In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Maya Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • General Overviews and the Most Current Information
  • Observers of the Maya
  • Maya Architecture to 800 ce
  • Maya Architecture after 800 ce
  • Maya Paintings
  • Maya Ceramics
  • Maya Sculpture, Monumental
  • Maya Sculpture, Hand-Held
  • Hieroglyphic Inscriptions

Art History Maya Art
Mary Miller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0131


First documented in a comprehensive form in the 19th century, the art of the pre-hispanic Maya begins with painting, sculpture, and architecture in context by 600 BCE in the Peten of Guatemala, and, despite dramatic change through time, it continues with illustrated manuscripts and ritual performances until the Spanish invasion and conquest of the 16th century. Regional differences can be seen between the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala and the lowlands that encompass the Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo, along with Belize, Guatemala, and the northern portions of Honduras and El Salvador, in many cases falling along ethnic lines of the over thirty Mayan languages. Maya cultural history is divided into the Middle Formative, Late Formative, Early Classic, Late Classic, Terminal Classic, Early Postclassic, and Late Postclassic. The abandonment of southern lowland Maya cities in the 9th century is known as the Classic Maya collapse; that abandonment, which left the 8th century as the final period of construction and thus more accessible to the 20th and 21st centuries, has privileged recovery and knowledge of the Late Classic Maya. Particular attention should be directed to Maya architecture, characterized by massive and towering pyramids, sprawling palace compounds, and interlocking roads. Many freestanding pyramids hold tombs, although some form either actual or symbolic sites of astronomical observation, and a number of Maya palaces featured paintings within. Few wall paintings remain in situ today; far more paintings survive as fired ceramics executed in clay slip, particularly as tomb offerings during the 8th century CE. Maya sculptors made monumental sculpture as free-standing stelae of stone, often designed for veneration in plaza settings, along with carvings set as staircases, jambs, and lintels; stucco adornment was often applied as architectural ornament. Maya writing is its own art form, although it is also present and embedded in sculpture, painting, and ceramics. Particularly during the Late Classic period, Maya scribes developed florid calligraphic styles in painting and Maya sculptors executed complicated full-figure hieroglyphs. Once a commonplace, Maya screenfold books were burned by Spanish friars in the 16th century. Only four survive.

General Overviews

Following some 18th century explorations, Maya art has been documented in extensive publication since the 19th century, starting with explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood (see Stephens 2010, cited under Observers of the Maya). Spinden 1913 offered the first attempt to study imagery comprehensively; Thompson 1950 (cited under Observers of the Maya) both contributed to and stalled interpretation, the former by the author’s extensive illustrations and the latter by his strong views, which opposed a historical interpretation of the Maya altogether. Although Proskouriakoff 1960 (cited under Observers of the Maya) pointed the way, the beautifully illustrated and widely disseminated Schele and Miller 1986 transformed the view of Maya art, insisting on its study within the context of hieroglyphic decipherment and exposing practices previously not widely accepted. Schele and Mathews 1999 developed historical narratives from inscriptions that spanned architecture, sculpture, burials, and more. Current archaeological overviews address art, usefully in Sharer and Traxler 2009, and with the most recent interpretations in Coe and Houston 2015. Miller and O’Neil 2014 is a comprehensive handbook on the art of the Maya across 2,500 years and can be consulted for every site and topic treated in this article. Despite its focus on the works at Dumbarton Oaks, Pillsbury, et al. 2012 offers insights across the Maya region, with contributions from leading experts.

  • Coe, Michael D., and Stephen Houston. The Maya. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015.

    Coe’s general book on the Maya has long provided ample attention to Maya art; the new edition with Houston expands its coverage to extensive discoveries since 2000.

  • Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008.

    Martin and Grube pay close attention to Maya political allegiances, with attention to shifting relationships through time; the most up-to-date decipherments and political readings.

  • Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin. Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

    Exhibition catalogue and overview of Maya palace life and materiality, with publication of newly excavated discoveries, especially in Mexico.

  • Miller, Mary, and Megan O’Neil. Maya Art and Architecture. 2d ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2014.

    The most complete overview of Maya art and architecture, with emphasis on new discoveries in the 2014 edition.

  • Pillsbury, Joanne, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Iashihara-Brito, et al., eds. Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2012.

    The focus on Dumbarton Oaks notwithstanding, this volume provides comprehensive overviews and interpretations of all classes of Maya art, from stone sculpture to jade to chert. Note particularly Taube’s contributions on jade.

  • Schele, Linda, and Peter Mathews. Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

    Powerful and convincing history written from Maya inscriptions and archaeological evidence.

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

    Award-winning exhibition catalogue; first major book for a general audience to promote a revised view of history and ritual expressed in the art of the ancient Maya.

  • Sharer, Robert, and Loa Traxler. The Ancient Maya. 6th ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

    Originally published 1946 and authored by Sylvanus G. Morley. A valued reference for all aspects of the Maya.

  • Spinden, Herbert. A Study of Maya Art. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum, 1913.

    Spinden was the first to isolate motifs and take advantage of the organization of Maya deities by Paul Schellhas a few years earlier. His drawings and insights still have value, although his notions of the serpent in Maya art are now out of date.

  • Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.

    This book makes art and writing work together in compelling fashion; excellent volume for those new to Maya art.

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