LARGE PLATE DECORATED WITH A SCENE OF THE MAIZE GOD

MAYA - Mexico

450 – 750 A.D.

  • Diameter: 46 cm
  • Depth: 5.5 cm

Polychrome terracotta.

Large plate decorated with a scene of the Maize God.

Predominantly painted in orange tones, the interior surface of this large Late Classic period plate is decorated with a Maize god scene. The latter is surrounded by a light cream-colored skyband and several glyphic texts on the flaring sidewall.

The central section depicts the Holmul dancer, a theme commonly found on vases and plates.  It is named after an Eastern Peten (Guatemala) site where this style was first recognized. The Holmul dancer is none other than the young Maize god shown in his finery after his resurrection out of the Underworld. The youthful and elongated head, in the shape of an ear of corn, and a spondylus shell hanging from his belt, leave no doubts that he is the Maize god. With one leg slightly raised, the god is shown in the act of dancing. The impression of movement is further emphasized by the arms: one is outstretched, whereas the other is folded, and both hands are turned upwards. Ribbons from his loincloth flap around him. He is attired with jade jewels, bracelets on his wrists and ankles, and with a large collar of beads. A headdress in the shape of a zoomorph projects forward. The dancer carries an elaborate backrack, typical of the Holmul dancer. This imposing structure is tied to his body by a large belt worn mid chest.  

The top of the backrack displays the Primary Bird Deity, a manifestation of Itzam Nah, one of major gods of the Maya pantheon. Associated with royal accession, the bird is depicted here with the head of this god and with an extensive set of tail feathers. It is perched on a serpent with a quadrangular shape and segmented body. This suggests the representation of a skyband and the realm of the Primary Bird Deity. A mythical creature under the guise of a feline, a bird, a reptile or a monkey, often occupies the niche created by the serpent’s body. Although the identification of the niche resident is here uncertain, these mythical creatures are linked to specific Maya kingdoms or royal lineages. This association is further emphasized by the bottom element of the backrack, often a sign standing for a mountain and a place name.

The location of the dancing performance is celestial as implied by a skyband framing the entire composition. This skyband, in light cream-colored tone, is divided into four distinct segments by sets of double black triangles. Each of these is matched on the flaring sidewall by a set of glyphs. It has been suggested that the Maize god might be quadripartite in nature, and could therefore be associated with the four cardinal directions or the four partitions of the sky. The four divisions of the skyband along with the four associated sets of texts support this possibility.

Each of the glyphic set is further subdivided into two short inscriptions stacked above one another, forming a total of eight small texts. Each of these starts with the numeral seven, a number associated among the Maya and the Aztec with a maize deity. These texts probably refer to various appellatives or attributes of the Maize god. Some of the signs fall in the category of pseudo-glyphs and, as painted, the texts were not meant to be meaningful.

This ceramic plate must have been a cherished possession as it is likely to have been found in a tomb. Originally, the plate stood on three supports, which were removed before burial, and a small hole was pierced in his center. It was then deposited face down to cover the face of the deceased. The hole, mistakenly called “kill” hole, is thought to allow the soul of the deceased to travel. It is tempting to note that as the Maize god resurrection iconography lays against his or her face, likewise the deceased will eventually emerge from the Underworld.

This piece is exceptional due to the richness of its iconography, the fine execution of the drawing and the quality of the polychromy. It strongly demonstrates the perfect mastery of the Maya artists. Furthermore, its size and condition emphasize its unique aspect and make this work an absolute masterpiece.

Provenance:
-Ancient collection from Yvon Collet since 1965.
-Ancient collection from Monique Nordmann since 2008.
 
Publication:
-“22nd Biennale des Antiquaires”, exh. cat., from September 13th to 28th 2004, Paris, Carrousel du Louvre, Stand 23, p. 48.
-“53rd Foire des Antiquaires de Belgique”, exh. cat., from January 16th to 27th 2008, Brussels, Tour & Taxis, Stand n°2, p. 11, fig. 2.