In Maya art—one of the greatest artistic traditions of the ancient Americas—the gods are depicted in all stages of life: as infants, as adults at the peak of their maturity and influence, and finally, as they age. The gods could perish, and some were born anew, providing a model of regeneration and resilience. Opening November 21, 2022, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art will bring together nearly 100 rarely seen masterpieces and recent discoveries in diverse media—from the monumental to the miniature—that depict episodes in the life cycle of the gods, from the moment of their birth to resplendent transformations as blossoming flowers or fearsome creatures of the night. Created by masters of the Classic period (A.D. 250–900) in the spectacular royal cities in the tropical forests of what is now Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, these landmark works evoke a world in which the divine, human, and natural realms are interrelated and intertwined. Lenders include major museum collections in Europe, Latin America, and the United States, and many of these works have never been exhibited in the U.S., including new discoveries from Palenque (Mexico) and El Zotz (Guatemala).
“Lives of the Gods invites us to experience the exhilarating and profound power of Maya visual artistry,” said Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Met. “This stunning exhibition presents spectacular works of art—many rarely seen, especially in New York—and compelling reflections on depictions of the divine; the importance of ancestral knowledge; and new understandings of Maya creative practices and the artist’s role in court society. This is sure to be a memorable show for our visitors.”
The exhibition is made possible by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, the Placido Arango Fund, the Diane W. and James E. Burke Fund, the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund, the Mellon Foundation, and The International Council of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Kimbell Art Museum.
Recent advances in the study of Maya hieroglyphs have made it possible to identify the names of dozens of artists from the Classic period, and for the first time in a major exhibition their names will be identified on labels. While artist signatures are scarce on ancient art across the world before the 19th century, Maya sculptors and painters did sign their works, occasionally prominently, on beautifully carved stone monuments and delicately ornamented vessels. Lives of the Gods will include four works by named individuals—including Panel with Royal Woman (c. 795) by K’in Lakam Chahk and Jun Nat Omootz, and Stela 51 of King Yuknoom Took’ K’awiil (731) by Sak[…] Yuk[…] Took’ and Sak […] Yib’ah Tzak B’ahlam—as well as several examples that can be attributed to known Maya painters.
“These Maya artists gave form to the gods in inspired ways, through remarkable works of visual complexity and aesthetic refinement,” said Joanne Pillsbury, Andrall E. Pearson Curator of Ancient American Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing at The Met. “As archaeologists continue to make major discoveries, our knowledge of Classic Maya visual culture becomes enriched, and exhibitions—like this one—reveal new understandings of the relationships between ancient communities and the sacred.”
Exquisitely carved sculptures were believed to embody divine power and presence; ornaments of jadeite, shell, and obsidian once adorned kings and queens, symbolically connecting them to supernatural forces; and finely painted ceramics reveal the eventful lives of the gods in rich detail.
The exhibition is organized thematically, following the arc of the lives of the gods and their place within a cosmological framework.
The first section of the exhibition, “Creations,” will present mythical episodes related to the origin of the world. On August 11, 3114 B.C., before the advent of cities and writing in this part of the world, inscriptions tell us that the deities “were set in order,” and the gods placed stones in mythical locations. Maya kings replicated these divine actions at celebrations marking the ends of calendrical periods, each calculated at regular intervals from 3114 B.C. Sculptures and ceramic objects highlight the aged god Itzamnaaj (the name of a major deity in colonial Yucatán) and its avian avatar, who played important roles in primordial myths. A monumental limestone throne back—from the Usumacinta River area—will introduce visitors to the Classic-period city-states of the Maya and creation stories expressed through sculpture and painting.
“Day” will explore the balance between the gods of the day, such as the Sun God K’inich, and the nocturnal gods like the Jaguar God in the section “Night,” to follow. The sun was associated with life-giving forces, and rulers who identified closely with this power would often add the title K’inich to their name. Many deceased kings were portrayed as glorious new suns rising in the sky, overseeing their successors’ performance of royal duties. Equally imposing and dignified, Maya artists created imaginative and terrifying images of nocturnal deities. Jaguars—who figure prominently in imagery of the night gods—are powerful nighttime hunters in the Maya area, and therefore jaguar gods and goddesses all displayed an aggressive, warlike personality. There were also beautiful and often suggestive nocturnal deities such as the Moon Goddess, who was sometimes identified in texts as the sun’s wife or mother, represented in various narratives on vessels throughout this section.
