Mayan art

Mayan art

I’ve never been a huge fan of visiting art galleries, but I was thinking the other day about a time when I was so interested in a particular kind of art that I couldn’t get enough of visiting museums and libraries to study examples of this work. It was when I was travelling in Mexico & Central America, and the art was that of the Mayan civilisations that had already collapsed by the time of the Spanish conquests in that part of the world. The main focus of my nine month trip became visiting ruins, archaeological sites and museums because I found the visual style of Mayan art so incredible. I sketched a lot during the trip, and also did paintings and drawings of Mayan sculpture after I got back to the UK.

These two examples are oil paintings… the one below is a study of carved Mayan hieroglyphs based on a detail of a photo I took at the ruins of Palenque in Mexico. This amazing form of syllabic writing is extremely complicated, and in spite of major advances in the 70s and 80s still can’t be 100% deciphered. The painting at the start of this post is based on a photo I took at Monte Alban in Mexico.

One of the things I especially like about the way the Mayans depicted people, is that in spite of how stylised the images are (for example the faces are idealised profiles and tend to all look very similar) …many of the physical poses of the people are oddly naturalistic. The costumes and head-dresses are usually shown in elaborate detail, and the body and limbs of the figure comparatively plain and simple. The figures often have exaggerated, dance-like hand positions which are so expressive compared to the uniformly expressionless faces. Here are some examples from my sketchbook… most of these are drawings of low-relief carvings, but the colour example here is from one of the few surviving full-colour murals that can still be seen (at Bonampak, Mexico.) I did go to see these murals, but the deterioration is very advanced and I copied this from a painting made by Antonio Tejeda (who was commissioned by the Carnegie Institute to copy the murals in 1946 when they were first discovered.) This part of the murals shows a king being dressed in preparation for a ceremony. A couple of these examples are Totonac rather than Mayan… the photo of a sculpted face of a woman shows how varied the styles of artwork could be between the different pre-Hispanic civilisations.

Often Mayan works of art were actually decorative parts of buildings… as in this example of an incredible carved wall at the ruins of Kabah in Mexico. The decoration is made up of hundreds of repeated carved masks of the rain god Chac, and I’ve included a photo I took of the wall and the drawing of a section of it that I did when I got home.

One of the most spectacular archaeological sites for carvings is Copan in Honduras. Copan has numerous stelae… large free-standing sculptures of kings and priests with their finery depicted in bewildering detail. This first drawing shows a stela standing at the foot of a flight of stone stairs, and is based on my own photos. The other examples are all copies of engravings made by the amazing artist Frederick Catherwood… an early English traveller in Central America who fought illness and incredibly harsh conditions to document Mayan sculptures and ruins painstakingly by hand from 1839 to 1843. Some more of his lithographs can be seen here:

I’ll end this post with a few more sketchbook pages from my trips to museums in Mexico and Central America. Again there are a few examples here that aren’t Mayan, but still serve to show the amazing beauty and strangeness of pre-Hispanic art. I particularly love the way animals are shown to be of great symbolic importance in many of these examples.

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