Art Through Time: A Global View
Dreams and Visions Art: Lintel 25 of Yaxchilán Structure 23
The city of Yaxchilán, located along the Usumacinta River in Chiapas, Mexico, was founded in the Early Classic period (250–600) and became a major center of Maya culture in the Late Classic period (600–900).
Buildings in Yaxchilán were known for their elaborate decorations, particularly the sculptural door lintels that were commissioned by the city’s rulers and are believed to document their history.
A lintel is the horizontal beam that spans the opening between two upright architectural elements. This particular lintel (referred to by current day archaeologists as lintel 25) was located above the central doorway of a palace structure (structure 23) in Yaxchilán. An inscription on the lintel reads October 20, 681, the date of Lord Shield Jaguar II’s accession to throne as documented in other monuments. It is believed that creation of the lintel, as well as the ritual portrayed in its carving, were associated with this event.
The image, carved in relief on the limestone lintel, depicts Lady K’ab’al Xook, wife of Shield Jaguar. Lady Xook performs a bloodletting ritual that has manifested a vision of a serpent. From the mouth of the serpent, a warrior, carrying a shield and spear, emerges. Scholars have debated the identity of this figure. Some argue that it represents Shield Jaguar, others that it is Lady K’abal Xook herself in another form.
Bloodletting was a central part of Maya life from the Late Preclassic period (400 BCE–250 CE) onward and was especially critical to rituals of kingship. According to Maya belief, when a member of the royal family sheds his or her blood, a portal to the Otherworld was opened through which gods and spirits might pass into this world. The image of the “Vision Serpent” gives visual form to the communion between worlds. If it is the Vision Serpent that we see in lintel 25, the figure emerging from the creature’s open maw may be that of a royal ancestor. Whatever the case, by showing the serpent manifest, the image attests to the royal authority of Lady Xook, and by extension, Shield Jaguar.
Expert Perspective: 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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