Mayan Jade Masks Tell of Pre-Columbian Civilization
PARIS—The discovery of lost cities in the jungles of Central America at the end of the 19th century prepared the ground for pre-Columbian archeology. Names like Machu Picchu, Monte Albán, Palenque, and Tikal evoke dreams of mysterious civilizations.
Funeral jade masks, currently on display at the Pinacothèque, were created for the rulers as a means to become gods. The masks are dated from the years 200 to 900, a period known in history as the golden age of the Mayans.
The exhibition presents 12 original masks and the facsimile restoration of King Pakal’s mask, one of the most important archeological discoveries in Mexico in decades. The original piece, considered a national treasure, cannot travel outside Mexico.
One purpose of the exhibit is to provide a view of a civilization based on beliefs that are different from one’s own. The Mayans lived in city-states that maintained a perpetual climate of fear. Wars were regarded as a mandatory ritual to procure land and get prisoners for human sacrifice, which was considered necessary for maintaining cosmic cycles.
Sofia Martinez del Campo Lanz, restorer for the Funerary Masks Project of the National Institute of Anthropology in Mexico, wants visitors to understand that the Mayan human sacrifice comes from another understanding of the world. The Mayans believed that man was made from the blood of gods and from corn. Sacrifices were a way to give back to the gods and the earth what men owed them.
One would have to be an expert on Mayan civilization to understand its customs and beliefs. From the various gods to the symbolism of animals, plants, and objects threading their way through the three worlds, it is not easy to ground oneself in the depths of the Mayan universe.
The main gods were the sun and the maize gods. More than a basic means of subsistence and a gift from the gods, corn was regarded as the matter that constitutes man.
Unlike the Incas, for whom gold was the noblest matter, the Mayans held jade and the color green in highest esteem. Jade was considered a primordial element as a representation of the sky and the ocean, which were seen as primary sources of life. It also symbolized fertility, rebirth, and permanence.
Jade also represented the maize god, who enabled the continuation of the seasons and cosmic cycles as well as the reincarnation of the deceased ruler into a god.
Gods were numerous. The jaguar, as a nocturnal predator, symbolized a divine guide in darkness but also represented the day and daylight. It embodied the vital energy that made it possible to go from this world to the supernatural world.
One of the most astounding masks was found in the tomb of an unknown monarch, on which a fresco that included writing indicates his name was Bird-Jaguar.
The reconstruction of King Pakal’s tomb gives the most complete image among those of all the dignitaries. Pakal (603–683) was considered one of the most important dignitaries. His funeral mask was found in 1952.
He was born in Palenque at a time of invasion and destruction and became king when he was 12 years old. His rule created a time of relative calm, characterized by extensive construction works. Great care was put into the making of his mask as well as the objects and jewelry to accompany him to the next world.
Besides masks, the exhibit, which runs through June 10, includes funerary steles and seats bearing hieroglyphs, as well as ceramics, necklaces, and earrings.
The most peculiar object is in the shape of a turtle’s head and is composed of orange seashells and sea snails. It represents the center of the cosmos, from where the deceased monarch was to be reborn as the maize god.
No element in Mayan artwork is meaningless. A funeral rug made of seeds and seashells would be placed near the dignitary. Each seed and each pearl has its symbolic function, representing the underworld, cornfields, and the sky. These objects served as portals to the deceased.
Ceramics were used to enable the rebirth of the king and to guarantee the people’s welfare. One noteworthy ceramic receptacle used for macerating corn bears the image of a water serpent, which is associated with rebirth.
These findings may help us decipher and understand the Mayan civilization and its particular relationships to the worlds beyond this one.