Precolumbian Art and Art History

ART 347m Maya Art

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Aerial photo of Chichén Itzá

The site of Chichén Itzá flourished during the Terminal Classic period, between AD 800 - 948, and was strategically located at the center of the political landscape in Yucatan. The art of Chichén Itzá, like much of the art of the Terminal Classic and Early Postclassic periods, is rendered in an international style that blends both Maya and Central Mexican characteristics and iconography. The name Chichén Itzá, which means "mouth of the well of the Itzá," may refer to the cenote, or natural limestone sink hole filled with water, which is linked to the site center by a 900 foot long path called a sak beh or "white road." Offerings were made anciently to the sacred cenote, including gold repoussé disks, gold eye rings and mouthpiece, beads, gold and copper bells, arrowheads, pottery, knives, jades, copal resin, textiles, and baskets.

Dominating the northern precinct of the site is the huge Castillo, a radial pyramid whose northern stairway is flanked at the base by carved feathered serpent balustrades. Photo of Castillo and North Balustrades

Drawing of a Column from the colonnaded gallery
To the east of the Castillo is the Temple of the Warriors. At the base of this pyramid and stretching to the south is a colonnaded gallery of square stone columns, carved on all four sides, which depict warriors, priests, and captives. Two huge feathered serpents frame the door to the temple at the top of the pyramid. In front of the temple stands a chac mool holding a sacrificial plate on his stomach.

Photo of the Temple of Warriors
Photo of a Chac Mool and link to FAMSI Photo of the Upper Temple of Warriors

Dominating the northwest corner of the site is the Great Ballcourt, the largest in Mesoamerica and approximately the size of a modern football field. Two parallel buildings with long benches form the central alley of the I-shaped playing field. At the centers of the walls that define the playing alley are rings that were decorated with the body of an undulating feathered serpent. Photo of the main ballcourt

Each of the benches of the ballcourt contains three long, carved panels that repeat a similar scene. The east central panel depicts two groups of ballplayers marching toward the center of the scene, garbed in regalia that is associated with both the ballgame and warfare. At the center of the panel is a scene of ballcourt decapitation sacrifice. On the left, the victorious player grasps the head of his victim, while in front of him sits the ball marked with a skull. To the right kneels the victim, whose neck spurts seven streams of blood: six in the form of snakes and one in the form of a squash vine. This imagery conjured not only a clever pun in a Mayan language, but also referenced the notions of sacrifice, rebirth, and creation. drawing of the east central panel of Ballcourt

Several temples were placed on the walls surrounding the ballcourt: the small North Temple at the northern end, the larger South Temple to the south, and the two-story temple on the eastern side of the ballcourt that consisted of the Upper and Lower Temples of the Jaguar.

The Lower Temple of the Jaguar, which opened to the outside of the ballcourt, was associated with the themes of creation, the foundation of the city, and the right to perform warfare. Between the columns flanking the entrance to the temple sat a jaguar throne. Inside, the temple contained an elaborate, polychromed mural whose registers were formed by the undulating bodies of twisted serpents, marking the scene as a supernatural place of creation. Register B of the mural depicts a central figure that wields a yellow disk, which may represent the same kind of gold disk that was dredged from the cenote. He wears rings around his eyes that recall those recovered from the cenote, as well as those that appeared on the headdress from the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan. Wrapping around the disk in his hands, as if emerging from it, is an enormous feathered serpent, which also recalls the imagery of Teotihuacan. Photo of the Lower Temple of the Jaguar
Drawing of the Lower Temple of the Jaguar, Register B
The door to the Upper Temple of the Jaguar, which stood above the Lower Temple and opened onto the playing alley, was framed by huge feathered serpents. The interior of the temple contained a series of murals recording the wars of conquest that established Chichén Itzá's power and right to rule within the region. The scenes depict battle preparations, warriors engaged in fighting, and supernatural warriors or ancestors floating above the scene in sun-disk-shaped cartouches. Drawing of the upper Temple of the Jaguar


Coggins, Clemency C. and Orrin C. Shane III. 1984. Cenote of Sacrifice: Maya Treasures from the Sacred Well of Chichen Itza. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Kristan-Graham, Cynthia. 2001. "A Sense of Place at Chichén Itzá." In Landscape and Power in Ancient Mesoamerica, edited by Rex Koontz, Kathryn Reese-Taylor, and Annabeth Headrick, pp. 317-369. Boulder: Westview Press.

Schele, Linda and Peter Mathews. 1998. "Chichén Itzá: The Great Ballcourt." In The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs, pp. 197-255. New York: Scribner.

Wren, Linnea, Ruth Krochock, Erik Boot, Lynn Foster, Peter Keeler, Rex Koontz, Walter Wakefield. 1992. "Maya Creation and Recreation: The Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza." Manuscript prepared in conjunction with the 1992 Advanced Seminar of the Texas Meetings on Maya Hieroglyphic Writing.