Rollout photograph © Justin Kerr

Mr. Fantastic

What makes a work of art timeless? A 1,300 year-old pot looted from a tomb in the Guatemalan jungle offers some clues.

July 10, 2017

The ancient Maya painted pictures on walls, in books, and on ceramic pots.

Very few murals or book fragments have survived. What the jungle didn’t swallow up, the Spanish conquerors burned. But hundreds of ceramics that were buried under the Maya elites’ homes and in stone tombs over a millennium ago are still with us.

One of the most extraordinary pieces is a cup with the bizarre scene above painted on it.

Who’s Responsible?

Information about this ceramic cup is thin on the ground. It was probably created somewhere in Guatemala’s Mirador Basin at the height of the Maya Classic Period, around 700 –  800 AD. At some point it was looted from its burial site. Today it resides in an unidentified private collection.

Some ancient Maya painters and sculptors signed their work, so we know a few of the artists’ names, but not this one’s. In a talk given at Princeton a couple decades ago, Barbara and Justin Kerr referred to him as “The Fantastic Painter”.  I’ll stick with that idea, and refer to the artist here as “Mr. Fantastic” (some Maya artists were female, so it’s possible Mr. Fantastic was actually Madame Fantastic — we’ll probably never know).

In any event, he/she was almost certainly born into a royal or ruling-class family, and was a master scribe and painter.

What’s Happening in this Picture?

The story Mr. Fantastic depicted on the pot derives from a partially understood Maya myth. The conventional red rim line running along the bottom of the vase here serves to indicate the action takes place along the porous border of the Maya version of Hell, Xibalba, or “The Place of Fright”.

Three characters occupy the scene. To the left (stage-right) is  Chaak, the Maya god of rain and thunder. Opposite him is a macabre skeletal death spirit. And at center-stage, falling head-first into Xibalba’s depths, is a half-human, half-jaguar baby.

There are a couple dozen elements in the scene related to the players, including weapons, headdresses, jewelry, disembodied eyeballs, hieroglyphs, and much more. Some bits are easy to decode, such as the iconography that identifies Chaak. Others are obscure, such as the fluttering triangular shape coming from the death spirit’s right knee.

A Deeper Dimension

A full appreciation of Mr. Fantastic’s painted cup doesn’t rely exclusively on interpreting an esoteric myth. Unlike the rigorously codified arts of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Classic Maya world’s visual conventions allowed for considerable personal expression.

Mr. Fantastic exploited his creative elbow-room to the max.

His line work is fast, fluid, precise, confident. He employs dynamic abstraction and angular geometry in ways not seen in any other known Maya painter’s work. His imagery pulses with intensity — the scrunched-up expression on Chaak’s face is priceless.

Things to Come

Mr. Fantastic’s extreme visualizations prefigure by many centuries the innovations of a slew of great artists. Think of Aubrey Beardsley’s crisp, clean ink lines. Ralph Steadman’s madcap splatterfests. Kuniyoshi’s demons. Robert Crumb’s tormented characters. Picasso’s Guernica.

What other individual  on the planet had the chops to create anything remotely like the picture on this cup over a thousand years ago?

It’s a rare vision, plucked from the past, clear as a bell, and sharp as a knife.