Maya Gods of Time
by Jenny and Alexander John
Centuries before Hollywood, moving pictures existed in ancient Maya culture
By examining Maya art from a new perspective,
we reveal in The Maya Gods of Time the dazzling equivalent of ancient cinematic clippings to show how Maya animation portrays the motion of dance, the dressing of a king, the flight of birds and the dawning of the sun.
Excerpt from Chapter 1:
Time and Animation in Maya Art
“Across the course of time artists have tried
to imbue their essentially static creations with movement, through employment of both subject matter and style. Consider, for example, how Vincent van Gogh’s vigorous brushstrokes successfully embed the changing swirl of a cloud within the texture of oil paint; or how sheer power translates from Katsushika Hokusai’s image of a Japanese tsunami wave surging off Kanagawa.
“Movement is conferred upon art by the physical motion involved in its production. Accordingly, a hand pivoting on the point of the elbow defines
a travelling arc; the flick of paint from a brush translates into the dynamic tension leaping from a Jackson Pollock; and the chaotic motion of a child’s scribbled lines capture and convey the energy of youth. Artworks therefore seem inseparable from the motion with which they were created, with this movement connecting to the work to give it vitality and ‘animacy’ (Gell 1998: 76-79). Even the earliest artworks decorating the walls of caves convey a feeling of motion, capturing the chase of a hunt.
“Nevertheless, however dynamically produced, there are limits to the degree of motion that animacy can convey through art; and although the energy of animacy is stored within each ‘frame’ or ‘still’ of the artworks presented here, the subject of animation represents the focus of this book. Here, the intention of the artist was to exceed animacy by creating actual ‘moving pictures’, incorporating a real-time illusion of motion and change.
“The ancient Maya achieved this illusion by using a technique that is known today as the phi phenomenon, which relates to how separate, sequential ‘stills’ are connected by the brain to generate the impression of a moving sequence. Think of how flicking the pages of a flipbook transforms individual static images into an animated event, and how cinematic stills of film wound onto a reel sequentially reveal a movie. But, lacking modern projectors and photographic equipment, the ancient Maya achieved the same effect by using the curved surface of ceramics, which, when turned, replayed a short circular image loop of a similar nature.
“The discovery is like stumbling across a box of ancient cinematic clippings which record the majestic performance of bygone kings and gods. Traditional roll-out photography unfortunately converts a three-dimensional ceramic artwork into a two-dimensional one, thus corrupting the intended reception of its symbolic content. Maya artists did not envisage a simultaneous viewing of the complete work when planning the composition of ceramic scenes. Instead, the structural goal was to follow the turning of the vessel, revealing one individual or manifestation after another.
“It transpires that what is in between the static shots – the becoming – forms the source of the illusion of motion. Consequently, we must focus on what is not seen; it is what is not visualised that is important. The key is to see what is ‘unseen’ within the artwork, and to understand that the unseen is bound to time.”
In Maya Gods of Time, we explain how it is the unseen within the artworks that activates the animations and this unseen relates to time, which, like wind and sound, connect everything in the world. We believe that Maya artists deliberately incorporated the unseen force of time into their artworks and that animation (in three) existed more widely also in other ancient cultures across the world, and that their artworks may be similarly energized with this new perspective on time.”
We have discovered hundreds of animations from across the Maya world. Our book will transform travellers’ Maya experience visiting archaeological sites across Mesoamerica. Check out mayagodsoftime.com.au to
see these animations brought to life (Note: the website will be launched in the middle of January 2019).
About the authors
Since studying for her PhD in Mesoamerican Archaeology, Jenny John has been perfecting her research on the Lamanai material. When we moved to the tranquil setting of Flinders Island (Australia), between Melbourne and Tasmania, Jenny found herself in the perfect space to write the book that she had been researching and drafting since gaining her doctorate. In the relative quiet of life on the island, Alexander, stationed there as the island’s medical doctor, became her study partner. We ordered every cultural book on the Maya we could find, studied Jenny’s photos of the Lamanai ceramics and went through illustrations in detail.
We later travelled through Central America with our children to get the photographs we required for the book and while there we played games as a family, seeking out the animated examples in museums and archaeological sites across the Maya world. We have spent the past
nine years researching and writing this book.
We now live on Norfolk Island (in the South Pacific) with our three children; here we enjoy wa’a outrigging, where paddling the canoes, keeping time by counting, is sharpening our meditation on the concepts of time.
Through studying these animations, we have revived the heart of an ancient philosophy. We present a new theory as to why the people of Central America (Aztec, Maya, Olmec, Zapotec and Teotihuacan) built temples and composed artworks in groups of three. Time was perceived as being both linear and circular, likened to a circular wheel (supported by three spokes) that rolls forwards; the philosophy presented in our book may have a bearing on the moving pictures permeating our modern world and our contemporary understanding and relationship with time.
A shout out to those we cherish
It is true to say that this book would never have been written without
the encouragement of Dr. Elizabeth Graham, Professor of Mesoamerican Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. It was Professor Graham who guided Jenny during her PhD studies that formed the seed for this work. Her encouragement after reading an early version in 2014 led to us making the trip to Central America, where we gathered photos as supporting evidence for our ideas. It was the great generosity of Professor Graham and her husband, Doctor David Pendergast, in sharing their meticulous burial and cache field notes, from the excavations conducted at Lamanai since the 1970s, which ultimately enabled us to resurrect the ideas contained within the ceramic art from the site. (Editor’s note: It was Elizabeth Graham who first recommended the IMS to Jenny and encouraged her to email me! Thank you, Liz!)
Our gratitude also goes out to another academic, the former Dean of Yale University, Professor Mary Miller, for her helpful comments in 2015, that gave us the momentum to continue and complete the work we had started.
We admire and commend the ancient Central American philosophers whose perspective is a gift to our modern world.
This book is the product of our combined efforts. Over the ten long years of its making, the work has inevitably affected people close to us. In this regard, we would like to thank our families, especially our children, who never thought it would end and who could not escape the intensity with which the research and its findings touched us; delightfully, they even accepted the philosophy presented here into their hearts and lives.
We are currently also developing a website that will showcase the many animations we have found: Please bookmark: mayagodsoftime.com.au.
Our book is currently available on Amazon Books US at:
https://www.amazon.com/Maya-Gods-Time-Jennifer-John-ebook/dp/B07F33Q124/ref= sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1545100885&sr=1-1&keywords=Jennifer+John%2 C+Maya or by searching the title on The Book Depository at:www.bookdepository.com with free shiping. Get free shipping with them.
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