Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea Opens at PEM this weekend!

Another incredible exhibit opens at the Peabody Essex Museum this weekend. It will be here until July, and it is definitely worth checking out. The exhibit brings the ancient world of the Maya to life through artifacts and multimedia.

Another example of excellence from the PEM, Fiery Pool is a collection of art and artifacts that has never been gathered before, providing a new perspective on this mysterious ancient civilization.

What I found absolutely incredible is how pristine some of the artifacts are. There are pieces that date to 500 AD that are in beautiful condition. Great care has been taken to preserve these artifacts and present them to us.

Here is what the PEM says about their new exhibit:

Surrounded by the sea in all directions, the ancient Maya viewed their world as inextricably tied to water. More than a necessity to sustain life, water was the vital medium from which the world emerged, gods arose and ancestors communicated. Over 90 works, many never before seen, offer exciting new insights into Maya culture that focus on the sea as a defining feature of the spiritual realm and the inspiration for the finest works of art. Fiery Pool was organized by Daniel Finamore, The Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History at the Peabody Essex Museum and Stephen D. Houston, The Dupee Family Professor of Social Science and Professor of Archaeology at Brown University. The exhibition is scheduled to travel to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Saint Louis Art Museum.


This exhibition is organized in four thematic sections.

Water and Cosmos

Surrounded by the sea in all directions, the ancient Maya viewed their world as inextricably tied to water. More than a necessity to sustain life, water was the vital medium from which the world emerged, gods arose and ancestors communicated.

TajchanahkThe panel shown (left) is an exceptional example of Maya sculpture depicting a ruler known as Tajchanahk, "Torch-Sky-Turtle," seated on a water lily throne in the royal court, while simultaneously inhabiting the subtle, watery realm. A bubbling stream delineates the space with stylized foliage anchoring the corners. This work suggests that for the Maya, the realms of earth, sea, sky and cosmos may have been perceived as flowing into each other, rather than as distinct territories of being.

Creatures of the Fiery Pool

The world of the Maya brims with animal life, animated, Lobsterrealistic and supernatural all at once. Objects in this section portray a wide array of fish, frogs, birds and mythic beasts inhabiting the sea and conveying spiritual concepts. This effigy of an actual Caribbean spiny lobster (shown here) is the only known Maya representation of the creature. The object was excavated in 2007 from one of the oldest sites in Belize, populated for over three thousand years. It dates from the turbulent early colonial period when traditional Maya life was besieged by incursions of Spanish soldiers and missionaries. A plugged cavity bearing a stingray spine, three shark teeth and two blades of microcrystalline quartz hint at blood sacrifice. The head emerging from the mouth may be the face of a Maya deity.

Navigating the Cosmos

BelizeFor the Maya, water was a source of material wealth and spiritual power. All bodies of water ─ rivers, cenotes (deep, inland pools) and the sea ─ were united, and all could be traversed to a cosmic realm. This magnificent head is a Belize national treasure, and one of the most exquisite works discovered in the Maya world. Weighing nearly ten pounds, it was created from a single piece of jadeite, the color of which was directly associated with the sea. Likely carved in Guatemala and transported by canoe to Belize, this sculpture is a complex depiction of a deity with the eyes of a sun god. It was found in the tomb of an elderly man, likely cradled in his arm upon burial at the sacred site, Altun Ha.

Birth to Rebirth

censerThe final section of the exhibition addresses the cyclical motion of the cosmos as the Maya experienced it. The sun rose in the morning from the Caribbean in the east, bearing the features of a shark as it began to traverse the sky (it only had these features in the early morning). Cosmic crocodiles exhaled storms and battled with gods of the underworld. This elaborate censer (shown right) portrays a deity central to a creation myth from Palenque, Mexico. Water curls on his cheeks and shell ear ornaments linking him to the rain god, Chahk, speak of his connection to the watery world. A shark serves as his headdress topped by a toothy crocodile. From this censer, ritual smoke curled through the city of Palenque, suffusing it with scent and mystery.


  • Panel with a seated ruler in a watery cave; AD 795; Cancuen, Guatemala; Limestone; 22 5/8 x 26 ¼ x 3 inches (57.5 x 66.5 x 7.6 cm); Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes ─ Museo Nacional de Arquelogía y Etnología, Guatemala City; Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum © Jorge Pérez de Lara.
  • Lobster effigy circa; AD 1550; Lamanai, Belize; Clay and paint; 2 ¾ x 8 ¼ x 3 in (7 x 21 x 8 cm); National Institute of Culture and History, Belize; Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum photograph © Jorge Pérez de Lara.
  • Jade sculpture of a deity; AD 550-650; Altun Ha, Belize; Jadeite; 5 7/8 x 4 3/8 x 5 ¾ (14.9 x 11.2 x 14.8 cm); National Institute of Culture and History, Belize; Photograph courtesy National Institute of Culture and History, Belize.
  • Incense burner with a deity with aquatic elements, AD 700 - 750; Palenque, Mexico Ceramic; 46 ¾ x 22 ¼ x 7 7/8 inches (118.5 x 56.5 x 20 cm); Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes - Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Museo de Sitio de la Zona Arqueológia de Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, 10-604759; Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum, photograph © 2009 Jorge Pérez de Lara.


The Peabody Essex Museum presents art and culture from New England and around the world. The museum's collections are among the finest of their kind, showcasing an unrivaled spectrum of American art and architecture (including four National Historic Landmark buildings) and outstanding Asian, Asian Export, Native American, African, Oceanic, Maritime and Photography collections. In addition to its vast collections, the museum offers a vibrant schedule of changing exhibitions and a hands-on education center. The museum campus features numerous parks, period gardens and 22 historic properties, including Yin Yu Tang, a 200-year-old house that is the only example of Chinese domestic architecture on display in the United States.

HOURS: Open Tuesday-Sunday and holiday Mondays, 10 am-5 pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

ADMISSION: Adults $15; seniors $13; students $11. Additional admission to Yin Yu Tang: $5. Members, youth 16 and under and residents of Salem enjoy free general admission and free admission to Yin Yu Tang.

INFO: Call 866-745-1876 or visit

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