The ancient Maya crafted objects fashioned with the most sophisticated tools available. These objects, together with the latest technology of this century, bring the Mayan world to life at the Saint Louis Art Museum’s new exhibit, Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea. The show brings together 90-plus works of art, including a giant crocodile who tips the scales at more than 1 ton. Fiery Pool, which comes to St. Louis on the last stop of a three-city tour, also features an interactive display described as ‘quite fun’ by Matthew Robb, assistant curator of ancient American and Native American art.
“There is an oval table with a large touch-screen ‘pool’ that floats silhouettes of different sea creatures, such as turtles, sharks and stingrays. When you touch the screen, the creatures turn into hieroglyphs,” Robb explains. “Visitors can see the transformation from creature to Maya art object, and see the Mayan word for the creature and learn more about its natural environment.” Comparing the experience to working with an iPad, Robb says, the display is an ideal way to get people visually and tactically involved. “You’ll see many of the objects that are featured in the exhibit and in many cases, you are seeing precisely what the artist saw when the object was being created.” The screen is delicate, Robb adds, but visitors can actually ‘push’ the creatures across the surface. “So, when you find a particularly interesting shark, you can send it over to someone across the table, and share what you’ve learned.”
The exhibition, organized by the Peabody Essex museum, has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Its four thematic sections—Water and Cosmos, Creatures of the Fiery Pool, Navigating the Cosmos, and Birth to Rebirth—explore the ways Maya artists represented water as a source of material wealth and spiritual power.
For instance, Navigating the Cosmos emphasizes the trade network of the civilization. “I’m really intrigued by the notion of trade—this aspect of acquiring rare and exotic items like spineless shell, turquoise and gold,” Robb says. “It’s not simply mercantile exchange. There really is a kind of esoteric wisdom that’s associated with knowing how to get these things, knowing where to go, who to talk to and the distance involved. It does has a religious overtone, and possessing that kind of knowledge was something these merchants prized very dearly.”
And that 1-ton crocodile? “It’s a big piece of basalt, carved on the sides in relief. You can see the snout and the claws,” Robb says. “It’s a prismatic stone, rather like a gigantic No. 2 pencil.” The logistics of transporting the creature to St. Louis were involved, he adds. “All of these objects go in special wooden boxes, and the larger pieces are moved with cranes. Our moving techniques are probably not terribly different from the Maya,” he notes. ”For example, our handling crew used giant sheets of plywood in front of the crate, moving it to the back, and then to the front. The Maya would have used a very similar process with wooden or stone rollers. We have equipment they didn’t have, but sometimes it just takes brute force.” The crocodile was perhaps used as a pillar or column to support a structure before it was refashioned to its present form. “Its original function is hard to pinpoint, but it’s possible that it was in a sunken patio, where water was present. You have this image of this gigantic stone crocodile floating on the surface, as part of a larger program of ceremonial architecture.”
Additional support for the exhibit is provided by Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations (ECHO) and by the Missouri Arts Council.
On the cover: The Saint Louis Art Museum presents Fiery Pool: The Maya and The Mythic Sea, now in the Museum’s main exhibition galleries through May 8. For more information, call 721-0072 or visit slam.org/FieryPool.
Photo by Jorge Pérez de Lara