'Los Mayas' Reveals the Art of a 'Lost Civilization' ; Mexicans Flock to a Massive Exhibition That Showcases the Complex

By Howard LaFranchi, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 29, 1999 | Go to article overview

'Los Mayas' Reveals the Art of a 'Lost Civilization' ; Mexicans Flock to a Massive Exhibition That Showcases the Complex


Howard LaFranchi, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When Hernn Corts landed in Mexico in 1519, he did not find the land of silver and gold, the "El Dorado," for which he thirsted. What Corts and the other Spanish conquistadors did encounter were astounding Indian civilizations, among which figured the Mayan. The Mayas have been called the Greeks of the New World.

But the Spanish were less interested in the languages, writings, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, and arts of the Mayas than in turning them from their "satanic" ways and converting them to Christianity. Within 50 years of the conquest, the Mayan civilization, already in decline in some areas, was all but destroyed - its statues and temples smashed, its written records burned, its governors killed, and its people enslaved.

Like the movie star or political leader of our day who dies young and becomes a legend, the Mayan civilization is all the more captivating to us because of its tragic fall. Now some of the awe- inspiring achievements of a people long considered little more than subhuman idolaters by those who vanquished them are on display in an ambitious exposition in Mexico City.

The show, entitled simply "Los Mayas," exhibits more than 500 pieces from 40 museums in Mesoamerica - much of southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador where the Mayas lived. It is another reminder that it is more difficult to build a civilization than to tear one down.

"The exposition demonstrates that the Mayas achieved not only great technical heights, but an astonishing aesthetic sense that permeated their art," says Mercedes de la Garza, director of Mexico City's National Anthropological Museum and the show's curator. "Mayan artists displayed many different styles," reflecting the Mayas' political organization into independent states, she says, and "suggesting a great artistic freedom."

But in the end, the Mayas' art, whether tall steles (inscribed stones) featuring plumed governors or short clay statues depicting nobles or ballplayers, came down to religion. Mayan cities were meticulously laid out with the cosmos in mind; the exhibition's entertaining funerary statues (with their big hats, oversized jewelry, and exaggerated poses) were buried with the deceased in a tomb. That every piece of their art had its place in cementing the Mayas' relation to their gods - and the sacred powers of the Mayan rulers - explains why the Mayas' conquerors wanted it destroyed.

One might wonder why mount a show now on the Mayas in Mexico, where much of the world's remaining Mayan art and architecture is already found?

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