About this artwork
This beautifully modeled and incised blackware vessel was likely was once the personal possession of a Maya king, who may have used it to serve food at royal feasts or who may have presented it as a gift to a visiting lord as a sign of alliance. Its shape—a lidded dish supported by four legs—was a form frequently produced during the Early Classic period [A.D. 250/450]. These ceramics often display a consistent set of motifs, with birds on their domed lids and inverted peccary (wild pig) heads serving as supports. The artist who created this piece integrated the two-dimensional surface of the lid with its three-dimensional handle by connecting the bird’s spread wings, lightly incised into the surface, with its head, sculpted in the round. The vessel thus captures the essence of an aquatic bird floating on the surface of the water with its prey—a small fish—caught in its open beak.
Water birds and peccaries inhabited the natural landscape of the ancient Maya who associated them with the structure of the universe and the time of creation. The crest of feathers atop the bird’s head, its outstretched wings, and the bulge at the tip of its beak mark it as a cormorant. The Maya regarded this bird as a liminal being, able to traverse three distinct environments: it flies in the sky, perches on land, and hunts fish by swimming deep under water. This was considered extraordinary, signifying the capacity to commune with supernatural beings that inhabit all three layers of the cosmos—a power that Maya kings also claimed to posses. The cormorant bore many additional meanings with which these rulers wished to link themselves—for example, its association with watery realms alludes to fertility and agricultural abundance, which kings needed to ensure so that their community would survive. Water also evoked the distant mythological past, a time before the creation of the present universe when, according to Maya belief, everything was enveloped in a vast sea. The peccaries furthered these cosmic associations as they are thought to have represented the four pillars that support the corners of the world. In addition, some Maya identified clusters of stars in the constellation Gemini as peccaries. This constellation is located in the region of the night sky where the seminal event of Maya creation—the resurrection of the maize god—was believed to have occurred.
All of these formal and iconographic features demonstrate that as a vessel made for a ruler and used in his court, this work was adorned with imagery designed to express the supernatural sources of his royal authority. In their art programs, Maya kings often associated themselves with the cosmos and the time f creation, thereby affirming that their right to rule was inherent in the world and was established at the beginning of time.
— Notable Acquisitions.2009, pg. 6.
- On View, Gallery 136
- Arts of the Americas
- Covered Vessel with the Principal Bird and Peccary Heads
- Guatemala (Object made in)
- 200 CE–300 CE
- Ceramic and pigment
- 24.8 × 25.4 cm (9 3/4 × 10 in.)
- Joanne M. and Clarence E. Spanjer and African and Amerindian Curator's Discretionary funds; O. Renard Goltra and National Docent Symposium endowments; African and Amerindian Art Purchase Fund; David Soltker and Irving Dobkin endowments