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Karla Huebner

Prehispanic Art of Mexico


April 2000

Maya Stela at de Young

T
he Maya stela recently acquired by the De Young Museum is a carved limestone

work taller than the average person but surprisingly thin, with a rough back that

suggests it was detached from a larger slab—presumably when it was stolen from its original

setting. The color of the limestone is a light ochre except on the upper right, where the color

becomes darker and redder as if the stone had been accidentally stained. In a way, the buff

color of the stone almost comes as a surprise, because it looks so much like certain kinds of

clay and not at all like the marble, granite, porphyry, onyx, alabaster, and other stones that

are more often seen in museums. The viewer almost expects the stone to be dusty or

crumbly, yet it is obviously fresh from conservation and exceptionally clean. No signs of

paint can be seen, although it was probably originally painted in several colors; the Yaxchilán

lintels, for example, bear traces of red, green, and yellow.1

The qualities of the limestone itself, however, are of small interest in comparison to

the scene depicted on its face. Framed on three or perhaps four sides by a plain band stands

a female ruler engaged in a ritual vision quest. She stands upon a row of glyphs, and glyphs

also appear to her side and (mostly missing) above her headdress.

How do we know that this is what the stela shows and why is such a scene

important?

To answer the first question, we must look at how this person is represented. Maya

iconography is mystifying at first glance, but fortunately some of its elements are easily

1 Mary Ellen Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica from Olmec to Aztec (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996), 147.
learned.

The human figure on this stela, which appears relatively genderless to someone from

another culture, is recognizable as female by her long patterned dress; men in Maya art, like

men in the art of many other cultures, were usually shown wearing shorter or no skirts since

this was more practical for work and battle. Dresses of this beaded or woven pattern are

typical of royal Maya women in the eighth century, as can be seen on other works such as

Naranjo Stela 3 (Lady Wac-Chanil-Ahau), Yaxchilán Lintel 24 (Lady Xoc) and

representations of Palenque’s Lady Zac-Kuk and Pacal’s wife. The image of Pacal shown on

his sarcophagus depicts him in a short skirt of this same pattern, which Mary Ellen Miller

identifies as the Maize God’s beaded skirt.2 (see figures)

Rosemary Joyce, who notes three types of dress on Maya elite women, considers the

beaded skirt on Pacal’s sarcophagus to be a modified female costume. Looking at how male

and female Maya elite are distinguished by costume and glyphs, she proposes that Maya elite

gender is complementary rather than oppositional, and that individual rulers to some degree

take on dual gender roles. She observes that the Maya image of women shown on large-scale

public monuments is one in which woman is “complement to man in ritual and political

action” while that shown on pottery emphasizes female labor and physical characteristics

such as breasts.3 Yaxchilán monuments tend to support the idea of a complementary role.

The woman on the De Young stela has definitely taken on a dual gender role, as

female rulers were unusual among the Maya. We can see that she is a ruler by the fact that

she holds a ceremonial bar in her hands, a Mesoamerican symbol of rulership that predates

the Maya and can be found even in the Olmec “El Rey” bas relief at Chalcatzingo some

2Mary Ellen Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica from Olmec to Aztec (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996), 146.
3Joyce, Rosemary. “Images of Gender and Labor Organization in Classic Maya Society,” in Cheryl Claassen,
ed., Exploring Gender Through Archaeology. http://am.appstate.edu/top/dept/anthro/ebooks/gender/ch06.html.
1300 years earlier. Held against the chest with the ruler’s wrists back to back and the thumbs

out, in the Late Preclassic it signified “sky;” later it indicated “both sky and the vision path,

as well as the act of birthing the gods through the vision rite.”4 Another suggestion of this

woman’s rulership is her ornate feathered headdress.

As for how we determine her mental state, this is shown by the enormous serpent

wrapped around her body and continuing over her head, culminating next to her headdress

in an enormous open-jawed mouth from which issues a head and arm identified by the

museum as belonging to the god K’awil (God K, god of lineages). As in many other cultures

around the world, serpents were a Maya symbol of rebirth and transformation, and were

considered intermediaries between the mortal and divine. Visions of gods and ancestors

were one effect of the bloodletting rituals performed by Maya rulers, as the endorphins

produced during severe blood loss can cause hallucinations. The Vision Serpent symbolizes

the path taken by the gods and ancestors on their way from Xibalba to the human realm

when called forth by such a rite.5

What, then, is unique and significant about this particular work? We don’t know its

provenance, but it is believed to be from the Southern Lowlands of Mexico, Guatemala, or

Belize. While its remaining glyphs give dates of March 13, 761 and August 10, 760 (both

Julian),6 our ignorance of the site and the ruler’s name make it both frustrating and

intriguing. Is it from a known site whose history is fragmentary? Looking at works that are

similar in one or more ways, what further can we tell about its origins or meaning?

