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The Lord of the jaguar-pelt throne vase

Like the ancient Greeks or the ancient Moche of Peru, the ancient Maya of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras developed a rich tradition of painting ceramic vessels with clay slips. Particularly during the last two centuries of the period often called Classic (AD 250–850), vibrant local practices developed, and Maya artists depicted the lives of their gods and heroes, along with the lives of the very same local elites who could afford to acquire these fancy vessels.

The Lord of the jaguar-pelt throne vase, AD 650–800, from the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, is a remarkable example of this Maya vase tradition (figs 1 & 2). Wrapping around the outside of the vessel is a continuous image, albeit with points to stop or to change direction. The scene revealed is one of the Maya court. The ruler sits on a jaguar pelt atop a wide throne and sees his own image in a mirror held by a dwarf, or more likely, a sculpture of dwarf-as-mirror bearer, a representation known elsewhere (fig. 3) and actually found as a surviving object (fig. 4). He is surrounded by a coterie of courtiers, among them supplicant lords, servants bearing gifts and foodstuffs, parasol bearers and flysweeps. Despite the complexity of the human representations depicted here, there is no doubt about this ruler’s position at the apex of the chain of humanity.

The text on the vessel

In many cases we might well turn to the hieroglyphic inscription to aid in the reading of the vessel. However, this ceramic vessel has suffered some loss, most acutely in the area of the text, but also visible with 4 and 5 who are directly under what must have been the principal caption of a notable attendant. No section of the text is completely original. Such vessels often begin with a dedication statement, and a vessel like this one would be described as yuk’ib ‘his cylinder vessel’. Text usually follows that specifies the vessel held the valued chocolate beverage known as kakaw among the Maya. The text often ends with the name of the owner, and then rarely, but intriguingly, with the name of the maker. Short vertical texts usually name the most important protagonists depicted in the scene.

This vase is uncommon in skipping the usual dedicatory statement and beginning instead with a historical date (seen in the first two signs from the upper band, glyphs A–B). Today they are illegible, but originally they fixed the event pictured in the scene to a specific day in the Maya fifty-two-year Calendar Round. This system marries two distinct counts: the first a 260–day calendar of thirteen numbers and twenty day names; the second an approximate solar year of 365 days of twenty numbers and nineteen month names (eighteen normal months of twenty days and one ‘unlucky’ one of just five). A certain combination in the combined Calendar Round will recur only once every 18,980 days, roughly fifty-two years.

Text translation

A     2?-unknown day

B     13-unknown month

C     U-BAAH ubaah ‘his image’

D     ti-xi? ti xi?

E     ta-ke-le ta kel

F     x

G     x-x-x-K’INICH

H1   K’UH ?-x-AJAW ? k’uhul? ajaw? ‘holy lord of?’

H2   4-WINIKHAAB chan winik haab ‘four k’atun (periods of 7200 days)

H3   KAL(OOM)-TE’ ‘kaloomte’ ’emperor?’

H4   9-‘yotzk’in’

The next sign (C) reads ubaah ‘his image’, a general reference to the depicted subject – the lord himself – followed by the precise form of ceremony or action he is involved in (D–E). Unfortunately, this is not well understood, but should refer to the seated lord’s interaction with his principal supplicant. What follows is the name and titles of the lord. These are damaged, but we can see that his personal name includes that of the sun god k’inich (at G) We are then told that he is a k’uhul ajaw ‘holy lord’, the rank of kings – but the name of his kingdom is now mostly effaced (H1). Over the next two glyphs he is also said to be a four k’atun kaloomte’ (H2–3). This is a reckoning of age in which each k’atun is roughly equivalent to twenty years. By living into his fourth such period, our enthroned ruler must have been over fifty-nine years old. The title kaloomte’ indicated an especially exalted status usually carried by the most powerful of Maya kings. For a more precise translation it is sometimes glossed as ’emperor’. However, by the time this vase was probably painted – in the eighth century AD – the exclusivity of this title had been undermined and it was claimed by relatively minor monarchs. The last title [H4] is not currently understood, though it may be some kin-based epithet.

The remaining blocks are name captions for the some of the key figures in the scene (I1–3 and J–L). Very little can be made of them today, though one is clearly named ajaw or ‘lord’ status. There are some glyphs on the dividing wall and on the throne legs which remain more mysterious. They may be pseudo-glyphs, scribbles that give the impression of writing but are quite meaningless.

The scene

The Maya relished painting – and presumably owning – vessels that lavished attention on the details of life at court. Here they have opened a window onto a throne room. Eight individuals gather around the seated lord, making for nine in all (bolon in Maya can also mean ‘many’), a number the Maya preferred. Many bear fragrant offerings of flowers; these were among the most valued gifts of lords. Maya rulers were thought to have a special lordly smell, ik’, a vital essence of the greatest refinement and beauty.1 See S. D. Houston & K. A. Taube, ‘An archaeology of the senses: Perception and cultural expression in ancient Mesoamerica’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, vol. 10, no. 2, 2000, pp. 261–94.Certain blends of chocolate drinks called for flowers, and so the vessel itself seems to exude a sweet smell.

