April 28, 2014

At Yale: Characters of Mesoamerica

Head of Macuilxochitl (God of Pleasure, Games, and Music), Mexico, Gulf coast, Aztec, ca.1500; ceramic

In a small gallery at the entrance to the newly, wonderfully, expanded Yale University Art Gallery is their collection of the Art of the Ancient Americas. I walked into the gallery to have a quick glimpse before going upstairs to the painting collections, but I was stopped short by this beautifully rendered head. The sensitivity of its modeling is arresting, and the fanciful headdress added what to my eye was whimsy alongside realism. The power of this work encouraged me to look more closely at the rest of the collection on view.

Deities Emerging from Flowers, Mexico, Jaina style, Maya, ca. 600-900; ceramic with pigment.

What I saw were many marvelous ceramic objects, and I focused on those that were figurative. These two small pieces are charming and contradictory: coming out of flowers, things we think of as fresh and youthful, are these two elderly visages. The label describes them as two men, but there are distinctive breasts on the second figure. It is supposed that they were "sewn to the clothing or headdress of a high-ranking individual".

Miniature Hacha, Mexico, Gulf coast, Veracruz, ca. 600-900; stone with traces of pigment

This fierce individual reminds me somewhat of Leonardo's drawings of grotesque heads. In Spanish, hacha is an axe.

Ballplayer, Mexico, Veracruz, ca. 250-400; ceramic with added pigment.

The collection includes many small figures of ballplayers, even a small model of a game, seen behind this figure to his left. This little guy is so wonderful, with his mustache (?) and decorative body accoutrements, including the sausage rows of hair.

Ballplayers, Mexico, Jaina Island, Guaymil, Maya, ca. 550-950; ceramic with traces of paint.

It's really interesting to try to figure out what the bird-shaped belts do in a ball game. It seems that the game must have been decorative and full of ritual. There's such a simple solidity to the limbs of these figures, while the faces have some of the same delicate sensitivity as that of the head that opens this post.

Seated Woman with a Child, Mexico, Campeche, Maya, Jaina style, ca. 600-900; ceramic with added pigment.

Not all the figures depicted were male. Here a woman with a gorgeous headdress cradles a baby at her breast.

Seated Woman, Maya, Jaina style, ca.600-900; ceramic with blue pigment.

A necklace of large rounded beads graces the bare shoulders of a seated woman. I find it interesting that so much care is taken in creating a naturalistic face while the lower body is crudely roughed in.

Standing Male Figure, Mexico, Campeche, Maya, Jaina style, ca. 600-900; ceramic with added pigment.

There is no description of the figure above, but I wonder if it is meant to be a warrior with its clothing that looks like armor and carrying what looks like a shield.

Standing Captives, Mexico, Campeche, Maya, Jaina style, ca. 600-900; ceramic with traces of pigment.

I learned from the label on these pieces that nudity usually "signals the humiliation of the war captive". It also says the female "may also represent one of the Maize god's attendants, who may be depicted nude". So many suppositions make us more aware of how much is conjecture when trying to understand ancient cultures. A little understanding can help with appreciation, but I also have to admit to sometimes not caring about context at all; I love the work for its pure aesthetic qualities. In these figures, the way they are solidly grounded, the limbs full and strong, the shoulders square, is very satisfying.

Carved Bone with a Man and an Inscription, Mexico, northern Yucatan or Jaina island, Maya, 
ca. 800-1000; bone (human femur)

Coming to a piece like this, however, is difficult and confusing. The carving, described as a scepter, is elegant, with beautiful flowing lines, but.....it is a human bone! So, I did some googling to find other instances of the use of the human skeleton as ritual or other objects, which I did find: this site shows ritual Buddhist cups made from skulls, and bones made into musical instruments and weapons. This is a clear instance of how we can never have a pure aesthetic experience because we carry our own cultural biases with us, which we tend to think of as neutral. With my limited understanding, I found so many of the objects on display in this collection full of vivid life, beautifully described.


  1. I am heading to New Haven to see this soon. Thanks for the wonderful photos and insights. I'll stop in New Britain too. Surprising collection there. Great LeWitt in the lobby.

    1. You're in for a treat, Larry, because the museum has extensive collections in many fields. I've never been in New Britain; didn't know there was a museum there, so thanks.

  2. This was an exquisite collection that I enjoyed seeing as well back in 2019. The small expressive Hacha head made its way twice into my own art work.