Lidded Vessel with "Shiner" Faces

Lidded Vessel with "Shiner" Faces

A.D. 250-450
Maya lowlands
Mexico, Guatemala
Slip-painted ceramic
Gift of William I. Lee
. Lidded Vessel with "Shiner" Faces. A.D. 250-450. Slip-painted ceramic. Gift of William I. Lee. 1986.614A-B.
Mayer Center, Art of the Ancient Americas
Art of the Ancient Americas

Lidded Vessel with "Shiner" Faces
About A.D. 250-450
Mexico or Guatemala, Maya lowlands
Earthenware with colored slips.
Gift of Mr. William I. Lee; 1986.614a-b

Although the lid fits well, it is unlikely that it originally belonged to this vessel, since the painting styles are so different. The lid is painted with abstract geometric patterns in red on a natural, unslipped ground without outlining. The vessel, on the other hand, is painted with polychrome iconography on top of cream-white slip, with each color block outlined with a thin black line. The two pieces are clearly mismatched. Areas that now appear gray are likely fugitive pigments that have faded over time. Originally, these sections were probably blue or green, which would have dramatically altered the aesthetic impact of the object.

The vessel is painted with two stylized faces, separated by a vertical panel of cream-white and flanked by polychrome vertical bands of geometric designs. Each face has an L-shaped eye with an oblong pupil inside. The open mouth, found at the bottom left of the composition and topped with the small curl of a nostril, is shown with a large bucktooth and yellow lips. Large portions of each composition are filled with what would have originally been blue-green elements, representing shining jade.

These faces represent a supernatural recently identified by David Stuart as "the Shiner." This personification of brilliance is encountered in Maya art as a means of emphasizing the resplendent quality of exalted figures and deities as well as shining objects and materials. This is the same figure identified in early scholarly sources as "God C" and is frequently encountered as a hieroglyph reading "k'uh" or "k'uhul," meaning holy, godly, or divine.

Close comparison of the two faces leads to the conclusion that each was painted by a different artist. Compare, for instance, the shapes of the mouths and teeth, or the positioning and shape of each pupil. We know of numerous Maya sculptures that were produced by two or more artists. Single vessels produced by two different painters, however, are more rare (see 1972.172 for another possible example). It is unlikely that such a practice would have arisen for the sake of efficiency, since a single artist would be able to produce two matching panels on a vessel quite easily. Collaboration between two different artists to create a matching set of panels, however, would require extra time and effort. Why single objects, particularly small objects, may have been produced by collaborative artistic efforts is unknown. Further research into the subject promises to reveal much about artistic practice in the ancient Maya world.

-Lucia R. Henderson, 2016

Known Provenance
Gifted 31 December 1986 by Mr. William I. Lee to the Denver Art Museum. Provenance research is on-going at the Denver Art Museum. Please e-mail, if you have questions, or if you have additional information to share with us.
Exhibition History
  • “The Light Show” — Denver Art Museum, 5/19/2019 – 3/7/2021