The ancient Maya did not build their great cities on coastlines but inland. This is partially why archaeologists have focused on their in-land habits. It is the Mayan glyphs which have been so central in the study of this ancient culture. While 90% of the 800 glyphs have been deciphered, the glyph for sea was not translated until the late 1980s. Until this key glyph had been unlocked, the importance of the sea in Maya culture had not been fully studied or appreciated. Translated literally as “Fiery Pool”, identification of this glyph was part of a growing awareness of the centrality of the sea in Maya life that culminates in this exhibition and the companion book of the same title.
Over 90 works, many recently excavated and never before seen in the United States, offer exciting new insights into the culture of the ancient Maya focusing on the sea as a defining feature of the spiritual realm and the inspiration for powerful works of art.
Surrounded by the sea in all directions, the ancient Maya viewed their world as inextricably tied to water. More than a necessity to sustain life, water was the vital medium from which the world emerged, gods arose and ancestors communicated.
For the Maya, the realms of earth, sea, sky and cosmos may have been perceived as flowing into each other, rather than as distinct territories of being. For the Maya, water was a source of material wealth and spiritual power. All bodies of water ─ rivers, cenotes (deep, inland pools) and the sea ─ were united, and all could be traversed to a cosmic realm. The Sea is also critical in understanding the cyclical motion of the cosmos as the Maya experienced it. The sun rose in the morning over the Caribbean Sea in the east, and set in the West over the Pacific Ocean, in a daily re-enactment of the idea of birth, death and rebirth the next morning.
Rarely does an exhibition offer an entirely new way of viewing the art of a great civilization.
The exhibition opens at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts and is scheduled to travel to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Saint Louis Art Museum. If you cannot attend the exhibition an excellent catalog is available: yalepress.yale.edu