Much of our knowledge and understanding of the ancient Maya has been gained through the combined research of archaeologists and art historians. Mary Miller has been a hugely influential scholar in this field. Perhaps her most famous contribution to the study of ancient Maya art was the computerised reconstruction of the Bonampak murals found in the rain forests of southeastern Mexico. Given her illustrious career, as professor of the history of art at Yale University and author of many collaborative works, the author begins almost apologetically and certainly with some modesty, warning us that "this (book) is little more than a preliminary road map through barely charted territory". The author's stated purpose is to answer the question of what exactly Maya art is (rather than "why it is"). She does this by giving quite a general overview of the ancient Maya cultural landscape. A somewhat unimaginative but nevertheless effective format is used: the chapters cover aspects of architecture, materials, periods, murals and painted books, and ceramics.
The Maya had begun to manipulate their environment from at least 500 BC. Their cities grew "organically" from the core outward. They accommodated local topography and incorporated natural features.
Even though these polities were linked by a common religion, social structure and hieroglyphic writing systems, Maya art tends to be "site-specific". It was designed for a particular architectural space within a regional style. The art is unique in Mesoamerica in that it kept a remarkable continuity over time and space. It also "speaks" through a unique writing system, which narrates stories about real people as well as mythical figures.
The Maya were surrounded by other cultures which influenced their art forms at an early stage. During the Early Classic (AD 250-600), the growth of major centres, such as Tikal and Uaxactun, was limited to the central Peten. Contacts with the mighty Teotihuacan in the Mexican central highlands were strongest during this time. This is reflected particularly in sculpture and architecture. Local elites sported central Mexican dress, ceramic styles were copied and funerary
architecture was adopted. By the beginning of the Late Classic (AD 600), many other Maya sites began to expand. By then, Teotihuacan styles began to evolve into a true Maya style.
The main focus of Miller's book is the Maya lowlands. Today these are the humid rain forests of Chiapas, the Yucatan peninsula and the Guatemalan Peten. It was in these regions that the Maya developed between AD 250 and AD 810 one of the highest levels of creativity and technology in Meso-america. These advances were cunningly combined to design beautiful and impressive works of architecture and art. This time span was called "the Classic period" by Tatiana Proskouriakoff (one of the author's mentors in the 1960s), a term that is becoming somewhat redundant today.
The author shares her theories on how Maya artisans developed more sophisticated artistic skills. She writes that they became more able in what she terms "subject representation". From the 7th to 8th centuries AD, the artists created representations of subjects as the brain perceives them at the time of depiction, rather than as it actually remembers them. This means that, for example, the human figure was carved and painted with greater anatomical accuracy and a better sense of perspective. Interestingly, though, it was a different matter when it came to portraiture. The ancient Maya equated beauty with the features of the young maize god. This deity embodied "human youth and perfection", as important for the Maya nobility as was the successful harvest. The intentionally deformed skulls of the higher classes (with long tapering foreheads) translated into a physiognomy that imitated the shape of the corn ear.
The only flaw in an otherwise stimulating little book is the absence of a chapter about modern Maya art, alive today as it was in the Classic period,12 centuries ago. There is also an unfortunate tendency throughout towards unnecessary jargon. Nevertheless, this book will enrich your art book collection - although it would probably be better off inside a rucksack, accompanying a travel guide.
Alan G. Robinson is investigating a newly discovered Mayan site in Mexico, near Bonampak.
Maya Art and Architecture
Author - Mary Ellen Miller
ISBN - 0 500 203 X
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £8.95
Pages - 240