Late Classic, Maya ('Codex' style)
Place made: Nakbé region, Mirador Basin, Petén, Guatemala

The Princeton Vase, A.D. 670–750

Ceramic with red, cream, and black slip, with remnants of painted stucco
h. 21.5 cm., diam. 16.6 cm. (8 7/16 x 6 9/16 in.)
Museum purchase, gift of the Hans A. Widenmann, Class of 1918, and Dorothy Widenmann Foundation
K0511 MS1404
✓ information shown is curator-approved
Catalogue Entry:

The masterful calligraphic painting on the Princeton Vase is the finest known example of Maya "codex style" ceramic art. Graceful, sure lines painted on a cream slip present a theatrically composed mythological scene, while subtle visual devices encourage the viewer to turn the drinking vessel, adding a temporal unfolding to the visual experience. On one side (seen here), an old, toothless underworld god sits on a throne that is placed within a conventionalized depiction of a palace structure, represented by the pier behind him and what is likely a cornice above. The cornice is adorned with two jawless jaguars framing a frontal shark face. Curtains, which were used as doors among the ancient Maya, have been furled and tied to reveal the old lord seated within. This deity, known among scholars as God L, wears his characteristic open-weave brocaded shawl and broad-brimmed hat bedecked with owl feathers and a stuffed owl with wings outstretched. In addition to ruling Xibalba, the Maya underworld, God L was the patron deity of tobacco and merchants. Five elegant female figures — daughters or concubines — surround him. Each wears a loose, flowing sarong, decorated with batik-like dyed patterns rendered in soft brown wash, and jewelry at the ears, neck, and wrists. One of the women behind God L pours chocolate, frothing the bitter delicacy from a vessel of the same form as the Princeton Vase. A rabbit scribe, who may be spying on God L, sits below, recording the actions of the scene in a book with jaguar-pelt covers. God L delicately ties a bracelet on the woman before him, while another woman taps her foot to draw her attention—and the viewer’s—to the gruesome scene at left, in which two men wearing elaborate masks and wielding axes decapitate a bound and stripped figure. The victim’s serpent-umbilicus curls out to bite one of the executioners. The scene closely parallels a portion of the Popol Vuh, a sixteenth-century K’iche’ Maya mythological narrative wherein the Hero Twins trick the lords of the underworld into requesting their own decapitations. As is common in mythological narratives throughout the Americas, these heroes win the day not through Herculean feats of brute strength, but through cunning, and often humorous, trickery. The formulaic texts at the upper edge of the Princeton Vase serve to consecrate the vessel, to specify that it was intended for drinking "maize tree" chocolate, and to designate its owner, a lord named Muwaan K’uk’. The vase would have been used in courtly feasts similar to the scene depicted.

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