Mayan art is often praised to be some of the most beautiful and sophisticated art of the ancient period in the Western Hemisphere. The Mayan civilization is known for its achievements not only in art, but also in architecture, math, and astronomy. During the classic period, from roughly 200 through 900 AD, Mayan pottery, sculpture, and writing flourished. Many of these relics can be seen today when travelers visit the Mayan ruins scattered throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador. Unlike other ancient civilizations, the Mayans had an incredible ability and focus on realistically portraying humans, and visitors are guaranteed to be amazed by the intricate detail of Mayan sculpture.
The ancient art of the Maya is on display in many museums around the globe, but there’s nothing quite like seeing it in its proper environment. Travelers who make their way to the Mayan ruins are blown away not only by the large temples, pyramids, and palaces, but also by the smaller pieces of Mayan art in its larger context. Some of the most famous archaeological sites for Mayan ruins are Chichen Itza in Mexico, Tikal in Guatemala, and Copan in Honduras. Each of these sites has its own variety of architecture and art that contribute to a larger understanding of this ancient civilization.
Mayan sculpture was carved out of a number of different materials; among other things, stone, wood, and jade were all used by the artists to create their masterpieces. Many large stone slabs not only contained carvings of pictures, but of writings as well. Carvings will be found throughout Mayan archaeological sites, including around doorways and panels in the walls of buildings. Another common form of Mayan sculpture is altars; Quirigua has some of the best examples of these sculpted altars. While many sculptures were also created in wood, very few of these survived throughout history.
Another form of art that didn’t survive the test of time is Mayan painting. Unfortunately, the humid climate of Central America has destroyed a great deal of colorful paintings of the ancient Maya; paintings on the inside of caves and temples fared better over time, and though the colors are faded, visitors today can still make out scenes of mythology, battle, and sacrifice. While painting and wood sculpture didn’t survive over time, one form of Mayan art remains well-preserved: Mayan pottery. In fact, vases and bowls were used as a sort of social currency between nobles; this further explains why the pottery is so detailed and beautiful.
Mayan pottery was exchanged at feasts and handed down through the generations as family heirlooms. Some pieces of pottery also accompanied members of the aristocracy to the grave. Scenes of mythology and from daily life were often depicted on these vases or bowls. Scholars and historians are very lucky that the ancient Mayans left so many clues about their rituals, habits, and religious beliefs in their art. Since many of the writings from this period were destroyed, it is up to historians to interpret the symbols of art and architecture to try and gain further understanding about the Mayan people.