Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 21, 2003
Elizabeth A. Newsome Trees of Paradise and Pillars of the World: The Serial Stela Cycle of “18-Rabbit-God K,” King of Copan Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. 294 pp.; 165 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0292755724)

Elizabeth Newsome’s Trees of Paradise and Pillars of the World: The Serial Stela Cycle of “18-Rabbit-God K,” King of Copan is a monographic treatment of stela sculpture commissioned by one Classic Maya king, nicknamed “18 Rabbit,” ruler of Copan, Honduras, between A.D. 695 and 738. This fact is extremely telling about the current state of knowledge of the ancient Maya. Scholarship in this field has become so detailed that book-length biographies of individual kings, including the history of their art patronage, are now possible. Indeed, a session at the 2003 meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, held in Milwaukee, concerned the life of a single Maya king, Janaab Pakal of Palenque, and doubtless its papers will be published as an edited volume. In terms of artistic legacy, only Chan Muwan of Bonampak has been the subject of monographic scrutiny, in Mary Ellen Miller’s The Murals of Bonampak (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986). Newsome is the first to publish a major book on a corpus of sculpture commissioned by a single Maya king, spanning several decades of his life. Other such books are looming on the horizon, but only hers can claim pioneering status.

Newsome has written about true masterpieces of Maya art, for the stelae commissioned by 18 Rabbit are among the most spectacular examples of this genre. Their iconography is exceptionally complex and, unlike the flat relief of most stelae, highly volumetric. These qualities are precisely what make the monuments so beautiful, but at the same time they add enormous challenges to deciphering their profusion of interlocking motifs, only bits and pieces of which had been made comprehensible by previous scholars. Newsome’s approach is bold in imposing order on their visual cacophony. Her book offers a highly structured model for grasping their purpose, placement, themes, and underlying messages. Her interest in the meaning of stelae from a religious standpoint is paramount, and articulating that meaning is the book’s fundamental goal and greatest strength. This is apparent in the introduction, which concerns not Copan but rather the origin of the stela cult in Mesoamerica and its evolution in the Maya area.

Attention to Copan begins in chapter 1, which surveys research conducted at the site since the early twentieth century. A compilation of other scholars’ research, this chapter is, nevertheless, a handy source of information on the city. One original observation here is that the lavish style of 18 Rabbit’s sculpture may reflect his desire to communicate by force of visual impact with a non-Maya audience living in sectors of Copan and nearby regions (61).

Chapter 2 reviews all monumental constructions commissioned by 18 Rabbit except the sequence of stelae from the Great Plaza that is the book’s primary focus. The imagery of these stelae is discussed in chapter 3, while their inscriptions are the subject of chapter 4. The book culminates in chapter 5, which attempts an “iconological interpretation,” where the meaning of stelae in the broadest sense is traced through time. Drawing from ethnohistoric and ethnographic sources, in the former case the “Ritual of the Angels” from the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, Newsome construes stelae as pillars structuring space and time and as incarnations of ancestors and sacred trees.

The interpretive models that undergird the book are most applicable, because of their calendrics, to the six stelae erected in the Great Plaza (A, B, C, F, H, and 4), which are the book’s centerpiece. Newsome sees each as a compendium of a multiepisodic narrative detailing the king’s visionary journey to the Otherworld, conceived much like a shaman’s trance journey. These narratives form a “personal mythology” said to be “central to the art of Maya kingship” (191). While having visions, the king also impersonates a particular god—Newsome relates several of these to Venus. Yet it is not clear why deity impersonation should also be considered a “shamanistic rite” (26). The imagery surrounding the king, of tiny deities grasping ophidian cords, is purported to be the king’s visions or “dreams” conjured through private ritual acts but presented in the Great Plaza for public veneration. The objects held by the tiny figures are described as “power objects” as well as “omens” and “auguries” (114). The small figure typically presiding at the top is said to be controlling the visions. These revelations about the iconography are compelling and clarify shared iconographic patterns among the stelae. However, most interpretations are stated as fact rather than being justified by the dint of new evidence, and they draw heavily in style and substance on the work of David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker in Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path (New York: W. Morrow, 1993). The repeated use of such loaded terms as “miracle,” “cast a spell,” and “magic” recalls the popularized idiom of this book as well, which puts the reader in the role of true believer.

Newsome argues for an intriguing calendrical model governing the timing of the stela sequence: the six stelae mark a “countdown” from the ending of the half-period to the k’atun-ending Each stela celebrates a progressively shorter interval of time leading to the k’atun (212). The placement of the various stelae in the Great Plaza is proposed to form a ritual circuit reflecting the quadripartite division of the cosmos. This idea sets the stage for an understanding of stelae in general as cosmic stations likened to the concept of the Pahuatun or World Bearer. In the case she makes for the unified program of the stelae’s calendrics, placement, and iconography, Newsome successfully demonstrates that the “meaning” of stelae exists on multiple levels. Her analysis delves deeply into the Maya worldview and is recommended reading for anyone interested in the intersection of art and religion among the Classic Maya.

Newsome’s understanding of these stelae is not, however, without problems. While innovative and bold, the book is short on definitions of key terms, persuasive argumentation for basic premises, and exposition of the author’s theoretical and methodological stance. Lacking this, many of her ideas, however thought provoking, remain only in the realm of possibility. The greatest shortcoming concerns the undersupported claims about the role of shamanism and visions in Maya kingship. Her imposition of a Vision Quest model derived from North American Indian religious practices on Classic Maya kingship should also have been addressed. This model seems to be the sole impetus for the claim, for instance, that the tiny figures or “apparitions” on the stelae are there to empower the king by offering him “power objects.” This clearly smacks of the Vision Quest practitioner’s goal of acquiring power from spirit helpers. The Vision Quest model may have also inspired the characterization of stela imagery as “dreams.” While I understand that visions are often placed in the same category as dreams in many cultures, I would like to know exactly what the author has in mind in an anthropological or psychological sense with her repeated references to dreams. Equally, certain iconographic interpretations are underanalyzed, undersupported, or not current. The author does not discriminate between Vision Serpents and the ophidian “cords of heaven” or “breath soul cords,” labeling all twisted cords on the stelae as Vision Serpents, even when the symbols for “breath soul cords” are explicit (130). Indeed, most of the ophidian cords appear to be “cords of heaven” rather than Vision Serpents, a critical distinction given that the small figures crawling on these cords are purported to be apparitions disgorged by Vision Serpents.

As Matthew Looper suggested in an earlier review of Newsome’s book (Latin American Antiquity 13, no. 2, 2002), the glyphic analysis, which makes up the better part of chapter 4, would have been more effective if integrated with the iconographic analysis. Further, the glyphic analysis should have been condensed, extracting only that portion germane to advancing the book’s major theses. Detailed glyph-by-glyph commentaries are generally not suitable for publication in books but should rather remain privately circulated or sequestered in dissertations where they rightfully belong. This is especially warranted given the fact that Newsome is not an epigrapher. As a compendium of previous research on the Copan texts, Newsome’s glyphic summary is crafted with care, but mistakes creep in, as when the author calls a logograph, or word sign, a syllable (e.g., 41). Another linguistic glitch occurs when the word k’uhul is glossed as “blood” (146) or “soul essence” (107), both nouns, whereas k’uhul is an adjective generally understood as “holy.”

In spite of these shortcomings—some minor nitpicking, others more fundamental—Newsome’s study of the stela cycle of 18 Rabbit is an important contribution to the field and for that reason warrants serious critical appraisal. With elegant prose, infusing the book with uplifting dignity, Newsome has crafted new ways of understanding stelae that are far more complex than most have imagined.

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