Like the Yaxchilán lintels and Palenque carvings, the relief is essentially done in two

4 Linda Schele and David Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (New York: William

Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990), 415-6.


5 Ibid., 417.
6 Kathleen Berrin, “Fine Arts Museums Acquire Maya Stela: Collaboration with Guatemala and Mexico Sets

New Standards for Museums,” Fine Arts (Autumn 1999), 7.


levels rather than in a rounded style. Mary Ellen Miller notes that “static, single-figure

compositions” like this one dominated in Central Petén in the Late Classic.7 She also notes

that many Naranjo monuments show women rulers.8

Women rulers are known from both Naranjo and Palenque, and in 1996

archaeologists discovered that the occupant of the tomb believed to be that of Copan’s fifth-

century Ruler II was a woman of about 50. Her tomb was extremely wealthy and had been

reentered more than once for ritual purposes, leading archaeologists to speculate that she

was either Ruler II or the wife of Ruler II’s father Yax K’uk’ Mo’.9 Probably women rulers

were more common among the Maya than hitherto believed. At Yaxchilán, wives of rulers

certainly played a key role in ritual and succession.10

While I have not had much luck finding pictures of the women rulers at Naranjo to

compare with the De Young stela—perhaps because Naranjo was recently “virtually

obliterated” by looters11--Carolyn Tate mentions Naranjo Stela 24, on which “Lady Six Sky

impersonates the Maize Deity in her attempt to institute her son as founder of a new

patrilineage at Naranjo.” This does not suggest Lady Six Sky ruled in her own right, but in

the same group Tate includes the Oval Palace Tablet from Palenque, which she describes as

Lady Zak Kuk impersonating the Maize Deity to install her son Pacal as founder of a new

lineage. We know that Lady Zak Kuk did rule prior to Pacal’s accession. Tate also mentions

Site Q Altar 1 as portraying a queen impersonating the Maize Deity as she conducts a

7 Miller, 150.
8 Ibid., 151.
9 Angela M.H. Schuster, “Who’s Buried in Margarita’s Tomb?” Archaeology 49 no. 4 (July/August 1996),

http://archaeology.org/9607/newsbriefs/copan.html.
10 See Schele and Freidel, chapter 5.
11 Dorfman, John. “Archaeologists and the Looting Trade,” Lingua Franca (May 1998),

http://www.linguafranca.com/9805/dorfman.html.
sacrificial ritual for her city, “whose kings have all been killed.”12 Tate doesn’t say whether

the queen of Site Q holds a ceremonial bar or is shown with a Vision Serpent, which limits

our ability to compare her with the ruler on the De Young stela. A drawing of Naranjo stela

24 shows Lady Six Sky (Wac-Chanil-Ahau) holding something to her chest in a gesture

similar to but not identical with the standard manner of holding a ceremonial bar. There is a

bound captive at her feet.

Lintel 25 from Yaxchilán does show Lady Xoc (not a ruler in her own right)

receiving a vision in which a warrior emerges from the mouth of the Vision Serpent. In

many respects the style is similar to that of the De Young stela, but it is less complex for the

viewer to work out because Lady Xoc kneels in one corner before her separate Vision

Serpent, while the ruler in the DeYoung stela has her serpent wound all around her and

apparently passing through her ceremonial bar. Lady Xoc’s basket of paper and bloodletting

tools in also clearly shown, while our ruler doesn’t seem to be shown with these. Lady Xoc’s

serpent is double-headed, whereas our ruler’s serpent appears to rise from a blood scroll.

Later monuments from Yaxchilán also show wives of rulers bloodletting and with vision

serpents.

