickable thumbnails appear below, via the Crossroads plugin.

Stela B, Copan

stela b, copan

In every civilization of the ancient world, there are art works and monuments that stand out among their fellows as objects of special character. The great portrait sculptures that stand in silent rows down the center of the Great Plaza of copan created one of these special places. They constitute one of the great masterpieces of the Maya legacy. Although the artists who made them did not sign their works and leave us their names, the patron of these great works did. He was Waxaklahun-Ubah-K’awil (commonly known as 18 Rabbit), the thirteenth king of the Copan dynasty.

— Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs

The trend in Maya archaeology has been away from architectural and fine arts connoisseurship and toward broader societal analysis, with new work focusing less on the grand monuments of the ruling elite than was the case in the past. A working archaeologist in the Maya area today is more likely to be sifting dirt for fragments of fish and animal bones than reconstructing a soaring temple overgrown with vegetation. But some achievements are too great to be resisted, and the stelae at Copan are among them.

Waxaklahun (whose name actually alludes not to a rabbit but to a War Serpent) assumed the thrown of Copan on July 19, 695, when the city was at the height of its power. He soon oversaw a prodigious program of construction of public monuments. His projects included Temple 22, a remodel of the ball court, and the initiation of work on the hieroglyphic stairs of temple 26, perhaps Copan’s most famous feature (see map). And, over a period of years, he filled the Great Plaza with a major series of stelae.

The stelae are in at least a couple of different styles. It was once thought that these styles relected an evolving artistic aesthetic, but we now know, from their inscriptions, that the historical sequence of the works does not correspond to the stylistic differences. Schele and Mathews suggest instead that the stelae were the works of two different artists (or workshops), one more “innovative,” producing works more fully in the round, and the other more “conservative” (traditional), producing works emphasizing shallower front and back reliefs.

Stela B is an example of the latter style. At the time of its construction (August 22, 731) the planet Venus appeared in the constellation Virgo, which the Maya associated with Chak, the rain god. The stela depicts Waxaklahun bedecked with the diadem of Chak in his headdress, and further allusions to Chak in his elaborate regal regalia. The stela formidably expresses the king’s royal authority and his association with Copan’s patron deities (complex allusions to the Macaw Mountain Lord are prominent on the reverse side).

Five years later, around the time Waxaklahun — now an old man who had reigned more than forty years — erected his last stela (Stela D) in 736, a representative of the Maya state of Kalakmul met with K’ak’-Tiliw, the vigorous, youthful ruler of Quirigua, a vassel state to Copan. Kalamul was an emerging power and the enemy of Copan’s trade partner, Tikal. Copan, though at the extreme southern limit of the Maya region, occupied a strategic position that offered the possibility of controlling trade in jade and obsidian through the Motogua valley. About a year after this portentous meeting, K’ak’-Tiliw attacked and defeated Waxaklahun. In the fighting the mighty patron of the Copan’s Great Plaza stelae was captured.

Waxaklahun was sacrificed to the gods in the Great Plaza of Quirigua. As he attended his priestly executioner he must seen that K’ak’-Tiliw’s monuments were not so fine as his own.

Some rights reserved 2022 buried mirror: latest reflections. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons (attribution, noncommercial, no derivs: 3.0) License (US), although some of the work this blog incorporates may be separately licensed. Text and images by Thomas Christensen unless otherwise noted. For print permissions or other inquiries please request via