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.
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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
- Adornment, Dress, and African Arts of the Body
- Ancient Egyptian Art
- Ancient Pueblo (Anasazi) Art
- Angkor and Environs
- Art and Architecture in the Medieval Kingdom of Hungary
- Art and Propaganda
- Art of Medieval Iberia
- Art of the Crusader Period in the Levant
- Art of the Dogon
- Art of the Mamluks
- Art of the Plains Peoples
- Arts of Senegambia
- Arts of the Pacific Islands
- Assyrian Art and Architecture
- Australian Aboriginal Art
- Aztec Empire, Art of the
- Babylonian Art and Architecture
- Bamana Arts and Mande Traditions
- Barbizon Painting
- Bernini, Gian Lorenzo
- Bohemia and Moravia, Renaissance and Rudolphine Art of
- Borromini, Francesco
- Brazilian Art and Architecture, Post-independence
- Burkina Art and Performance
- Byzantine Art and Architecture
- Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da
- Carracci, Annibale
- Chaco Canyon and Other Early Art in the North American Sou...
- Chicana/o Art
- Chimú Art and Architecture
- Colonial Art of New Granada (Colombia)
- Conceptual Art and Conceptualism
- Contemporary Art
- Courbet, Gustave
- Czech Modern and Contemporary Art
- Daumier, Honoré
- David, Jacques-Louis
- Delacroix, Eugène
- Design, Garden and Landscape
- Destruction in Art
- Dürer, Albrecht
- Early Christian Art
- Early Medieval Architecture in Western Europe
- Eighteenth-Century Europe
- Ethiopia, Art History of
- European Art, Historiography of
- European Medieval Art, Otherness in
- Eyck, Jan van
- Festivals in West Africa
- French Impressionism
- Gender and Art in the Middle Ages
- Gender and Art in the Renaissance
- Gender and Art in the 17th Century
- Giotto di Bondone
- Gothic Architecture
- Gothic Art in Italy
- Goya y Lucientes, Francisco José
- Great Zimbabwe and its Legacy
- Greek Art and Architecture
- Greenberg, Clement
- Géricault, Théodore
- Iconography in the Western World
- Installation Art
- Islamic Art and Architecture in North Africa and the Iberi...
- Japanese Architecture
- Japanese Ceramics
- Jewish Art, Ancient
- Jewish Art, Medieval to Early Modern
- Jewish Art, Modern and Contemporary
- Jones, Inigo
- Kahlo, Frida
- Lastman, Pieter
- Leonardo da Vinci
- Luisa Roldán
- Markets and Auctions, Art
- Marxism and Art
- Maya Art
- Medieval Art and Liturgy (recent approaches)
- Medieval Art and the Cult of Saints
- Medieval Art in Scandinavia, 400-800
- Medieval Textiles
- Meiji Painting
- Merovingian Period Art
- Moche Art
- Modern Sculpture
- Monet, Claude
- Māori Art and Architecture
- Museums in Australia
- Museums of Art in the West
- Nasca Art
- Native North American Art, Pre-Contact
- New Media Art
- New Spain, Art and Architecture
- Olmec Art
- Pacific Art, Contemporary
- Palladio, Andrea
- Parthenon, The
- Performance Art
- Perspective from the Renaissance to Post-Modernism, Histor...
- Peter Paul Rubens
- Philip II and El Escorial
- Photography, History of
- Pollock, Jackson
- Polychrome Sculpture in Early Modern Spain
- Postmodern Architecture
- Pre-Hispanic Art of Columbia
- Psychoanalysis, Art and
- Qing Dynasty Painting
- Rembrandt van Rijn
- Renaissance and Renascences
- Rivera, Diego
- Rodin, Auguste
- Roman Art
- Science and Conteporary Art
- Sculpture: Method, Practice, Theory
- South Asia and Allied Textile Traditions, Wall Painting of
- South Asia, Modern and Contemporary Art of
- South Asia, Photography in
- South Asian Architecture and Sculpture, 13th to 18th Centu...
- South Asian Art, Historiography of
- The Art of Medieval Sicily and Southern Italy through the ...
- The Art of Southern Italy and Sicily under Angevin and Cat...
- Theory in Europe to 1800, Art
- Timurid Art and Architecture
- Turner, Joseph Mallord William
- van Gogh, Vincent
- Viking Art
- Warburg, Aby
- Warhol, Andy
- Wari (Huari) Art and Architecture
- Wittelsbach Patronage from the late Middle Ages to the Thi...
- Women, Art, and Art History: Gender and Feminist Analyses
- Yuan Dynasty Art