How a Fort Worth Museum Pulls Maya Culture From its Watery Depths

I arrived at the preview of the Kimbell’s new exhibition, Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea, a few minutes early and wandered through the show’s four galleries without looking at the accompanying wall essays, cue cards, or catalogue scholarship. Moving through the neatly arranged collection of artifacts, I was struck by their strange incomprehensibility. I saw small animal figurines with human heads sticking out; exquisitely painted pottery with ornate scenes depicting moments in very unknown stories; plates decorated with royal scenes, dense with indecipherable symbols; stone reliefs covered in boxy hieroglyphics; tiny precious gems and jewelry; and what looked like trifling play things – tiny sculpted frogs, human figurines – that were executed with the utmost care and craftsmanship.

Lobster effigy, c. 1550, Lamanai, Belize. Clay and paint, 2 3/4 x 8 1/4 x 3 in. (7 x 21 x 8 cm). National Institute of Culture and History, Belize. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, photograph © 2009 Jorge Pérez de Lara

It is rare to encounter the artifacts of a culture in such an unadulterated way, absent the usual associations that are the byproduct of cultural references, adaptations, and assimilations. Even the Dallas Museum of Art’s African Masks exhibition isn’t this culturally raw (we can all conjure an image of an African mask in our minds without seeing that show). For most of us, encountering this Maya work is an unfettered experience, an approach of something bafflingly new and utterly foreign.

As it turns out, I’m not the first to be baffled by these bizarre and fascinating objects from the ancient culture. The scholarly project of Fiery Pool is the culmination of twenty years of new research into Maya culture that followed the important deciphering of a single glyph: the symbol the Maya used for “sea.” This discovery led to a reimagining of the workings of Maya culture and brought to light the central role the sea played in the daily and spiritual lives of the Maya people. The exhibition, organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, brings together some key objects to help flesh out our understanding of the sea and the Maya people. “Fiery Pool” is the phrase the Maya used to describe the sea, and as a culture nearly surrounded by water, the sun’s rising and setting on the water, the fiery reflections of orange and yellow on the sea’s surface, created the context for the Maya understanding of the world.

Panel with a seated ruler in a watery cave (Cancuen Panel 3), 795, Cancuen, Guatemala. Limestone, 22 5/8 x 26 1/4 x 3 in. (57.5 x 66.5 x 7.6 cm). Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes—Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, photograph © 2009 Jorge Pérez de Lara

This latest exhibition comes 25 years after the Kimbell launched another landmark Maya exhibition: The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. Unlike The Blood of Kings, the new exhibition avoids the more sensational aspects of ritual and sacrifice that are usually associated with the school boy version of Mesoamerican cultural history. Instead, the exhibit progresses through four overarching themes, “Water and Cosmos,” “Creatures of the Fiery Pool,” “Navigating the Cosmos,” and “Birth to Rebirth,” to examine the influence of the sea on the myths and lives of the Maya people. Through its organization and the accompanying information – cards, wall essays, three video presentations, and an interactive touch screen “pool” – Fiery Pool shows how the sea is central to Maya creation myths, ideas of the afterlife, and daily life. The rain god Chahk continues to emerge in the art, often in stylized scenes that show the water cycle associated with death and rebirth. Reliefs and pottery show deities sitting on water lilies or snake tongues doubling as lightning. Sea animals are portrayed both as deities, with human heads popping out of alligator or bird mouths, or as carefully craved little playthings.

Figurine of the Jaguar God of the Underworld riding a crocodile, 700–800, Jaina Island, Mexico. Ceramic, 9 3/4 x 7 1/2 x 7 1/4 in. (24.9 x 19.1 x 8.4 cm). National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Beyond the cultural content contained in the exhibition, what is striking about the objects contained in this show is the craftsmanship. Humans and animal images morph fluently from real to fanciful forms. The colors on painted pottery are vibrant and intricate. Even the tiniest of figurines are etched with great care, often meticulously decorated with symbols and glyphs. These tiny objects are playful and full of life, resonating with human charm.

Photo at top: Sculpture of a deity with characteristics of the Sun God, 550–650, Altun Ha, Belize. Jadeite, 5 7/8 x 4 3/8 x 5 3/4 in. (14.9 x 11.2 x 14.8 cm). National Institute of Culture and History, Belize.