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When men were gods

Maya sculptures at LACMA show links between the earthly and the supernatural.

October 18, 2005|David Pagel | Special to The Times

About 3,000 years ago and 3,000 miles south, in what is now part of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras, some of the most powerful people ever to walk the earth portrayed themselves as masters of the universe. They were men behaving supernaturally.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, "Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship" displays approximately 150 stone statues, ceramic vessels and carved ornaments that a handful of men used to establish their divine dominion over tens of thousands of loyal subjects. Concisely outlining the cunning process of turning men into gods, the scholarly show brings abstract ideas down to earth in its neat sequence of increasingly refined artifacts.

The exhibition begins simply, its entrance framing a solid stone statue on a low pedestal in front of a bare wall. Squatting like a life-size Olympic weightlifter, the placid-faced ruler reaches to the ground and prepares to lift the trunk of a fallen tree that, once erect, will separate the sky from the earth and form the central axis of the Maya cosmos.

No mean feat, but all in a day's work for a god -- or a king decked out like one.

The beefy ruler wears a massive, Olmec-style maize god headdress, its blocky form adorned with the deity's fierce visage, stylized wings, abstract symbols and a symbolic, trefoil maize plant sprouting from the top. Without perfect posture or regal bearing, the towering headgear would topple over, probably taking the king with it. Enormous earrings and earflares (ornaments filling huge holes pierced in the middle of his impressively stretched ears) also link him to the maize god. The symbolic maize plant he clasps in his hands drives the point home.

One of the most important rituals Maya kings performed was reenacting the creation of the cosmos by raising "the world tree," which was often depicted as a the ceiba, the silk-cotton tree. This 3,000-year-old sculpture, known as the San Martin Pajapan Monument and found at the top of a volcano in Veracruz, Mexico, replaces the mighty ceiba with a fat stalk of corn, its trefoil top matching the one atop the king's headdress.

The heavy lifting depicted by the sculpture corresponds to the worldly duties performed by every Maya king: ensuring the success of the annual corn harvest. This part of the job was integral to the well-being of his people, not to mention his own wealth, power and influence. It's no wonder that kings linked their role in successful farming to the creation of the universe. Doing so established every cornfield's four corners and sides as a symbol of cosmic order, with the king in the middle.

In the second of 10 sensibly installed galleries, Maya kings put themselves in the center of things even more dramatically. An intricately detailed and beautifully preserved 6 1/2-foot-tall stela carved in granite between 200 and 50 BC depicts a Maya ruler standing in profile. Bird and tree imagery surround his feet. He wears an elaborate, helmet-like bird mask that is as big as his torsoand far more ornate. At its top is a mysterious creature from whose forehead emerges a trefoil maize plant. The principal bird deity looks down from above, perched in serpentine tree branches.

The king holds a curved scepter and the lightning ax of Chaak, which symbolizes his divine duty of breaking open the earth for the resurrection of the maize god. The king is not just a pillar of his community but the pillar that holds up the heavens and prevents the cosmos from collapsing into chaos. He is also the bridge between the underworld, symbolized by the earth creature below his feet, and the heavens, represented by the bird above.

Just to the left of the breathtaking stela is a circular stone altar carved between 600 and 300 BC. It features one of the most complex scenes of what is known as the Mesoamerican acrobat figure.

After the stoic seriousness of the heavy-lifting king and the costumed theatricality of the stela, the simply incised picture on the flat stone comes as comic relief. It also physically illustrates the intellectual leaps and logical contortions that must be made when men are made into gods.

A man forms the circular border by reaching over his head and grasping his ankles. The artist took considerable liberties with bodily proportions, elongating the grimacing figure's torso, enlarging his fingers and twisting his limbs as if they were pretzel dough.

In the center, the same man, now dressed as the Olmec maize god, is portrayed frontally. His hands rest on his belly and the soles of his feet float in space, like guardian angels, to the left and right of his impressive headdress, which includes the jester god headband, quetzal plumes, a tasseled ear of corn and, at its top, a large trefoil emblem.

Around the divine king's neck hangs a spoon-shaped scoop. Maya kings used such utensils to ingest hallucinogens that put them into trances in which they became living manifestations of the maize god.

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