A Fiery Pool at the Kimbell Art Museum

Mayan Jade Sculpture
Sculpture of a deity with characteristics of the Sun God, 550–650, altun Ha, Belize. Jadeite, 5 7/8 x 4 3/8 x 5 3/4 in. (14.9 x 11.2 x 14.8 cm). national Institute of Culture and History, Belize

The importance of water to ancient Maya is not information I would have sought out on my own, it’s just not. In fact, experiencing little connection to the paintings of Salvator Rosa, also at the Kimbell, I wandered into the fiery pool without much information about this ancient civilization. A quickly realized I would need the headset.  The exhibit really made civilization come alive for me as meaning in the objects was uncovered. The remainder of this post is from the Kimbell press release. The exhibit closes on January 2.

Shark teeth, stingray spines, sea creatures and waterfowl appear in works of stone and clay; supernatural crocodiles breathe forth rain; cosmic battles take place between mythic beasts and deities—all part of a new and vivid picture of the Maya worldview.

More than 90 works, many recently excavated and never before seen in the United States, offer exciting insights into the culture of the ancient Maya, focusing on the sea as a defining feature of the spiritual realm and the inspiration for powerful visual imagery. Surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, denizens of Maya cities responded to the oceanic, inland and atmospheric waters that shaped their existence.

“In 1986, the Kimbell Art Museum’s landmark exhibition The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art shed new light on the importance of dynastic lineage and blood sacrifice to the Maya,” commented Eric Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum. “Recent archaeological discoveries and the deciphering of the Maya glyph for water have led to a new, broader understanding of the expansive influence that water in all its myriad forms had on both the daily life and spiritual beliefs of the Maya people. This exhibition is the next important chapter in Maya research, and I am thrilled that the Kimbell Art Museum will showcase it.”

At the height of its achievement, between 300 and 900 AD, the Maya civilization spanned hundreds of cities across Mexico and Central America. With a culture highly advanced in mathematics, astronomy, architecture and art, the Maya practiced a complex religion and used a refined pictorial writing system composed of more than 800 glyphs. The interpretation of this language has played a role in the understanding of Maya culture. While 90% of glyphs are now understood, it was only in the late 1980s that a glyph for the sea had been identified. Until this key glyph had been unlocked, the importance of the sea in Maya culture had not been fully studied or appreciated. The identification of this glyph, translated literally as “fiery pool,” was part of a growing awareness of the centrality of the sea in Maya life, which has culminated in this exhibition and its companion book.


Lidded vessel of a world-turtle
Lidded vessel of a world turtle, 300–400, Tikal, Guatemala. Ceramic, 7 1/8 x 6 1/2 x 6 1/2 in. (18 x 16.5 x 16.5 cm). Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes—Museo nacional de arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, photograph © 2009 Jorge Pérez de Lara

The exhibition reflects the broad range of media used by Maya artists: massive, carved stone monuments and delicate hieroglyphs, exquisite painted pottery vessels, charming sculpted human and animal figurines, and a lavish assortment of precious goods crafted from jade, gold and turquoise.


“Not only does this exhibition provide a new understanding of the sacredness of the sea in Maya thought and culture,” remarked Jennifer Casler Price, curator for Asian and non-Western Art at the Kimbell Art Museum, “but the objects presented here are stunning examples of the highest caliber of art, from the monumental to the minute, that the Maya ever produced.”

Surrounded by the sea in all directions, the ancient Maya viewed their world as inextricably tied to water, an idea that is explored in the first section of the exhibition, Water and Cosmos. More than a necessity to sustain life, water was the vital medium from which the world emerged, gods arose and ancestors communicated.

A limestone panel from Cancuen, Guatemala, is an exceptional example of Maya sculpture, depicting a ruler known as Tajchanahk, “Torch-Sky-Turtle,” seated on a water-lily throne in the royal court while simultaneously inhabiting the watery realm. A bubbling stream delineates the space, with stylized foliage anchoring the corners. For the Maya, the realms of earth, sea, sky and cosmos may have been perceived as flowing into each other rather than as distinct territories of being.

The world of the Maya brims with animal life—animated, realistic and supernatural all at once. The objects in the second section, Creatures of the Fiery Pool, portray a wide array of fish, frogs, birds and mythic beasts inhabiting the sea and conveying spiritual concepts. An effigy of a Caribbean spiny lobster is the only known Maya representation of the creature, excavated in 2007 from one of the oldest sites in Belize. It dates from the turbulent early colonial period when traditional Maya life was disturbed by the incursion of Spanish soldiers and missionaries. A plugged cavity bearing a stingray spine, three shark teeth and two blades of microcrystalline quartz hint at blood sacrifice. The head emerging from the mouth may be that of a Maya deity.

The section Navigating the Cosmos explores water as a source of material wealth and spiritual power. All bodies of water––rivers, cenotes (deep, inland pools) and the sea––were united, and all could be traversed to a cosmic realm. A magnificent head of a deity with characteristics of the Sun God––a Belize national treasure––is one of the most exquisite works discovered in the Maya world. Weighing nearly ten pounds, it was created from a single piece of jadeite, the color of which was directly associated with the sea. It was found in the tomb of an elderly man, likely cradled in his arm upon burial at the sacred site of Altun Ha.


Lobster effigy
Lobster effigy, c. 1550, Lamanai, Belize. Clay and paint, 2 3/4 x 8 1/4 x 3 in. (7 x 21 x 8 cm). National Institute of Culture and History, Belize. Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, photograph © 2009 Jorge Pérez de Lara

The final section of the exhibition, Birth to Rebirth, addresses the cyclical motion of the cosmos as the Maya pictured it. The sun rose in the morning from the Caribbean in the east, bearing the features of a shark as it began to traverse the sky. Cosmic crocodiles exhaled storms and battled with gods of the underworld. An elaborate ceramic incense burner from Palenque, Mexico, portrays a deity central to a creation myth. Water-curls on his cheeks and ear ornaments, which link him to the rain god (Chahk), speak of his connection to the watery world. A shark serves as his headdress, topped by a toothy crocodile. From this censer, ritual smoke curled through the city of Palenque, suffusing it with scent and mystery.


The exhibition is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, and is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Because democracy demands wisdom. Additional support is provided by ECHO (Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations), a program of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Innovation and Improvement. The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. It is co-curated by Daniel Finamore, Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History at the Peabody Essex Museum, and Stephen D. Houston, Dupee Family Professor of Social Science and Professor of Archaeology at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea (Peabody Essex Museum) is published by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with the Peabody Essex Museum. It is available in the Exhibition Shop ($65 hard cover; $39.95 softcover).

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