A Universe in a Maya Lintel III: Configuring Color
by James Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Stephen Houston (Brown University), Beth Edelstein (Cleveland Museum of Art), and Brunella Santarelli (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
When Teobert Maler arrived in the Usumacinta region, he marveled at the landscape, noting stark contrasts of color and texture while walking among the white limestone cliffs “crowned by towering trees,” with the “nantsin-trees [Byrsonima crassifolia] just unfolding the splendor of their yellow blossoms” (Maler 1901:41). The site of Piedras Negras, Maler observed, took its name from the “splendid sandbanks with blackish limestone rocks rising out of them” (Maler 1901:42)—a distinctive feature now known to result from quarrying for the city. The color world of black, white, yellow, and green that Maler encountered is aggressively evident in the Parque Nacional Sierra Lacandon today, where the site of Laxtunich lies undocumented scientifically, and where the sculptor Mayuy created Laxtunich Lintel 1, his magnum opus.
Color creation and its application to eighth-century Maya monuments reflected the aspirations of Maya artists “to reproduce the effects of prime colorants” in nature (Houston et al. 2009:58). Maya artists made paints, or solid inorganic or organic colored materials suspended in liquid, and lakes, in which organic dyes were combined with inert clays, such as the well-known Maya Blue from indigo. Commonly used pigments included black from carbonized materials, red from hematite, yellow ochre from goethite, and white calcium carbonate (Houston et al. 2009:61-63). Many if not all of these occur on the Laxtunich lintels (Maya Lintel II). ...