The swag curtains or awnings, probably made of heavy, white cotton, are rolled back, out of the way. Like the flowers that fade or wilt, the curtains, too, can rise or fall, opening or closing an audience with the lord. Within a chamber these curtains could have been suspended from the cross ties that help keep a vault in position; on the exteriors awnings could have been unfurled from massive tie-holes found in some cornice stones (at Palenque, for example). All Maya weaving, insofar as we know, was made in strips no wider than about sixty centimetres on backstrap looms, so large cloths would have been sewn together from strips. The Maya raised fine cottons throughout the lowlands; they probably traded for yet additional supplies of cloth from the Pacific slope of Guatemala and Chiapas.

The curtains here drape in front of a pillar to reveal the throne and its occupant. The Maya often built thrones and platforms of this sort directly into receiving chambers. The best example to be found archaeologically comes from Piedras Negras, where a niche housed a throne’s back, seat and front supports, providing the rear support from the architecture itself. Stone thrones are most common in the western Maya region, at Piedras Negras, Yaxchilan and Palenque; elsewhere, many thrones may have been made of wood, and then stuccoed and painted, leaving no trace today.

The throne rendered here is one of the most unusual examples known. The depiction shows that the entire surface was painted in shades of red on orange, outlined in cream, all painted with a flowing calligraphic line. The leg supports once featured glyphic texts, now no longer legible; what is visible on the throne support would appear to have been foliage. Behind the lord, to the right, a little dwarf is painted, almost entwined in what may be a waterlily or cacao plant. The dwarf reaches out: the ruler gestures as if to press into the dwarf’s hand. Maya lords sought the company and advice of dwarfs and hunchbacks, who were thought to be both entertaining and wise.2 See V. E. Miller, ‘Dwarf motif in Classic Maya art’, in Fourth Palengue Round Table, ed. E. P. Benson, San Francisco, 1980, pp. 141–54. Certainly their misshapen bodies kept them from entering any direct competition with the king, and the court scenes on Maya vases indicate that they were at least, from time to time, the king’s closest and most trusted companions. This concept was probably based in religious belief, where dwarfs and hunchbacks are the malformed siblings of the maize god and who is usually embodied by the ruler. At the time of the Spanish invasion, dwarfs were Motecuhzoma’s most trusted counsellors; their importance to the Maya is attested in the variety and complexity of their representation.

On the Lord of the jaguar-pelt throne vase the painted dwarf is situated behind the ruler, while directly in front of him a small dwarf in black body-paint kneels and holds out a mirror. Both stone and wooden mirror holders in the form of dwarfs have been recovered, and it surely is such an object that is depicted here, rather than a tiny, living human. Favoured though they might be among courtiers, here the dwarf companions exist in the world of artifice: one as mere paint on the surface, a two-dimensional prop; the other as one of the court’s most valued possessions, a mirror holder.

Mirrors were the principal tool of divination for the ancient Maya. Mainly using pyrite or hematite iron ores, artisans ground small, thin pieces to a high polish and fitted them together in a mosaic. Sometimes the tesserae formed perfect rectangles or ovals, and other times more random shapes; the pieces were then set into wood, stone or perishable backings. On Maya vases mirrors usually appear in throne scenes. Here the ruler looks away; more typically, the lord would gaze into the mirror. The mirror may have been understood to speak or answer in a way that could only be interpreted by the ruler; at least one example depicts a mirror that emits speech scrolls. The ruler would have seen a cloudy image of his own face in the mirror, as if channelling a twin or an inner self.

In this scene the artist has depicted objects of exceptional value to the Maya. Not only does the ruler look at his visage in a prized mirror, but he also sits on a jaguar pelt, demonstrating his role at the apex of the natural world and dominating the most powerful mammal. A fully flayed pelt, the frontal face of the feline directly aligns with the axis of the lord’s body. The ruler wears abundant jade jewellery; the heft of his jade necklace is indicated in part by the tong counterweight that drapes down his back and is visible on the left. Additionally he wears a huge panache of quetzal feathers in a two-tiered headdress. The most valued of all tropical birds, quetzals live in the cloud forest, a rare ecological niche between lowlands and highlands, where they nest in knot holes; the Aztecs described collecting the long, springy tail feathers from male birds taking a turn on the nest and then releasing the birds to grow another set. Here beads have been attached and a bit of feather cut or crimped towards the end, in a fashion very much like that of the Bonampak murals, the most complete program of Maya wall paintings, which can be dated to the last decade of the eighth century AD. Although not specifically the headdress of any particular god, this sort of feather headdress may bear some relationship to that of god L, the old god of tribute and trade, and whose wealth the Maya both emulated and coveted.

Underneath and in front of the throne we see other valued items: perhaps a large gourd, in front of the throne’s left leg; it sits beside a stack of cloth or paper, topped by a spondylus shell and a spray of feathers, perhaps attached to a perforator of some sort. To the right a small, low bowl holds folded paper, usually used for bloodletting in such contexts.

