Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Mayan Mural Masterpiece and a Modern Mental Exercise

The New York Times today reports on a wonderful discovery in Guatemala. Archeologists have uncovered an exquisite Mayan mural dating back to 100 BC, centuries before what's considered the golden years of Mayan art (starting about 250 AD). Here's a photograph of the central portion of the mural:

click on image to see larger.

In a statement released by the National Geographic Society, a supporter of the research, Dr. [William Saturno, an archaeologist at the University of New Hampshire who is a research associate at Harvard,] wrote, "The mural shows that early Maya painting had achieved a high level of sophistication and grace well before the great works of the Classic Maya in the seventh century." The mural appeared to have extended around all four walls of the chamber, only two of which were standing when archaeologists excavated the site, known as San Bartolo. The western wall was the centerpiece, the wall that people faced as they entered the room. The mural there shows two coronation scenes: one mythological, the other the coronation of a real king.

The first part of the mural illustrates the Maya creation story. Four deities represent the creation of water, land, sky and paradise. At the center, the maize god crowns himself king. Archaeologists said they were having trouble deciphering the glyphs of the much earlier Mayan script.
It's hard not to share Dr. Saturno's excitment about this find. Still, in trying to put the find in context he offered the following:
"In Western's like knowing only modern art and then stumbling on a Michelangelo or a Leonardo."
I don't know why exactly, but that analogy just bugged me. Perhaps it's because it presumes some furistic POV where Western art had been erased from the currently read history books (and that unnerves me). Perhaps it's because there seems to be a very subtle dig at Modern art (although when I tried to deconstruct that sentence to illustrate that, it fell apart, so I'm most likely just projecting). But all the same, it encouraged me to explore the comparison a little more indepth.

Here are details of two examples of Mayan art. The one on the left is from the recently discovered mural and the one on the right is from the "masterpiece" mural discovered at
Bonampak in the mid 1940s (painted in the late 8th century, so a good deal past the newly discovered one):

And for comparison, here are details of a piece by da Vinci and one by Matisse:

hmmmmm...maybe he's on to something.

Sorry...couldn't help myself.


Anonymous james leonard said...

If I didn't know better Ed, I might think you cherrypicked those details. The similarities between each pair--such as the volume of various hues and values--are striking. But you wouldn't do that, now would you? *grin*

As far as getting at the comparison the archaeologist made, I can't get inside it. It's apples to oranges to peaches to pears for me.

I'm willing to write it off as a sloppy attempt on his part to make off-the-cuff simplistic connections that conveys the meaningfulness of his work to broad "mainstream" audiences. My wife and I have several archaelogist friends (including my brother-in-law). Most of them suffer from a chronic sense of underappreciation of their work--one that in my experience exceeds even that of conceptual artists! And like in so many other arenas, public appreciation for your profession = funding.

12/14/2005 12:46:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

If I didn't know better Ed, I might think you cherrypicked those details.

Why...I...never.... ;-)

Do you know how many Modern pieces I rejected before stumbling upon that Matisse? Don't tell Bambino (or anyone else who expects me to make better use of my time).


12/14/2005 12:52:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

I am watching......

12/14/2005 01:13:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

damn...busted again.

12/14/2005 01:14:00 PM  
Anonymous just a girl said...

Ed, First of all, thank you for the effort and interesting read that this blog provides. Second thought is that the archeologist made a bumbling comment. I dont think that he was 'dissing' modern art, I think he made a goofball comparison. I also think that his comment referred to 'time' as opposed to 'quality' of art. I do love the Mayan work, and am off to investigate and see thank you for that.

12/14/2005 01:14:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Edward nice comparisons. It's a very exciting find. I suggest a trip trip Guatemala to see the Mayan remains at Tical. The region has hundreds or more unrecovered sites. Many are or have been buldozed for roads and developement. My family and I visited Belieze and Guatamalla last year at this time, a great trip.

12/14/2005 02:48:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

I suggest a trip trip Guatemala to see the Mayan remains at Tical.

This would sure beat the heck out of a get-together at a local pub for your blog commenters! Any chance we could get public funding for this? ^_^

12/14/2005 02:56:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Sure, start writing that proposal. Mayan beer research. But don't drink and clime the temples. If you fall there are NO hospitals!

12/14/2005 03:06:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

your comparison is jaw dropping.

I took his analogy to be more about the cultural changes that must have taken place between the times the two works were made and not about the qualities or quality of the work at all.

The sensation I got when I scrolled down the page to see your pair of images was AMAZING. I am still stunned

12/14/2005 03:36:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I took his analogy to be more about the cultural changes that must have taken place between the times the two works were made and not about the qualities or quality of the work at all.

I'm sure you're right...I was just having fun. As James pointed out those images were carefully cherry picked just for that's cheap of me, I know, but blame the archeologist...he inspired the mischief.

12/14/2005 04:08:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

From a comment on boingboing, ouch!
The National Geographic picture you published with your story of the newly discovered Mayan Mural seems to show the King making an offering of his own blood. As customary among the Mayan Kings he does it by stabbing his own penis with a white spear. To show the kings potency the blood is seen 'squirting out', as also noted in the NGS article (page 2), but they don't say it is also shown in the picture!

12/14/2005 07:40:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

ouch is an understatement!

12/14/2005 10:11:00 PM  
Anonymous claire said...

There could be a slight dig there on Modern art. Perhaps he should've said "In CHRONOLOGICAL's like MISTAKING a Michelangelo or a Leonardo for a piece of Modern art."

I'm puzzled by the "knowing only modern art" comment.

12/15/2005 12:27:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm puzzled by the "knowing only modern art" comment.

yeah, that made me why would they only know modern art...

Still, it's fine. I really just wanted an excuse to play with juxtapositions.

12/15/2005 02:29:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Another boingboing score. This is a podcast of the uncovering of the mural.

12/16/2005 02:15:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

OK, so technophobe question...are there desktop readers that will play mv4 files (I have a PC...and I don't have an iPod ...[collective gasp]...hint, hint, bambino!).

12/16/2005 02:32:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I don't have the answer, what's a PC? Was that in the tomb?

12/16/2005 02:49:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


yes, it predated the mural.

12/16/2005 02:54:00 PM  

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