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A Blue Like No Other: Polychrome Painting and the Vessels of the Diving Gods

This post is part of a series called Excavating Archaeology, which highlights selections from, and research on, the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas and related materials, housed in the Geography and Map Division, and in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.

My feeling is that blue obliterates yellow .–Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Color

The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love color the most.                                                                                                                                         –John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice

The ceramics created by ancient Maya potters make for some of the most vibrantly colored objects that survive in the archaeological record of the Americas. Through the centuries a great deal of the coloration on many of the surviving examples has unfortunately been eroded, with its brilliance lost to the ravages of time. Occasionally however, there are rare survivals that give us an indication of just how colorful was the Pre-Columbian Maya world.

In the Kislak Collection there are two extraordinary vessels from Quintana Roo, Mexico, which date from between 1200 and 1400 CE. These two small ceramic pots, each measuring only a little over four inches tall, are made from un-slipped red ceramic, and display a vivid spectrum of colors.

 

Diving god vessel from Quintana Roo. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress. Photograph by author.

Both of these small pots are stylistically painted in a manner that is typical of the Mixteca-Puebla forms found in central Mexico and around the area of Oaxaca. The subjects of the vessels are “diving” figures, represented as if plunging from the sky, with their feet flying through the air above the head. Each vase is painted with tell-tale angular lines running across their faces, a mark usually associated with a postclassic (1350-1521 CE) version of the Maya maize god. Both vessels show the figures holding offerings in their hands.

Three-dimensional model of one of the lidded diving god vessels from Quintana Roo. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress. GIF from 3D model made by author using laser scanning and photogrammetry.

The angled lines on the face, along with other symbolic colorations, reveal that these particular pieces are cultural hybrids, with the late variant of the Maya maize god, known as Bolon Mayel, merging with features of the Central Mexican version Centeotl, and the god of flowers and plants, Xochipilli.

Page 35 from the Madrid Codex showing the image of a diving god. Facsimile, Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

The figure of the diving god appears in many forms and in many places in Maya art, showing up in stone carvings, wall paintings, and even in one of the four surviving Maya books, the Madrid Codex. The image of a diving god is flying in his upside down position through the upper part of the field of blue near the center of the page.

The painting on the two vases is special, in that the dramatic array of polychromatic colors was applied to the ceramic only after it was fired. The Maya made their pottery by hand, without the use of a potter’s wheel, and it was a process that involved many steps. The first, was of course, selecting and preparing the clay, after which the potter might fold into the mix different kinds of additives, known as tempers, such as ground limestone or volcanic ash.

Scanning electron microscope image of the Maya ceramic matrix showing the additives and temper in the clay. Preservation Testing and Research Division, Library of Congress.

Before firing, the surface would typically be covered in what are known as slips, which are mixtures of minerals and pigments, applied to give the vessels their color, shine, and brilliance. In the case of the diving god pieces we are highlighting here, there was no slip applied to the surface of the ceramic, and they were each painted in the variety of colors we see now only after they came out of the firing kiln.

Magnified section of the painted surface. Image taken by author with DinoXcope LED microscope.

One of the colors painted on the vessels is an important innovation and invention by the artists of the early Americas. The bold and distinct blue paint, which we see on the ear-spools, is called Maya blue. The pigment is a composite of organic and inorganic ingredients, primarily a mix of blue indigo dyes derived from the leaves of Indigofera suffruticosa plants ( the same dye you find in your blue jeans) combined with palygorskite, a natural clay, which is fairly rare in the geology of the area but is important to the longevity of the color. The plant is called by a number of names in Mayan and Nahautl, including ch’ooy, tlaceuilli, and xiuquilitl.

Indigofera suffruticosa leaves from Rio Pulpitillo, Mexico. From the Smithsonian Insttitution Botanical Collections

Indigofera suffruticosa leaves from Rio Pulpitillo, Mexico. Several species of Indigofera genus can be used to make the dye.  Smithsonian Institution, Museum of Natural History, Botanical Collections.

The stability of Maya blue, and the reason it does not fade on ancient ceramics, like it does in your jeans, is because the palygorskite particles in the paint form a kind of lattice, mixing with and trapping the indigo molecules. This nano-particulate structure makes the paint amazingly resistant to natural bio-corrosion, resulting in the survival of the beautiful blue color we still see on the vessels today.

Maya blue, and many of the other colors found painted across ancient Mesoamerica, are striking in their brilliance and composition, and are an amazing testimony to the artists who experimented with the wide variety of plants, minerals, and binders needed to create these colorful recipes. Nearly indescribable to us today, and whose original names have, in many cases, been lost to history, these paints are clearly examples of what the 19th century art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) meant when he said,

It is the best possible sign of a color when nobody who sees it knows what to call it.

Close-up of one of two diving god vessels showing the surviving Maya blue paint on the ear-spool. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress. Photograph by author.

 

One Comment

  1. Carl Fleischhauer
    May 18, 2021 at 8:45 pm

    Interesting and helpful! John, you hit your usual dandy balance between just enough technical information for curious lay people (me!) but not too much. And the photo-graphics were also welcome. Thank you.

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