The Great Jaguar Rises in Kansas City

“Lurking Jaguar-Masked Warrior” (c. 250 to 600 CE), is believed to represent a ranking noble warrior rising out of a jaguar, a leading mythological figure associated with royal power. The piece is a recent discovery, on public view for the first time in the Maya exhibition. (Jorge Pérez de Lara © Jorge Pérez Lara)

Union Station presents blockbuster exhibit exploring Maya civilization

The exhibit provides cultural-ecological insights not only into Maya high culture, but also into the daily lives of a deeply religious, polytheistic people and their rituals of worship . . .

Two millennia ago, the Maya of Mesoamerica created one of the most important civilizations in the history of humankind, about which we continue to learn with each passing discovery. Exhibit goers now have an opportunity to learn more about this intriguing civilization at Kansas City’s Union Station in “Maya: The Great Jaguar Rises.”

The exhibit takes its name from its centerpiece, “Lurking Jaguar-Masked Warrior,” dating to the Early Classic Period (c. 250 to 600 CE). The stucco mythological figure, among the rarest of recent discoveries, stands more than two feet high, is nine feet in length, and more than three feet wide. The masked effigy is believed to represent a high-ranking noble being transformed into a jaguar deity, usually associated with royal power, strength and artifice in Maya art and culture. If you look closely, you will see that the figure is wearing a skirt resembling a jaguar pelt with rare surviving patches of color then common to such sculptures.

Masks made of jade and related green stones, like the “Jade Mask” above, were precious grave items often placed on the heads of the deceased in tombs of kings and members of the nobility. (Jorge Pérez de Lara © Jorge Pérez Lara)

At their peak — during the Classic Period — the Maya boasted a population of between 10 and 15 million, including some 40 cities with a population density unsurpassed anywhere in the world at the time, spread across Guatemala to Mexico, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.

Theirs was a civilization that excelled at agriculture, building elaborate irrigation systems and terraces; lovely pottery; hieroglyph writing; remarkable astronomy; calendars, one of which was the most accurate of its time; mathematics, including invention of the number zero; cities of monumental stone architecture with plazas, temples and pyramids; vulcanized rubber used in its unique sport, ulama; and, last but not least, chocolate!

With nearly 300 objects, many of which have never been seen in the United States, the exhibit provides cultural-ecological insights not only into Maya high culture, but also into the daily lives of a deeply religious, polytheistic people and their rituals of worship of various gods of nature, including the sun, moon, rain and maize (corn), from which the gods created humans.

Highlights include a ceramic vessel with images of two richly dressed, dancing maize gods dating to the eighth century CE, and an elaborate jade mask, adorned with green jade stones, conch shells and obsidian. Masks like this were placed on the heads of deceased kings and other nobility, along with other adornments, to accompany them into the afterlife. Another striking object, a delightful incense burner in the form of an older goddess wearing a snake headdress and holding medicinal plants, dates to the Classic Period, and is believed to represent the patron goddess of midwives.

The Maya were the first people in the western hemisphere to have a written language, and much of the information we have on the Maya has been gleaned from hieroglyph translations.

“Cancuen Panel 1,” carved from limestone, displays a hieroglyphic text of 160 glyphs describing a ruler’s accession to the throne. (Jorge Pérez de Lara © Jorge Pérez Lara)

The Maya were the first people in the western hemisphere to have a written language, and much of the information we have on the Maya has been gleaned from hieroglyph translations. An outstanding example is Cancuen Panel 1, which was inscribed over the years from 652 to 799 CE. At some 160 glyphs, it is one of the longest hieroglyphic inscriptions known from the Maya lowlands. A translation posted nearby describes a ruler’s accession to the throne and his pilgrimage to the sea, which was believed to strengthen a ruler’s claim to the royal throne.

Codices, or records kept on paper made from tree bark, add to our knowledge of the Post-Classic, but Pre-Columbian, Period. Many were destroyed by the Spanish conquerors. Only four verified codices have survived and are in Madrid, Dresden, Paris and Mexico City. They are too fragile to be moved, but a facsimile of the Madrid codex is in the exhibit.

Sometime in the ninth century, the magnificent cities of the southern lowlands of Mesoamerica began to be abandoned for locations further north on the Yucatan peninsula — Chichen Itza being the best known today. The reasons for this have been debated for years, but never resolved. They include some provocative theories that resonate today: constant warfare among the several major cities, farmland degradation, over-population, and catastrophic environmental change, including drought.

Nikolai Grube, professor of anthropology of the Americas at the University of Bonn, Germany, and head curator of the exhibit, who was in Kansas City for the installation, insisted that “The Maya civilization was never lost. What was lost were the big cities in the rainforest, as the Maya moved elsewhere.”

Grube listed three lessons he hopes visitors will take away from the exhibit: The Maya provide a case study of sustainable living, flourishing in a tropical forest without destroying it; the Maya were a literate culture, with a written language at a time when few others existed; and six million Maya still live, mostly in Guatemala, speaking multiple dialects of the same language, engaging in agriculture similar to that of their ancestors, and practicing a unique syncretic religion that blends both the religion of their ancestors and Christianity.

Also present for the installation was Sofia Catalina Paredes Maury, executive director of La Ruta Maya Foundation. She explained the reason for the delayed arrival of the exhibit, which was originally scheduled to open in Kansas City in May. She referred to the thousands of artifacts that have been stolen by amateur archeologists and collectors over the past two centuries and the challenge of repatriating them. Many have recently been returned, but the Guatemalan government is not about to let them leave the country again without proper and protective documentation.

Peter Elsaesser, CEO of MuseumsPartner, which produced the exhibit, expressed disappointment in the delayed opening, but he added that the delay “in no way diminishes our enthusiasm for presenting this world-class content. Union Station has been a tremendous professional partner in every respect and is admired worldwide as a prized host of large-scale and important exhibitions.”

Presented by Bank of America, “Maya: The Great Jaguar Rises” is produced by MuseumsPartner in collaboration with the National Museum of Archeology and Ethnology and La Ruta Maya Foundation in Guatemala and supported by the Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes de Guatemala.

“Maya: The Great Jaguar Rises” is tentatively scheduled to close at Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Rd., at the end of January. For more information and tickets, 816.460.2091 or unionstation.org.

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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