God N as Turtle Earth and Starry Deer Crocodile

God N as Turtle Earth and Starry Deer Crocodile

300-500 CE
Maya lowlands Petén
vessel, deity
Slip-painted ceramic
Museum Exchange

Unknown Maya artist, Petén region, Maya Lowlands, Guatemala. God N as Turtle Earth and Starry Deer Crocodile, 300–500 CE. Slip-painted ceramic, 6 1/2  x 10 1/4 in. Denver Art Museum Collection: museum exchange, 1972.158.

This object is currently on view
height: 6 1/2 in, 16.5100 cm; width: 10 1/4 in, 26.0350 cm
Mayer Center, Art of the Ancient Americas
Art of the Ancient Americas

Vessel of God N as Turtle Earth and Starry Deer Crocodile
About A.D. 300-500
Guatemala, Maya Lowlands, possibly Petén region
Earthenware ceramic with polychrome slip
Museum exchange, 1972.158

The elaborate shape of this vessel suggests it was meant for ceremonial rather than utilitarian use. It is in the form of a fused supernatural figure with the body and back legs of a turtle, the forelegs of a deer, and a human face wearing a deer-crocodile headdress. The wrinkled, grinning human face is that of God N, an elderly god that was believed to sustain the four corners of the world.

As seen on other objects in the collection (see, for instance, 1956.107 and 1983.267), God N is frequently shown with the body of a turtle. In ancient Maya belief, the surface of the world was conceived of as a great turtle floating on the primordial sea. Here, the turtle shell is rimmed with a feather motif, likening it to mirrors, shields, and other round motifs that were conceived of as portals or entry-points to other worlds. Within this border is a second ring of interconnected "kan" signs. This four-lobed shape, marked in the center by a circle, was used in ancient Maya art to represent the center of the world, viewed as a precious, turquoise enclosure. In hieroglyphic passages, it translates as "precious," "yellow," and "ripe" (as in a precious, ripened, yellow ear of corn).

God N wears a crocodile head as a headdress, recognizable by its upturned snout, the shell "breath beads" in its nostrils, and a central shark's tooth. Atop this head is an element that combines a deer antler with a deer leg. These features (and possibly the painted portal formed by its turtle shell back) identify this creature as the "Starry Deer Crocodile," a composite form used in ancient Maya art to depict the nighttime firmament or Underworld sky.

This vessel, then, presents us with the universe in miniature, a cosmogram that combines the night sky, the surface of the earth, and the face of the old god believed to keep the levels of the universe in their proper places. This god was both a sustainer of the world as well as a central cosmic axis. His turtle shell body is therefore not only marked by signs of the world's center, but takes the form of a great portal or passageway between cosmic realms.

-Lucia R. Henderson, 2016

Known Provenance
Acquired 30 May 1972 by the Denver Art Museum through museum exchange. Provenance research is on-going at the Denver Art Museum. Please e-mail provenance@denverartmuseum.org, if you have questions, or if you have additional information to share with us.

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