Clearly, then, the De Young stela demands further comparison with other works that

depict elite and ruling women. Women rulers have certainly been known in other cultures,

perhaps most frequently in cases where the direct male line failed (the queens of England

and other European countries), but also where they to some degree shared power with male

rulers (sibling marriage and joint inheritance in ancient Egypt) and occasionally where they

actually seized power (Hatshepsut). Cultures in which women had crucial religious power as

priestesses and sybils, such as the Minoan, would perhaps offer the closest parallel except

12 Carolyn Tate, “Art 4315: Art of Pre-Columbian America,” Fall 1998, Texas Tech University,
that we lack political records for most of these.

In closing, it would be useful to know what the glyphs on the De Young stela reveal

beyond dates. Perhaps the ruler’s name has merely not been deciphered. Also, sculptors in

the Usumacinta River area and particularly in Piedras Negras often actually signed their

work.13 Naranjo Stela 12 was also signed.14 Is the De Young stela signed? Plenty of

fascinating questions remain to be answered about this work.

http://www.art.ttu.edu/artdept/undergraduate/ahweb/4315.html
13
Montgomery, John Ellis. “Style During the Reign of Piedras Negras Ruler 7,” University of New Mexico,
1992, http://copan.bioz.unibas.ch/meso/SculptorsoftheRealm/Sculptorsrealm.html
14 Ibid., reference Schele 1982, p. 128-9.
Bibliography

Berrin, Kathleen. “Fine Arts Museums Acquire Maya Stela: Collaboration with Guatemala
and Mexico Sets New Standards for Museums,” Fine Arts (Autumn 1999), 6-9.

Dorfman, John. “Archaeologists and the Looting Trade,” Lingua Franca (May 1998),
http://www.linguafranca.com/9805/dorfman.html.

Joyce, Rosemary. “Images of Gender and Labor Organization in Classic Maya Society,” in
Cheryl Claassen, ed., Exploring Gender Through Archaeology.
http://am.appstate.edu/top/dept/anthro/ebooks/gender/ch06.html

Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica from Olmec to Aztec. London: Thames and Hudson,
1996.

Montgomery, John Ellis. “Style During the Reign of Piedras Negras Ruler 7,”
University of New Mexico, 1992,
http://copan.bioz.unibas.ch/meso/SculptorsoftheRealm/Sculptorsrealm.html

Schele, Linda, and David Freidel. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. New
York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990.

Schele, Linda, and Mary Ellen Miller. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. New
York: George Braziller, Inc., 1986.

Schuster, Angela M.H. “Who’s Buried in Margarita’s Tomb?” Archaeology 49 no. 4


(July/August 1996), http://archaeology.org/9607/newsbriefs/copan.html.

Tate, Carolyn. “Art 4315: Art of Pre-Columbian America,” Fall 1998, Texas Tech University,
http://www.art.ttu.edu/artdept/undergraduate/ahweb/4315.html
Right: Lady Ahpo Hei
Palace Tablet, Palenque Lady Eveningstar, mother of Bird-Jaguar
Blood of Kings p. 115 Stela, Yaxchilan
A Forest of Kings, 274
Pacal with beaded skirt
Pacal’s Sarcophagus, Palenque Lady Balam and Bird-Jaguar
The Art of Mesoamerica, 129 Lintel 17, Yaxchilan
A Forest of Kings, 287 or Blood of Kings, 189
Lady Wac-Chanil-Ahau
Naranjo Stela 24 Lady 6-Tun and vision serpent
A Forest of Kings, 190 Lintel 15, Yaxchilan
A Forest of Kings, 287 or Blood of Kings, 189
Lady Wac-Chanil-Ahau
Naranjo Stela 3 Lady Great-Skull and Bird-Jaguar
A Forest of Kings, 193 Lintel 13, Yaxchilan
A Forest of Kings, 288
Woman (Lady Ahpo Hei?) holding Chan-
Bahlum Lady Xoc bloodletting
Pier, Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque Lintel 24, Yaxchilan
A Forest of Kings, 235 The Blood of Kings, 198

Lady Zac-Kuk and Pacal


Oval Palace Tablet, Palenque Lady Xoc and vision serpent
A Forest of Kings, 227 Lintel 25, Yaxchilan
The Blood of Kings, 199
Ruler with ceremonial bar
Petroglyph 1, Chalcatzingo Lady Shellfish-Quincunx with God K
The Art and Architecture of Ancient America, 127 Lintel, El Cayo?
The Blood of Kings, 85
Lady Great-Skull-Zero and her brother
Yaxchilan Lintel 14
A Forest of Kings, 274 or 288