Scribes / Artists

A distinctive group of Maya vases animates scribes and artists at work; their repeated animation likely conveys the importance the Maya attached to the creative process involved in making art; and the unseen time invested in its production.

J_Scribes/Artists 1

Details of a Classic period Maya vase animating two representations of an artist to lift and examine a conch shell he is carving. The exaggerated size of the artist’s hand holding the conch draws the viewer’s attention to the most important movement embedded within the imagery. He changes the position of the shell to inspect and carve its detail. At the same time his facial expression alters, as do details in his costume, such as the waterlilies attached to the front of his headdress and (three) folds attached to the rear of his loincloth, conveying movement.

Animation extracted and adapted from Robicsek and Hales 1981:53, vessel 57.

J_Scribes/Artists 2

Details of a Classic period Maya vase similar to [J_Scribes/Artists 1], which animates in two steps a scribe to lift his hand from a closed folded codex book placed before him. Once again, the movement involved in the scribe shifting his hand affects slight change in the rest of his posture – he leans forward and looks up, eyes widened. Movement is also injected into his large waterlily headdress and clothing, while it causes the codex and an attached waterlily blossom to swell in anticipation of its imminent opening. The scribe’s loincloth is shaped like a shell, likely forming a mnemonic to their use as ink wells by Maya scribes and artists; in his first representation, the scribe wears a shell ink pot in his headdress, read as kuch or ‘paint pot’ (Kerr 1993:1-3).

Animation extracted and adapted from Robicsek and Hales 1981:55, vessel 60.

J_Scribes/Artists 3

Details of a Classic period Maya vase animating the interactions of a group of three seated figures. In the first scene an aged deity, possibly God N or Itzamnaaj, touches the floor with his left hand, animated to raise a brush above a book; at the same time, his headdress is shown lifting. Speech scrolls flow from his mouth. Immediately opposite, the first figure changes the position of his folded arms to allow him to lean in closer over the book, attentive of the deity’s instructions; while the second figure seated behind straightens up. The two students’ movements express intense concentration and interest in the older figure’s teachings.

Animation extracted and adapted from Robicsek and Hales 1981:53, vessel 56. 

J_Scribes/Artists 4

Details of a Classic period Maya vase animating a scribe drawing attention to a passage in a folded codex (with lid covered in jaguar pelt) he proffers in his hand; in this example, the scribe exhibits a supernatural face displaying grotesque features, including an exaggerated and fanged jaw. However, he still wears the netted headdress with large protruding waterlily blossom and shell ink pot typical of Maya scribes and artists. In his first depiction, the supernatural scribe looks down at the open codex he holds in his left hand while marking a specific part of its content with his right hand; then, on rotation of the vase, his stance changes and he leans forward to intensely look up at whomever he is instructing while pointing at the same codex section.

Simultaneously, the scribe’s body, headdress and loin garments appear to swell to draw attention to the importance and severity of the information he is relaying.

Animation extracted and adapted from Robicsek and Hales 1981:56, vessel 63.

J_Scribes/Artists 5

Details of a Classic period Maya vase animating a scribe, depicted twice, writing in an open codex he holds in his left hand. He wears a kuch (‘paint pot’) tucked behind his ear (Kerr 1993:1-3) and a Ux Yop Huun (Jester God) attached to his headband, whose long snout unfurls as he slightly lowers the codex. The jaguar-hide codex cover is designed around three-dot clusters reminding the viewer of the triadic structure driving time and the movement witnessed.

The head of a large serpent with wide-open maw issues from the scribe’s back in his first depiction, to transform and become more abstract, replacing its fangs and mouth with a large corn cob; the corn cob replicates the shape of the serpent’s head while keeping its eyes (albeit more angular) in the same position. In addition, the transformation, or progression of time, results in a long scroll bearing writing flowing from under the scribe’s arm.

Due to this scribe vase example describing the artist’s movements as very minimal, it highlights the transformation of the serpent issuing from his back, likely to express the creative process involved in his writing.

Animation extracted and adapted from Robicsek and Hales 1981:58, vessel 71.

J_Scribes/Artists 6

Details of a Classic period Maya vase that on turning in the viewer’s hand animates a scribe to lift his hand from – or place upon, depending on which way the ceramic is turned – a folded codex book he sits before. The movement involved in the scribe lifting his hand is transferred onto his posture, netted headdress with large, flowing waterlily attached and clothing, which show small shifts in their position; as the scribe lifts his hand, a waterlily attached to the lid rises and straightens, ready to open, like the book. 

Animation extracted and adapted from Robicsek and Hales 1981:54, vessel 59. 

J_Scribes/Artists 7

Classic Maya red-and-black-on-orange polychrome vase animating an artist carving a mask.

As the vase is turned, the artist performs a downward carving action with his right hand onto the immobile mask, his facial expressions tightening in concentration in the process. 

His carving action is accompanied by the expansion of the red centres of large concentric circles, three stacked atop each other, rising in a band behind the seated figure; the concentric circles are reminiscent of the Mayan pet glyph meaning ‘turning’ and, together with their triadic repetition, form a mnemonic to the ‘spinning’ force of time driving his movement.

Motion is further highlighted by triadic jaguar-pelt-spot clusters covering the artist’s backrest cushion and the band of pseudoglyphs running around the rim above his head and forming the rhythmic expression ‘stop-halt-stop-halt…’: six groups of three glyphs each (alternating inverted and upright ahaw heads) and one isolated inverted ahaw head, indicate a clear break in the motion position above the moment when the carving is enforced upon the mask. 

Animation extracted and adapted from Kerr 1997:779, file no. 5348. 

J_Scribes/Artists 8

Classic Maya polychrome vase animating a lord and his dwarf attendant discussing a mask held in the ruler’s outstretched right hand. On turning of the vase, the ruler brings the mask closer to his face for inspection, while the dwarf extends his folded arms to point towards the mask with his left index finger. 

Animation extracted and adapted from Kerr 1997:791, file no. 5371.

J_Scribes/Artists 9

Details of a Classic period Maya vase animating the work and metamorphosis of a supernatural scribe or artist in three depictions which are separated by three vertical panels; on the original vase, each panel contains three cross-hatched, implying dark, time stones to remind the viewer of the Maya notion of the triadic structure of time driving change.

The sequence requires the vase to be turned in a clockwise direction, starting with the most humanoid depiction of the scribe, whose elongated jaw, on rotation, turns into a beak with protruding long tongue that replicates the feathery curtain tassel hanging immediately in front of the figure’s head in his first (and second) depiction on the vase; the supernatural artist now holds a head onto which he appears to sprinkle something.

On the third and final rotation of the vessel, the supernatural artist has shut his beak and eyes and has lifted the head from his left into his right hand. The supernatural’s movement is depicted transferred to his headdress, which shifts from flopping forwards in his first depiction, to backwards in his second and third, while his necklace swings from around his neck.

Animation extracted and adapted from Robicsek and Hales 1981:57, vessel 66.