Ritual & Power in Stone: The Performance of Rulership in Mesoamerican Izapan Style Art

Ritual & Power in Stone: The Performance of Rulership in Mesoamerican Izapan Style Art

Ritual & Power in Stone: The Performance of Rulership in Mesoamerican Izapan Style Art

Ritual & Power in Stone: The Performance of Rulership in Mesoamerican Izapan Style Art


The ancient Mesoamerican city of Izapa in Chiapas, Mexico, is renowned for its extensive collection of elaborate stone stelae and altars, which were carved during the Late Preclassic period (300 BC-AD 250). Many of these monuments depict kings garbed in the costume and persona of a bird, a well-known avian deity who had great significance for the Maya and other cultures in adjacent regions. This Izapan style of carving and kingly representation appears at numerous sites across the Pacific slope and piedmont of Mexico and Guatemala, making it possible to trace political and economic corridors of communication during the Late Preclassic period. In this book, Julia Guernsey offers a masterful art historical analysis of the Izapan style monuments and their integral role in developing and communicating the institution of divine kingship. She looks specifically at how rulers expressed political authority by erecting monuments that recorded their performance of rituals in which they communicated with the supernatural realm in the persona of the avian deity. She also considers how rulers used the monuments to structure their built environment and create spaces for ritual and politically charged performances. Setting her discussion in a broader context, Guernsey also considers how the Izapan style monuments helped to motivate and structure some of the dramatic, pan-regional developments of the Late Preclassic period, including the forging of a codified language of divine kingship. This pioneering investigation, which links monumental art to the matrices of political, economic, and supernatural exchange, offers an important new understanding of a region, time period, and group of monuments that played a key role in the history of Mesoamerica and continue to intrigue scholars within the field of Mesoamerican studies.


Nevertheless, as we cut farther down, the elaborateness and Classic
appearance of the discovered structures were no less apparent. Things
were not getting simpler, or cruder, or increasingly formative.

—Coe and McGinn 1963

The Late Preclassic period in Mesoamerica, which dates from 300 bc to approximately ad 250, witnessed the florescence of a unique mode of artistic expression known as the Izapan style. the term “Izapan style” takes its name from the site of Izapa in the hills above the Pacific coastal plain, or Soconusco region, of modern Chiapas, Mexico (fig. 1.1). the convention of erecting carved stone altars and stelae in pairs in courtyards surrounded by platform mounds first emerged during the Late Preclassic period in this region (fig. 1.2). the monuments at Izapa are perhaps best known for their dense, figural compositions carved in lowrelief that bear stylistic and iconographic continuities with earlier Olmec art and the later art of the Classic Maya (fig. 1.3). the stylistic and iconographic traits that comprise the Izapan style, however, also extend to contemporaneous stone carvings from sites located throughout the highlands and coastal piedmont of Chiapas and Guatemala, along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and into the valleys of central Veracruz, Mexico.

Despite the fact that monuments carved in the Izapan style are found throughout a broad and ethnically diverse geographic region of Mesoamerica, their repertoire of images, symbols, narratives, and stylistic traits coheres into a remarkably consistent sculptural corpus that provides a unique glimpse into the types of messages that were broadcast across the sacred landscapes of Late Preclassic Mesoamerica. These messages articulated political ideologies and complex cosmological themes, and formed a shared language of power that was employed by rulers in a dynamic Late Preclassic communication sphere. the focus of this study is the content, context, and active role of a specific subset of these monuments, which depict rulers performing in the guise of an avian deity, within the physical geography of Late Preclassic site centers.

In recent years, scholars have made dramatic strides in understanding the function of monumental sculpture as an ideological tool—one that literally gave voice to potent messages of authority and the relationship of humans to the cosmos— among the Maya and Aztecs of the Classic and Postclassic periods. However, the parallel role of sculpture during the Late Preclassic period has been relatively neglected. Traditionally, the Late Preclassic period has been understood as a strictly developmental period that fueled the later cultural florescence of the Classic period. This period’s alternative designation, “Late Formative,” is likewise laden with an evolutionary bias that connotes a lack of maturation and sophistication. More recently, scholarship addressing the archaeology . . .

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