The “Rain” section will feature depictions of two important and interrelated gods—the powerful rain god, Chahk, and the god of lightning, fertility, and abundance, K’awiil. Rain gods were venerated throughout the Maya region, and acts of appeasement to them were, and still are, critical for the well-being of communities. A highlight will be a tripod plate (7th–8th century), in The Met’s collection, that depicts Chahk waist high in water, with the Maize God emerging from a waterlily in the depths below and celestial beings hovering above him.
The section on “Maize” chronicles this god’s life, death, and rebirth through an assemblage of stunning and inventive masterpieces. The Maize God represented the beauty of the Maya staple crop, and is often depicted by Maya artists as an eternally youthful, graceful being. The Maize God was also associated with two of the most valuable items in ancient Maya economies—jade and cacao. Episodes from the Maize God’s mythical saga appear on some of the ancient Americas’ finest ceramic vessels.
“Knowledge” will delve into the work of the scribes, who spent long years learning the intricacies of Maya writing and employed hundreds of signs in varied combinations, which can be seen throughout the exhibition. Only four of the books created in the pre-Hispanic period have endured to the present day, but texts that survive on relief sculptures and delicately painted ceramics provide a resource for understanding Classic Maya alliances, conquests, and spiritual beliefs.
The final section, on “Patron Gods,” will include a striking series of works depicting kings and queens taking on various aspects and attributes of the gods. Maya artists created monumental sculptures to celebrate events and depict the perceived connection between rulers and the gods. Freestanding slabs known as stelae stood in the large plazas of Maya cities, and some of these sculptures bear the signatures of sculptors. Also on display will be a remarkable lintel—a horizontal support spanning a doorway—made of zapote wood. There are few Maya works carved in wood in antiquity that survive to the present day, and this lintel represents a celebration in the wake of the victory of Tikal (and its king Yihk’in Chan K’awiil) over rival Naranjo. Sculptures and vessels in the exhibition demonstrate the intimate relationship between Maya royalty and the gods and underscore the role of religion in the establishment and maintenance of Maya political authority.
After its showing at The Met, the exhibition will travel to the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, May 7–September 3, 2023.
Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art is one of a series of special exhibitions and installations that will present art of the ancient Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, and Oceania while the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing is closed for a renovation project that will reenvision these collections for a new generation of visitors. This exhibition will be an opportunity to see several extraordinary works from the Museum’s collection of ancient American art alongside exceptional loans that deepen our understanding and appreciation of Classic Maya art, and spotlight the significant collaboration between The Met and colleagues across the world. An important thematic component of the new galleries will be to highlight the artistic virtuosity of this region of the world through foregrounding authorship, also a key subject in this exhibition.
Additionally, two massive stelae—both long-term loans from the Republic of Guatemala—will remain on view in The Met’s Great Hall. Installed in September 2021, the stelae feature representations of influential Indigenous American rulers: a king, K’inich Yo’nal Ahk II (ca. A.D. 664–729), and queen, Ix Wak Jalam Chan (Lady Six Sky) (ca. A.D. 670s–741), one of the most powerful women known by name from the ancient Americas.
The exhibition was organized by Joanne Pillsbury, Andrall E. Pearson Curator of Ancient American Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, with Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Yale University, and Laura Filloy Nadal, Associate Curator, also at The Met in The Michael C. Rockefeller Wing. The exhibition was initially conceived with James Doyle, Director the Matson Museum, Associate Research Professor, Pennsylvania State University, and is organized at the Kimbell by Jennifer Casler Price, Curator of Asian, African, and Ancient American Art.
A lavishly illustrated catalogue, published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, will accompany the exhibition.
The publication is made possible by the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, Inc.
Additional support is provided by the Mellon Foundation and the Doris Duke Fund for Publications.
Programs offered in conjunction with the exhibition will include a “Family Afternoon” on February 12, and a teen-focused “Career Lab” scheduled for Spring 2023. For individuals with learning and developmental disabilities and those on the autism spectrum, there will be special “Discoveries” programs inspired by Lives of the Gods on January 8; and for visitors who are blind or partially sighted, “Seeing through Drawing” (on January 14) and “Picture This” (on January 19).
Education programs are made possible by an anonymous donor.
The exhibition will be accompanied by an Audio Guide, which will include insights by the three curators as well as linguist Romelia Mo, a contemporary native speaker of Poqomchi’—one of the 21 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala today—presenting visitors with an opportunity to hear the Poqomchi’ language spoken, as well as glyphs read in Classical Mayan. It will be accessible online and through a gallery QR code.
The Audio Guide is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The exhibition will be featured on The Met website well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter using the hashtag #LivesOfGods.