Body Art

From Head to Toe in the Ancient Maya World July/August 2020

(Photograph © 2020 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Cylinder vase, (detail). Maya, Late Classic Period, A.D. 600–800. Object Place: El Petén, Guatemala. Earthenware: orange, red, dark pink, brown, gray (originally green), and black on cream slip paint; traces of "Maya Blue" pigment 17.2 x 11.8 cm (6 3/4 x 4 5/8 in.). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Landon T. Clay, 1988.1176)

The ancient Maya possessed many techniques for using their skin as a canvas on which to project information about their social role and status. One of the most common of these was body painting, typically using red, white, and black paint, although there are also examples of brown and blue. Black body paint on men seems to denote roles that involve violence or penance—black paint marks the bodies of hunters, ballplayers, ritual bloodletters, those involved with sacrifice, and those undertaking ritual fasting. Shades and patterns of red and brown were employed to delineate more subtle distinctions of rank and status. On a Late Classic (A.D. 600–900) vase from Peten, a kneeling male attendant applies red pigment to the king’s backside as he prepares to perform a dance as an “old god.” The king has bold swirls of red paint on his upper body, which, says archaeologist Katharine Lukach, sets him apart from the other four figures on the vase. The queen, who is also likely outfitted to participate in the dance, has fine red lines painted below her eyes that were common in depictions of young women and may signify youth and beauty. By contrast, the three royal attendants—two men and one woman—each have a brown tone covering most of their bodies and light patches around their mouths. “We have representations of hundreds of years of Maya body paint, and the variation between time periods does not seem to shift dramatically given its flexibility as a medium,” Lukach says. “The Maya were very preoccupied with proper comportment. I think body paint was just one more way of enforcing that, rather than a way of experimenting with new aesthetics.”

Tattooing and scarification offered the Maya more permanent means of altering their appearance. During the Classic period, the best evidence for these practices is found in the northern lowlands and western part of the Maya world, including Jaina Island, off the west coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, and Palenque, in Chiapas. “Images and figurines from these regions show that the face was the favored site for these modifications,” says Lukach, “suggesting that they were important to individual identity.” Some tattoos incorporated hieroglyphic signs that may have referenced their owners’ birthdays, which many Maya used as personal names. Scrollwork designs tattooed or scarred around the mouth represented breath, and viewers of such images would have immediately recognized the high status of those who sported them.

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