Codex-style Vase with "Wahy" Figures

Codex-style Vase with "Wahy" Figures

A.D. 650-850
Lowland Maya
Earthenware with black and red slip paint.
Gift of Dr. M. Larry and Nancy B. Ottis
. Codex-style Vase with "Wahy" Figures. A.D. 650-850. Earthenware with black and red slip paint.. Gift of Dr. M. Larry and Nancy B. Ottis. 1998.424.
height: 4.25 in, 10.7950 cm; diameter: 4.125 in, 10.4775 cm
Mayer Center, Art of the Ancient Americas
Art of the Ancient Americas

Codex-style Vase with "Wahy" Figures
About A.D. 650-850
Guatemala, Petén
Earthenware with black and red slip paint.
Gift of Dr. M. Larry and Nancy B. Ottis; 1998.424

This vase, red-rimmed and supported on three T-shaped feet, is painted in a calligraphic manner that scholars call the "codex-style" due to its similarity to the painted screenfold books used by the ancient Maya. Three supernatural figures encircle the vase. Each faces a hieroglyphic caption that includes the "Wahy" glyph, composed of an abstracted human face with one eye covered by jaguar skin. Wahy are complex figures and are not yet fully understood by scholars. In general, however, they appear to represent nightmarish Underworld demons, associated with specific courts or kings, which embodied the dark side of rulership and power.

The three Wahy on this vessel all take on very different forms, and each is associated with a different emblem glyph or court (specified in the final two glyphs of each caption). First is a thin human individual whose large, round "god-eye" and unusual mouth identify him as a supernatural. He is dressed as a ballplayer, complete with deer headdress and large, padded belt (for more on the ballgame, see 1971.417 and 2004.949). He falls to the ground in an athletic pose-- right hand and right knee resting on the ground, left leg outstretched-- to strike the ball with his hip. The knee guard attached to his left knee is ringed with extruded eyeballs, emphasizing his nightmarish character. The caption names him "Pitz Chamay," or "Ballplaying Death." The hieroglyphs specifying the court or king with which he was associated are currently unreadable.

The second figure takes the form of a skeletal individual. His belly is distended with the noxious gasses of decomposition, and he has a human skull for a head. He holds his proper right hand to his mouth and appears to be vomiting. Even more gruesome, his back is defleshed, revealing his spine and vertebrae. His hair has been pulled through a human spinal column, and he wears a collar of extruded eyeballs. Although his name also contains the word "death," the first hieroglyph of his name is illegible, as is the court or king with which he is associated.

The final figure is a large, snarling jaguar that clutches or mounts an enormous animate stone. As nocturnal hunters, jaguars are often associated with darkness, night, and the Underworld. The caption associated with this figure appears to have been repainted. Compare, for instance, the second glyph in the sequence. Although this was clearly originally a Wahy glyph, it has been altered into something illegible, likely by a modern artist as the vessel was being prepared for sale.

-Lucia R. Henderson, 2016 (in consultation with David Stuart)

Known Provenance
Gifted 29 December 1998 by Dr. M. Larry and Nancy B. Ottis 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
  • “Stampede: Animals in Art” — Denver Art Museum, 9/10/2017