Maya mythology is rich and complex — to date, its cast of divine protagonists, as represented through dense iconography, has not been the focus of an exhibition. For the ancient Maya, gods were born, lived as infants, reached their peak of maturity and influence, aged and ultimately perished, some to be born anew. This exhibition examines depictions of deities and unpacks the complex imagery that revealed such godly identities and divine aspects.
Maya artists gave form to the gods in remarkably imaginative ways, through works of astonishing visual complexity and aesthetic refinement. Exquisitely carved sculptures were believed to embody divine power and presence; skillfully carved 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.
Notably, Lives of the Gods brings to the forefront new discoveries and understandings of Maya culture. 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 this marks the first time in a major exhibition that any of their names will be identified on the accompanying exhibition labels. While artist signatures are scarce on ancient art across the world, Maya sculptors and painters did sign their works, sometimes prominently, on beautifully carved stone monuments and delicately ornamented vessels. Lives of the Gods will include four works by named individuals, as well as several examples attributed to Maya painters.
The extraordinarily rich array of exceptional sculptures, vessels, and precious ornaments in the exhibition demonstrate the intimate relationship between Maya royalty and the gods, underscore the role of religion in the establishment and maintenance of Maya political authority, and are a testament to the imaginative and technical virtuosity of Maya artists.