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Maya art exhibition, co-curated by Yale archaeologist, explores lives of ancient gods

Yale professor Oswaldo Chinchilla stands for a portrait in his office on Yale’s campus in New Haven, Conn. Chinchilla co-curated an exhibition called 'Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art' currently running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which features nearly 100 rarely seen Maya masterpieces with depictions of divine figures of the ancient Americas. (Ryan Caron King/Connecticut Public)
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public
“Deities," says Yale professor Oswaldo Chinchilla, "were part of Maya life. There was no separation between what we would call the natural and supernatural worlds.” Chinchilla co-curated "Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art" running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which features nearly 100 rarely seen Maya masterpieces with depictions of divine figures of the ancient Americas.

From tiny jade figures to massive stone sculptures, a dazzling display tells the stories of ancient Maya gods at an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art,” open to the public through April 2, is the first of its kind in the U.S. in a decade.

Art of the ancient Maya is inextricably linked with the lives of their gods, according to Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, co-curator and Yale associate professor.

“Deities were part of Maya life,” he said. “There was no separation between what we would call the natural and supernatural worlds.”

Things we consider inanimate were believed to be alive with gods in them.

And recent breakthroughs in deciphering Maya hieroglyphics offer a fresh understanding of Maya art. The Maya hieroglyphs also revealed the names of several master sculptors and painters.

“In the Maya inscriptions, we get the sense that the kings and queens of classic Maya cities were quite intimate with the gods and goddesses,” Chinchilla said. “They were like their companions.”

‘Put order in the cosmos’

On a recent tour of the exhibition, Laura Filloy Nadal, associate curator of the Arts of the Ancient Americas at the Met, walked through rooms filled with rarely-seen objects from Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras. There are more than 100 works in the show dating from 250 to 900 A.D.

Rooms are divided into sections honoring different Maya gods. The show begins with the gods of creation.

Provided photograph / LACMA
Metropolitan Museum of Art
A Lo’ Took’ Akan(?) Xok squared vessel from Guatemala.

“The gods needed to put order in the cosmos,” Filloy Nadal said.

The first object in the exhibition is a square vase.

“It looks like an ancient book made by the Maya,” Filloy Nadal said. “We have an old god. He’s sitting in a throne, dressed up with a cape. And he’s smoking a cigar. But also here, we see a second type of creation. For the first time, we are saying here that Lo’ Took’ Akan (?) Xok, a Maya artist, was active at the 8th century of our era.”

‘Lord of the underworld’

The next area is dedicated to the sun god. There is a magnificent relief of a young man made in limestone.

“He’s a warrior,” Filloy Nadal said. “He is holding a staff and also a shield. And something is emerging from his mouth. Those are the rays of the sun. And the rays of the suns are like the weapons of the warriors.”

Moving on, the space changes. Lights dim while encountering the creatures of the night. Visitors see a terrifying object.

“He is a jaguar lord, a hybrid of human/jaguar,” she said. “And he is the lord of the underworld.”

“One of the interesting stories that we want to tell in the exhibition is the life of the gods,” Filloy Nadal said. “So the gods were born and sometimes they have very bad ends. But others like the maize they were reborn again, resembling the cycle of the plants for all of us.”

Moving into the next room, the powerful sound of rain fills the space. “Rain in the Maya area is really different from New Haven and New York rain,” Filloy Nadal said. “It strikes. It has a lot of thunders. So the ambience here gives you the chance of feeling the rain god, Chahk.”

Next, a section devoted to maize features three miniature figurines.

“They are flowers that are open and from the flowers you can see little gods that are emerging,” Filloy Nadal said. “This is the maize god.”

Whistle with the Maize God emerging from a flower.
Provided photograph
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Whistle with the Maize God emerging from a flower.

The story of the maize god – or corn god – reflects the agricultural cycle of life, death and rebirth. It is also a story of resilience and echoes the story of the Maya peoples whose empire suffered a major collapse in the 9th century, but whose elders still pass down ancestral knowledge.

On a wall in the museum is a film made in 2022. It shows young Mayans performing the traditional Dance of the Macaws.

Back in New Haven, Yale’s Oswaldo Chinchilla said he sees connections between the dance and a painting on a vase in the exhibition.

“I believe that it relates with a mythical story in which a young god disguises as a hummingbird to approach a young woman who is sometimes identified as the moon, who was kept very tightly secluded by her father or mother,” he said.

The contemporary dancers understand their performance is rooted in centuries-old Maya beliefs and mythology, Chinchilla said.

More than 6 million people currently speak Maya languages, many in the Northeastern U.S. Chinchilla hopes the Met exhibition offers both a sense of the artistry of the ancient Maya, and an understanding of the Maya as a living people today.

Learn more

The exhibition “Lives of the Gods: Divinity in Maya Art runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through Sunday, April 2.

Throne backUsumacintaRiverareaGuatemalaorMexico.jpg
Provided photograph
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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