Work of Art: Cylinder Vase
Guatemalan
Maya culture
Cylinder Vase
circa 700-800
Ceramic with red, orange, and black on cream slip paint
7 x 4 5/8 x 4 7/8 in. (17.8 x 11.7 x 12.4 cm)
Gift of Mr. John B. Fulling

Beautifully painted cylinder vases were used by the Maya ruling elite for drinking chocolate beverages. This vase is painted with an elaborately rendered hieroglyphic date in the Maya calendar, which is equivalent to December 5, 711. Part of the date glyph is represented by the profile head of the Young Corn God inside a daysign cartouche. The cartouche is flanked by two square signs that refer to the partition between natural and supernatural realms. Atop the glyph is the hunal, the headdress of kingship, with its white cloth tie-ends draped on either side of the cartouche. These are apt symbols for a chocolate beverage drinking vessel used during important sociopolitical meetings among the Maya ruling elite.

Although painting was one of the principal forms of artistic expression among the Maya, few of their frescoes and almost none of their illustrated books survive. Thus, vase painting is the best source of information about this virtually lost art. The best painted ceramics were prestige items used by the wealthy classes; they survive because they have been preserved in tombs. Made by the coil method (the Maya did not use the wheel), some of the finest pots include inscriptions suggesting that the painters who made them were members of the royal family, possibly sons who were not in the line of succession to the throne. As individuals schooled in hieroglyphic writing, all master pottery painters belonged to the elite class of Maya society.

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