If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Mirror-Bearer (Maya)

Mirror-Bearer, 6th century (Classic Maya), wood and red hematite, 35.9 x 22.9 x 22.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) Special thanks to The Metropolitan Museum of Art A conversation with Dr. James Doyle, Assistant Curator for the Art of the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Dr. Beth Harris.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Beth] We're here in the Maya galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a very rare figure, rare because it's made out of wood. And it dates to the sixth century so this is really old and has survived remarkably well. - [James] We have very few objects made out of wood from the classic Maya civilizations. - [Beth] It's humid in Guatemala, and wood just doesn't survive. - [James] We only have a handful of portable wooden sculptures from that period. - [Beth] Now, his posture is very unusual, but we can explain that by thinking about his role and what he was doing. - [James] He's kneeling, he's folding his arms and clenching his fists to his chest, indicating someone who would hold a reflective plaque towards the ruler, and this we call mirrors, but they were actually probably made of obsidian or pyrite. - [Beth] And they were mosaics, they weren't flat mirrors the way that we think of them. - [James] Right, they would probably be composed of many tiles. - [Beth] Holding a mirror to a ruler makes sense when you think about the kings of the Maya Kingdoms and their divine status. And so you can imagine a royal figure looking at himself and posing in front of this mirror. - [James] In addition to using them while getting dressed or of adjust the royal regalia, they may have had a cosmological or spiritual significance as devices used for divining or guiding decisions in the royal court. - [Beth] Or even as portals to another world. - [James] Exactly, and we have some evidence from later cultures that there were indeed conceived of as portals to different realms. - [Beth] We know that there were likely real human figures who performed this role at the royal court, and likely dwarfs. - [James] Like in many courtly societies across the world, people born with forms of genetic dwarfism were thought of as very special and desired people to have in royal courts. So the Maya rulers are often shown getting dressed or performing ceremonial duties with dwarf attendants. - [Beth] And it's clear that he is special. He is fabulously dressed, he's got on this large pectoral, his ear flares and these dangling decorations from the ear flares, this woven garment. - [James] I think the woven garments are actually, we have zero that survived from classic Maya context so we have to infer what they would have looked like from representations like this. - [Beth] Right, because textiles don't survive in a humid environment. - [James] One of the most unique aspects of his attire is this sash that goes around his neck and comes behind his arms and connects to the skirt that he's wearing. We've not seen that in other depictions, so it's a very unique garment. - [Beth] He leans back in order to hold up the mirror but it also seems like a pose of honoring the king. - [James] The arms are often brought to the chest, either both arms or one arm in a sign of deference to the ruler. - [Beth] When we talk about the Maya, we're not talking about one kingdom, we're talking about many kingdoms and rivalries between the kingdoms. - [James] The prevailing model for the political organization is not one unified territory or empire like in other cultures, but we do see competing city-states that are headed by these divine rulers at the center of their royal courts. And they would commission works to both reinforce their own status as the divine rulers in their territory, but they would also use art as diplomatic gifts. - [Beth] So let's look closely at that pectoral that he wears. - [James] The pectoral is likely representing a mosaic made of jade or green stone that shows the face of either a person or a deity surrounded by jewelry that the pectoral wears itself. - [Beth] Green stone was incredibly valuable and even had supernatural associations for the Maya and for many Mesoamerican cultures. - [James] Yes, jade was more valuable than pretty much any other material, including gold for the Maya. It was closely associated with maize agriculture as the staple crop and it was the embodiment of the maize god himself. - [Beth] So is that also jade that he's likely wearing in the ear flares? - [James] Most likely, we see these types of circular assemblages in jade a lot. The other possibility is that it could be representing an ear flare assemblage of marine shell. - [Beth] And there's an interesting figure at the very base of those dangling circles that come down from the ear flare. - [James] That is a probably reptilian creature, we don't know a secure identification or name for it but it is often in royal regalia. It is distinguished by its curled snout and the lack of a lower jaw. - [Beth] We can see red pigment here still, so this would have been much brighter originally. - [James] The Maya often adorned sculptures with red pigments, this is an iron-based pigment, probably hematite, and there are even flecks of specular hematite which look like glitter that are still present on the surface of the wood. - [Beth] And we can even see it in the notches that would have helped to hold the mirror in place. - [James] And it seems to have been rubbed all over the torso as well. - [Beth] When a Maya scholar looks at this, you're going to compare it to other works with similar court scenes. There's one vase in particular that seems to show a figure that's similar to this one. - [James] There is a painted vessel in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia that shows a king sitting on his throne surrounded by courtiers and musicians and directly in front of him is a smaller figure that could be a representation of a wooden mirror-bearer in the company of other courtiers, including a human dwarf who is drinking from a bowl. - [Beth] That scene is wonderful because it gives us an idea of the way in which this may have been used in the life of the court. - [James] When the courtly person who commissioned it specified this, they probably were representing an embodiment of an ideal courtier, the ideal mirror-bearer. - [Beth] This has been in the Met's collection for decades but we don't know exactly where it was found which is unfortunate because if we had a find spot we might know a lot more about it. - [James] This was likely found in a royal tomb, probably either in northern Guatemala or southern Mexico. - [Beth] So likely a very dry sealed environment that-- - [James] Absolutely. - [Beth] Kept this protected so that we could enjoy it here today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (light piano music)