Princeton Maya Vase with God L
The Princeton Vase is a famous example of Late Classic Maya ceramics in codex style, first published in M.D. Coe's 'The Maya Scribe and His World' (1973), and now a key piece of the Pre-Columbian collection of the Princeton University Art Museum. Originally serving as a drinking vessel for chocolate, it depicts a throne room occupied by an aged deity wearing an owl headdress and by five young women surrounding him. In front of the throne a bound captive is being decapitated by two masked men, a scene that has long been assumed to refer to an episode in the Popol Vuh. As to the object's art-historical importance, it bears comparison to the equally famous Jaguar Baby vase in the New York Metropolitan Museum.
The vase, with an overall cream and incidental orange and brown-black slip, as well as traces of post-fire Maya blue pigment, dates to the Late Classic period of Maya civilization (late 7th or early 8th century), and originated in the Nakbé region, Mirador Basin, Petén, Guatemala.Towards the rim of the vase, above the painted scene, formulaic texts consecrate the vessel, specifying its purpose as a drinking vessel for chocolate, and designating its owner, a lord named Muwaan K'uk'. The vase would have been used in courtly feasts similar to the one depicted. The main surface of the vessel shows a calligraphic painting, executed with graceful, sure lines, of a theatrically composed mythological scene. Subtle visual devices, including one woman tapping the foot of another while her face points to the left, direct the viewer to turn the drinking vessel, allowing for a temporal unfolding as part of the viewing experience.
The scene's chief figure is known from the Dresden Codex as god L, a deity of trade, shamanism, and warfare. The old, toothless man sits on a throne within a conventional depiction of a palace, with a pier behind him and what is likely a cornice above. The cornice is decorated with two jawless jaguars flanking the forward-facing face of a shark. Curtains have been furled to reveal the seated lord. God L can be identified by his characteristic open-weave brocaded shawl as well as the broad-brimmed hat decorated with owl feathers and a stuffed owl with outstretched wings.
Five elegant female figures, perhaps concubines, and reminiscent of the goddess I from the Dresden Codex, surround the old god, who delicately ties a bracelet on one of them. The women wear loose, flowing sarongs, or tight-fitting wrap around cloths, decorated with batik-like dyed patterns rendered in a soft brown wash. Each has jewelry at the neck, ears, and wrists. One of the women behind god L is pouring chocolate from a vessel similar in shape to the Princeton Vase itself, frothing the bitter delicacy into a vessel whose figure has been lost to wear.
Down below and sitting next to the throne, a rabbit scribe is writing in a book with jaguar-pelt covers, perhaps to record the scene in front of the throne: Two men wearing elaborate masks and wielding axes decapitate a bound, stripped figure whose winding serpent attribute, beset with death-eyes, is typical of writers, or in any case, of functionaries for whom the art of writing was essential. One of the two men shows the features of the wind god, the other one wears an executioner's mask with a jaguar paw nose.
The tendency has been to explain the vase representation mythologically, with the usual bias towards the Popol Vuh, the 16th-century K'iche' Maya mythological narrative. Viewed within this framework, the scene has been argued to show the execution of Vucub-Hunahpu, uncle to the Hero Twins, by order of god L, taken as the lord of the underworld (Xibalba). However, since the executioners - clad in identical jaguar skirts - are two in number and the wind god character wears a headband, it has also been asserted that the two executioners represent the Hero Twins themselves (or rather the 'Headband Twins', their Classic precursors) now decapitating a lord of the underworld instead of Vucub-Hunahpu. The scene would thus offer a parallel to an episode in which these two heroes trick the underworld lords into asking for their own beheading. Iconographically, these conflicting explanations raise more questions than they answer, while remaining basically speculative. In fact, the execution scene may well involve historical characters.
- Coe, Michael D., The Maya Scribe and His World, New York: The Grolier Club, 1973.
- Houston, Stephen, Kill All The Lawyers, Maya Decipherment (December 28, 2016).
- Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, Thames and Hudson: 2004.
- Steward, James Christen (2013). Princeton University Art Museum Handbook of the Collections Revised and Expanded Edition (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum. ISBN 978-0943012414.
- Velásquez García, Erik, Reflections on the Codex Style and the Princeton Vessel, The PARI Journal 10, no. 1 (2009).