Maya Cylinder Vase

Selections from the Nasher Museum of Art


Cylinder Vase

Cylinder Vase
Maya Lowlands, Guatemala 
600-900 A.D.
Ceramic with red, orange, green, and black on white slip
7x 5 inches
Gift of William S. Judy, 1986

In this vase we have a picture of the political, religious, and social life of the Classic-era Maya people of the PetÈn region of Guatemala. A Maya lord is depicted sitting cross-legged in front of his throne pillow, wearing a green jade pectoral and a green headdress, which would have been made of tail feathers from the male quetzal bird. These indicate his rank and role as intermediary between gods and men, ensuring the agricultural cycle of sun and rain for the maize crop; the green is a reference to the color of shoots of maize in the spring. A row of kakaw (cacao) beans is painted around the bottom, suggesting that this vessel was probably used for the foamy chocolate drink reserved for the Maya elite.

This vase would have been part of elite ceremonial banquet ware saved for special occasions and sometimes offered as diplomatic gifts. The worn top rim of the vase reveals that this vessel was used during the lord's lifetime and buried with him for the afterlife.

Maya artists did not have the potter's wheel. This vase was built by coiling long, rope-shaped pieces of clay into a cylinder. The artist would then smooth the sides using a seashell, pottery shard, or hand. The vessel was painted with a clay slip made of mineral pigments--chiefly iron ore--and clay diluted with water. Burnishing and slip painting helped make the vase waterproof. It was probably fired at low heat in a bonfire.

The Nasher Museum of Art's Pre-Columbian collection is known for its large number of painted Maya vases from ancient Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. The collection also includes works from other cultures in that region, notably Colima, Veracruz, Teotihuac·n, and Nayarit, and from such Latin American countries as Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Brazil.


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