The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples

By George Kubler | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
THE MAYA TRADITION: SCULPTURE AND PAINTING

SCULPTURE

Maya sculptors of the Classic era were Stone Age professionals moving from one site to another as demand required. Their figural art displays stylistic unity during a thousand-year period. Proskouriakoff has charted its chronological variations. Haberland tabulates the regional migrations of several hundred specific forms in Maya sculpture.1

Limestone (Plate 73), sandstone (Plate 71), trachyte (Plate 70), stucco (Plate 78), wood (Plate 69), clay, and jade (Plate 80A) were the customary materials, worked without knowledge of metal tools. The genres were architectural decoration, commemorative reliefs, figurines, pottery, and jewellery. All large monumental sculpture obeyed architectural lines of force in its placing. Low relief carving is predominant, full-round sculpture rare. The governing impression is of an art of linear contour, transferred from painting in order to secure more permanent effects, without investigation of the sculptural possibilities of bodies in space. Between the Leyden Plate of incised jade and an early stela from Tikal, the main differences are in scale and technique. The formula of linear silhouettes in the flat plane is common to both. Six hundred years later, the murals of Bonampak (Plates 86-90) and the figural reliefs of Piedras Negras (Plate 73) show similarities of the same order, although the reliefs have less pictorial scope than the murals, and a more rigid hieratic symbolism. Studied proportions, often with complex harmonic relations, characterize Maya sculpture, in a manner reflecting or echoing the obsession of the Maya mind with astronomical, mathematical, and ritual divisions of time.

A major morphological change in Maya sculpture occurred near the close of the Initial-Series inscriptions in the seventh century, after free-standing stelae (Plate 70) and altars with relief sculpture ceased to be made. Thereafter, from the eighth to the end of the tenth century, during the Puuc period, an architectural sculpture of geometric stylization (Figure 52), which was usually confined to the upper façades of Late Classic buildings, gradually replaced the old tradition of naturalistic and curvilinear relief sculpture. Instead of the priests and warriors and secondary figures of Early and mid-Classic art, geometric assemblies of serpent-mask mosaic forms, with panels of abstract ornament and curtains of stone colonnettes, surround the exteriors of the edifices (Plate 67B). The reasons for this great change are no better understood than those for the twentieth-century 'retreat from likeness'. We may suppose that a cultural crisis and a geographic shift, or a combination of both, were involved with the advent of different conceptions of artistic form. The possibility of an autonomous stylistic renewal is also relevant, as in the European shift from the Romanesque to the Gothic style in the

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