Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 23, 2000
Mary Ellen Miller Maya Art and Architecture Thames and Hudson, 1999. 240 pp.; 57 color ills.; 150 b/w ills. Paper $14.95 (050020327X)

Mary Ellen Miller’s Maya Art and Architecture is the first textbook in English on Maya art written by a major scholar of the Maya. It is, therefore, a milestone in the dissemination of knowledge about Maya art, particularly in a classroom setting, where this book will be most useful. That a book published in 1999 deserves this honor may come as a surprise since the study of Maya art is one of the more established in ancient New World art history. As Miller points out in her introduction, although systematic treatments of Maya art, such as Herbert Spinden’s A Study of Maya Art (1913) and Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s A Study of Classic Maya Sculpture (1950), have a long track record, no textbook appeared until the very end of the century. Why?

It wasn’t until the 1980s that university courses in Maya art proliferated, when students of the handful of senior scholars who taught it assumed academic posts across the country. Still, in that decade no one stepped forward to undertake the challenge. Being the first to write such a book is exceptionally difficult since it demands a codification of the field and the creation of a haute ligne of major works on which there is no real consensus. Another layer of difficulty is that the understanding of Maya art is in a near-constant state of revision for several reasons. First, it is inseparable from the Maya hieroglyphic writing system, which provides a critical context for its dating and interpretation. This writing system is in a dynamic phase of analysis; epigraphic breakthroughs ripple through Maya studies at an extraordinary rate. Maya art also features an array of generic themes concerning rulership, warfare, cosmology, and so on, that are easily construed in new paradigms, usually stimulated by epigraphic discoveries. Mayanists fall into camps according to which new models and interpretations they accept. Thus, the pitfalls of attempting to describe to a lay audience something so fluid and controversial as Maya art are daunting.

We are fortunate in having Mary Ellen Miller take up the mantle. In addition to being one of the foremost scholars in Maya studies, she has become something of a specialist in writing books for a general audience. She previously published one of the few good textbooks on Mesoamerican art, as well as a dictionary of Mesoamerican gods and symbols (with Karl Taube), both for Thames and Hudson. In Maya Art and Architecture, Miller deftly negotiates the pitfalls, largely by avoiding the morass of iconographic interpretation. While this is among the most fascinating aspects of Maya art, it is precisely where the field is most divisive. For a serious discussion of iconography, one would have to turn to Miller’s earlier effort, coauthored with Linda Schele, The Blood of Kings (1986). On the other hand, Maya Art and Architecture emphasizes the less controversial physical description of buildings and objects, their materials, workmanship, placement, formal characteristics, and formal evolution. Basic facts concerning local history (especially patronage) and the broader culture history are provided, as are brief mentions of iconography. The more interpretive material is fastidiously up to date but does not occupy the bulk of the book. This strategy works well in a book that is meant to be both comprehensive and affordable and therefore cannot labor in excruciating detail. Combining this book with one like The Blood of Kings, which is geared toward more dazzling interpretation, would work well in a college-level course on Maya art.

Miller has also done a good job organizing this wealth of material that spans over a thousand years into a cohesive and pedagogically useful whole. The book is organized into ten chapters principally ordered by medium: architecture, sculpture, murals, and portable objects. Chapters are further organized around chronological distinctions (Early versus Late Classic) and regional distinctions (Central versus Northern Lowlands). In selected cases the author lavishes attention. For instance, she devotes an entire chapter to Classic Maya ceramics, expressing her view of their exceptional status as works of art. The Bonampak murals, the subject of Miller’s dissertation, are given seven pages of description. Here, she minces no words, calling them “the single greatest achievement of Maya art” (197). This selected emphasis makes the book more interesting and useful for teaching, as do the topically organized bibliography, chronological table, and index at the end.

While the book generally maintains a neutral descriptive tone, it is peppered with lively language and analogies that put it in step with a modern audience. For instance, Miller explains the evolution of the simple cylinder shape of Late Classic vessels by comparing the imagery to computer software and the vessel to hardware; surely students can relate to this. The book also takes strong positions on a number of issues. For example, the Teotihuacan presence at Tikal is given much attention, described as no less than the “pivotal event of the Early Classic” (105). The influence of warfare in the development of Maya art is also conveyed throughout the book. While the destructive effects of warfare are acknowledged, warfare is also seen as a stimulus for artistic innovation. In terms of the content of Maya art, the mythic cycle of the death and resurrection of the Maize God is given special weight. These ideas reflect trends in current research.

My criticisms of the book are minor and some, beyond the author’s control. The typeface is too small and faint to make the book easy to read. While the book is well illustrated, and I applaud the number of color plates, only a portion of the objects described are illustrated. I could picture these objects in my mind but am fairly certain my students could not. Miller is extremely careful with the accuracy and currency of her factual information, including that related to epigraphy. One tricky area is the names of Maya rulers, which are constantly subject to major and minor revision. I question her spelling of the name of a Palenque king as K’an Balam, a ruler who used to be known as Chan Bahlum. The name should be spelled Kan Balam without a glottalized Œk’. K’an means “yellow” or “precious” and kan means “snake,” and it is the latter that forms part of the king’s name. Since the author is so intent on using Maya names for rulers, I wonder why she used the old designation of Cauac Sky for a ruler from Quirigua who is now known as Butz’ Tiliw. Does she disagree with this reading? I also paused at her statement: "The very hieroglyph for the underworld is ‘black hole’ " (72), since Barbara MacLeod has deciphered this glyph as “black dreaming place,” a reading accepted by Schele and Mathews in The Code of Kings (1998:45). I found it curious that Zoomorph P, Quirigua was described as a “great turtle-like creature” (135). The turtle reference recalls Alfred Maudslay’s nineteenth-century moniker for the monument, “The Great Turtle.” However, Maudslay identified the two-headed creature’s rear head as the front, suggesting the legs were slanted backward, like those of a turtle. In light of our current understanding, Zoomorph P has nothing remotely to do with a turtle.

Certainly, every Mayanist who reads this book may have points of disagreement. Miller follows Linda Schele’s radically new views about the iconography of Chichen Itza and Uxmal, seen especially in her last book, The Code of Kings. While individual Mayanists may not accept some or all of these ideas, as stated earlier, such particularized interpretations comprise a small portion of the book’s content. In general, the book is a meticulously crafted, measured survey of great buildings and art objects left us by the ancient Maya, framed within a state-of-the-art knowledge of the field. We can thank Miller for providing us with the first standard textbook on Maya art, one that should endure.

Andrea Stone
Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee