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2 / Dreams and Visions

Lintel 25 of Yaxchilán Structure 23
Lintel 25 of Yaxchilán Structure 23
Artist / Origin Maya artist, Yaxchilán, Chiapas, Mexico
Date Late Classic period, 600–900 CE
Material Limestone relief
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 51 in. (129.5 cm.), W: 33.7 in. (85.7 cm)
Location The British Museum, London, UK
Credit Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

John PohlCurator of the Arts of the Americas, Fowler Museum at UCLA

Lintel 25 of Yaxchilán Structure 23

» Maya artist, Yaxchilán, Chiapas, Mexico

expert perspective

John Pohl John Pohl Curator of the Arts of the Americas, Fowler Museum at UCLA

A number of the palaces at Yaxchilán feature these lintels that were carved and placed over the doorways of the palaces, so that as you enter the doorway, you read the commemorative text and see the image of either the conquest or a vision serpent, or there are other rituals that are performed that we don’t quite understand very clearly. They may mark something that has to do with the activity that goes on in those rooms. We’re not quite sure. But they do have dates that dedicate them to construction periods with these palaces. These palaces were erected by the paramount kings and queens of the Petén region of Guatemala between the fourth and the eighth century AD.

These lintels are very interesting because they show us something more of the private life or intimate ritualism of these kings and queens in the central Petén in the eighth century AD. Why they would take the time to portray something like this on a monument and then conceal it under a doorway is a mystery to us. One possibility is that these monuments describe events that actually take place in these intimate, small, darkened rooms inside of these palaces.

Several of the lintels seem to record an event in which a woman is performing a blood sacrifice rite to conjure or bring to life some kind of vision of an ancestor. The ancestor comes to life through, we don’t know quite what it is, but it’s shown as a serpent. The serpent often has these curlicues and various volutes and things like that coming off of it. So it’s possible that the serpent is being conjured up through the smoke that is created when the women first sheds blood from her tongue by running a rope through her tongue with thorns on it, dripping the blood on to paper and then burning the paper in a dish in order to create this idea of a gift to the netherworld. So that through the smoke, perhaps then, this vision serpent appears, and through the mouth of the vision serpent, she sees this image of an ancestor.

The text on lintel 25 from Yaxchilán tells us that the wife of the king of Yaxchilán at the time—her name was Lady Xook—and Lady Xook performed this blood-letting rite along with her husband, whose name was Lord Shield Jaguar. Lady Xook was able to conjure this image of this ancestor through this vision serpent. Now what’s critical about this is it gives us a specific date of October 25, 681 AD, and at the same time, it connects these events to conquests that were performed by her husband, Lord Shield Jaguar. And at the same time, it talks about the accession—these monuments talk about the accession of Lord Shield Jaguar. So this idea of conjuring, or bringing forth, the image of an ancestor as a vision was apparently closely connected to the power and politics of the site and probably also to the commemoration of these palaces that these lintels are meant to mark.” 

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