The two badly damaged individuals, 8 & 9 in front of and to the left of the throne, may well have just delivered these goods as a tribute payment. Some of the others may be assisting them, particularly 7, who carries an additional bowl with paper. The parasol bearer, 5, and the seated figure in front of him, 6, may also belong to the tribute-paying retinue and traces of what might be a tethered fawn are in front of 6. Featured on the parasol is a frontal head of a semi-skeletal deer, usually associated with the sun and sometimes with the dead sun in the Underworld. The parasol itself shows the artist’s mastery of foreshortening: the top feathers drape forward; the bottom feathers are angled. At the parasol bearer’s feet sits an individual who holds his hand to his mouth, perhaps speaking or singing, even translating or commenting on the affairs at hand.

If these five individuals are visitors, then 2, 3 and 4 form the ‘home team’ of courtiers. These individuals are particularly well preserved, and the surface reveals the delicate patination of years of contact with roots and other organic materials. Of special note is the figure behind the throne who holds what is surely a basket, given the woven design. Inside the basket are individual rows of white ovals, possibly hominy (kernels of maize soaked in lime (or possibly fresh cacao, each bean still with its milky, gelatinous coating. He wears two large beads on a cord, typical of an attendant (sometimes only the two beads, and no sign of any cord remain on Maya figurines). Maya vases often feature such an individual behind the throne. Sometimes he will look away, as if a guardian of the king’s back; in other cases, such as this one, his head is at the same height as the king’s and he may be a courtier of particularly high rank.

Maya kings clearly adopted favourites at court. Sometimes these were the dwarfs and hunchbacks who lived under his protection; at other times a childhood friend or trusted kinsman could have become a right-hand man through life. The last king of Piedras Negras, for example, had a special favourite, someone apparently known to him from childhood and central to political machinations forty years later, c. AD 800.3 See S. Martin, & N. Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya, London, 2000. On that king’s last monument the favourite’s name was inscribed on the support of the throne, as if he, literally, were right at the king’s back at all times. On the Lord of the jaguar-pelt throne vase the favourite attendant might well be the courtier behind the throne, someone who would have special access to the ruler (2). The fellow seated in front of the throne (3) – and the only one to do so – seems to speak to the lord with particular urgency, although he does not receive his lord’s attention. Standing, with arms crossed at the wrist, another man wears a ‘spangled’ turban, perhaps of cut shells or of ocellated turkey feathers. Scribes often wear such headgear, and although there is no other indication of his métier, a scribe frequently does appear in such scenes – recording tribute or otherwise recording the proceedings.


Mayanist Done Reents-Budet has recently focused attention on the role that feasting played in Maya cultural life and its attendant arts.4 See D. J. Reents-Budet, ‘Feasting among the Classic Maya: Evidence from the pictorial ceramics’, in The Maya Vase Book, vol. 6, eds B. Kerr & J. Kerr, New York, 2000, pp. 1022–37. Early Spanish chroniclers documented the role among the Aztec of tribute payment, gift-giving, feasting and attendant celebrations, often over periods of five days.5 See R. F. Townsend, State and Cosmos in the Art of Tenochtitlan, Washington DC, 1979. As tribute was received from one province or satellite, it might be given as gifts to another. On such occasions a new ruler might be installed or a victory or building campaign celebrated. The ball game, possibly ending in human sacrifice or other gladiatorial displays, may have been performed. The regular limitations of day and night would yield to celebrations that went long into the night, with drinking of both alcoholic and chocolate beverages, the latter known for their stimulation as the only source of a caffeine-like substance in ancient Mesoamerica.

It may well have been the preparation for such events that led to the creation of fine ceramic vessels, in some cases as fancy serving vessels to be used in the home city or in other cases to offer as gifts or payments. Overall, most Maya vessels themselves speak to this cycle of payment, gift, feast, party and ritual. Through time some were broken and mended, while others were tossed into the garbage. Yet others were scripted for the final ritual in any lord’s life. Most vessels in such fine condition as the Lord of the jaguar-pelt throne vase have survived within Maya tomb chambers where they have been relatively well preserved. We might well imagine that this vessel celebrated a lord’s wealth and ultimately proved testimony to that wealth in the afterlife.

Dr Mary Miller, Master of Saybrook College and Vincent Scully Professor of the History of Art, Yale University (in 2004).

Simon Martin, Research Specialist, The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (in 2004).


See M. Miller & S. Martin, The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, London & New York (in press).

1       See S. D. Houston & K. A. Taube, ‘An archaeology of the senses: Perception and cultural expression in ancient Mesoamerica’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, vol. 10, no. 2, 2000, pp. 261–94.

2      See V. E. Miller, ‘Dwarf motif in Classic Maya art’, in Fourth Palengue Round Table, ed. E. P. Benson, San Francisco, 1980, pp. 141–54.

3     See S. Martin, & N. Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya, London, 2000.

4      See D. J. Reents-Budet, ‘Feasting among the Classic Maya: Evidence from the pictorial ceramics’, in The Maya Vase Book, vol. 6, eds B. Kerr & J. Kerr, New York, 2000, pp. 1022–37.

5      See R. F. Townsend, State and Cosmos in the Art of Tenochtitlan, Washington DC, 1979.