Maya Polychrome Vase depicting the Water Serpent,
Late Classic, ca. A.D. 550 - 950
Earthenware with polychrome slip
height 7in (18cm)
Private Collection, Chicago, Illinois, acquired in the 1960s or earlier
Robert and Marianne Huber, Chicago, Illinois
Private Collection, Chicago, Illinois
Kerr Maya Vase Database No. 8728
THE MAYA WATER SERPENT VASE
The image likely portrays a version of the water serpent, which functions in Maya art as an examplar (symbolic rendering) of a mythic place. Typically, the water serpent is depicted with a waterlily pad tied atop its head, a down-turned snout, and rising from a skull. There are myriad versions of the water serpent, however, each of which serves a specific narrative function. Some are the names of supernatural locales, which often have their counterparts on earth such as Matwiil, the mythical "Place of Waterbirds" mentioned in the hieroglyphic texts at Palenque. The Group of the Cross replicates this place, and in the Tablet of the Cross the deceased ruler Pakal stands on a version of Matwiil (rendered as a shell with foliage emerging from it).
The version on this vase belongs to a subgroup nicknamed the "waterlily creature," a recurring iconic form within the broader water serpent complex. Note the two waterlily flowers and the bifurcated scrolls that likely refer to gently flowing water. The waterlily creature personifies the hieroglyph for nahb, "pool [of water]" or "waterlily." Here the "sprouting ajaw" icon indicates the divine nature of this image.
The vase was made in an elite pottery workshop at/near Xultún, Guatemala (see the Maya Vase Database K4572, K5366, K6882, K8007, and K9153). The latter was painted by the same artist who produced vessels for members of the site's nobility such as the man named here at the end of the PSS text.
Dorie Reents-Budet, Ph.D.