Maya Animation? Breathing Newfound Vitality into Ancient Maya Art
This article presents a major breakthrough in Maya art and archaeology, revealing the sophisticated way that Maya artists animated ancient artworks. There is a lot of excitement surrounding the contemporary Mexican animator Jorge Gutierrez’s latest project, a Netflix series called Maya and the Three, a modern anime that visualizes the pre-Columbian world, which fits in nicely with our research.
This is because the Maya had their own ancient anime. Studying Maya moving pictures unlocks a forgotten philosophy of time-space not to be missed by those interested in ancient history and archaeology. The rollout photograph above is of a Maya ceramic which has converted the 3D ceramic to a flat 2D image. However, the image was never intended to be seen all at once in this manner.
The geometric chevron band – visible on the rollout image of the original late classic Chama-style polychrome vase seen in the main image – urges the directional rotation of the vase following the arrow points. Turning the ceramic vase animates an attendant to bow before an enthroned ruler, simultaneously highlighting the transformation of his headdress. The animation was extracted and adapted from The Metropolitan Museum of Art . (Jenny and Alex John / The Maya Gods of Time )
Art historian Jennifer John and her artist husband Alex have spent the last decade discovering the equivalent of ancient cinematic clippings hidden within Maya art. This is a new perspective and their work provides a window onto the ancient action of a long-vanished world, breathing a newfound vitality into Maya art.
Two doorway supports, Lintels 13 and 14, placed side by side, from the ancient Maya archaeological site of Yaxchilan, Mexico. Looking between the two lintels reveals many animations, such as Lady Chak Chami being animated to tilt a bowl up towards the sajal (lord) Bird Jaguar IV. (Chinchilla Mazariegos: 2017)
Animation in the Ancient City of Yaxchilan
The artist(s) who carved the two Yaxchilan lintels shown above incorporated the concept of animation into their artwork. The trick is to compare the two lintels to see what is different in their imagery. In the process, it becomes apparent that what is missing is important to understand their visual content. Maya artists most likely used templates they were able to modify to create the animations.
In this image, Lady Chak Chami is shown raising a low dish, filled with bloodletting paraphernalia, by extending her palm up towards her husband or consort Bird Jaguar IV, while both move bloodletting blades they hold in their right and left hands, respectively. In addition, an ancestral head or possibly their future son, Shield Jaguar IV, is emerging from the wide-open maws of a skeletal serpent / centipede beast, conjured into being through the bloodletting rite, raises his cupped hands towards Lady Chak Chami.
The key to understanding Maya animation is to compare the details. The animation has been extracted and adapted from Chinchilla Mazariegos. (Jenny and Alex John / The Maya Gods of Time )
Animation between the Palenque Piers
The theory of animation applied to monumental art expands on work done by the Scandinavian researchers Jasper Nielson and Søren Wichmann, who recognized some such animations painted on ceramics in 2000 when exploring image sequencing. Applying the concept of animation to mural programs at Bonampak and Santa Rita, stone monuments at Quiriga, ceramics at Lamanai, and the stuccoed piers at Palenque brings Maya art and Maya archaeological sites to life. Until now, experts within the field have overlooked the depth and philosophical implications of the widespread use of these Maya animations.
Even though the three rulers in this Palenque animation from the western piers of the Palace at Palenque, Mexico, might represent different individuals, they take part in a ceremony played out in an animated sequence over time to convey the Maya notion of time driving historical reoccurrence. In this way, the Maya recorded periodically-repeated royal rituals to mark the progression of time and their acceptance of historical reoccurrence. Animation extracted and adapted from Maudslay 1889-1902, vol. 4, plate 28. (Jenny and Alex John / The Maya Gods of Time )
One reason why experts in the field have missed the depth of animation hidden in Maya art is that many of the artworks are now incomplete, having been broken up or partly deteriorated over time. The whole of the artwork is necessary to read the moving pictures embedded within. Reading Maya art is like reading a visual language, requiring the viewer to approach its imagery very much like they would process a sentence written in a book.
- The Maya People Still Have So Much to Teach Us
- What Happened to the Maya?
- The Maya Codices: The Precious Remaining History of an Eradicated Civilization
Consequently, the sequence in which Maya artefacts were intended to be viewed by their ancient makers is critical to the working of their animation and to seeing the unseen. Maya visual sequences – intended to be read in a similar way to their hieroglyphic script – have often been disturbed, either weathered by the elements and nature, their stone tablets cracked and displaced by the roots of the thick tropical forests that swallowed Maya cities from sight, or artworks were moved by early western explorers, looters and, in some instances, archaeologists.
Artworks that were intended to be read together were sometimes broken up and shipped to different museums in Europe, the Americas and Australia. It is ironic that the motion of artworks travelling to different countries has disrupted the intended sequence of their reading, disturbing the viewing of animation embedded in their content, which, as explained later, is reliant on the viewer’s own motion or travelling to be activated. The dispersion of Maya artefacts across the world is comparable to how cutting up a written text destroys the plot or story communicated by the artist or writer.
Two, of a series, of eroded Classic period tablets adorning the western piers of the Palace at Palenque, House C, Mexico. As the viewer moves between the panels, an enthroned ruler is animated to lift his right arm. The trick is to see what is different between the different scenes of any given series. (Jenny and Alex John / The Maya Gods of Time )
Rollout Photography Corrupts the Reading of Maya Animations
This form of artistic communication is further compromised by the fact that the small number of Maya ceramics that have survived are displayed in prestigious museums, where they are typically securely placed behind thick walls of glass. If you are able to view such an artifact, you are unlikely to be able to see it in its entirety and will therefore miss the animation that circumscribes it.
In fact, very few people nowadays are able to study a Maya ceramic in the way intended by the ancient Maya. They were supposed to be held in the palms of your hands while slowly rotated to view and unlock the glyphic text and animations running around the ceramic surface. The handling of the ceramics is reminiscent of turning a movie reel or flicking the pages of a flipbook to view the imagery.
Details of a Classic period Maya vase, on rotation in the viewer’s hands, animate a supernatural scribe who moves his hand to highlight a passage in a folded Maya book (codex). The creature wears a netted headdress with large protruding waterlily blossom and holds a shell ink pot typical of Maya scribes and artists. At the same time, the scribe’s attire and body seem to grow in size, thus highlighting the importance of the passage he is drawing attention to in the codex. The animation was extracted and adapted from vessel 63 in Robicsek and Hales (1981:56). (Jenny and Alex John / The Maya Gods of Time )
Another reason for Maya animations largely going undetected is a publishing technique that has been popular for many decades, namely rollouts, which were developed by the American photographer Justin Kerr. Kerr catalogued Maya ceramics held in public and private collections from around the world via a photographic means that converts 3D ceramics into flat 2D images, thus allowing the entirety of the artwork to be viewed in one instant.
Although this method has the advantages of overall representation and ease of production, the two-dimensional presentation corrupts the intended way in which the artwork is received and resulted in a degree of “group think” amongst Maya scholars. More recently, museums – recognizing the limitations of this approach – are working to map Maya ceramics as 3D computer models. A team at the Princeton Museum recently helped us create some 3D ceramic models for our website Maya Gods of Time , which allow the site visitor to manually turn the ceramic model to get a virtual feel of how the imagery was meant to be read. Certainly, our work suggests that this is the future for the publishing of Maya artefacts.
Classic period Maya vase that, on rotation in the viewer’s hands, visualises the transformation of the deity Itzamnaaj into the principal bird deity. Itzamnaaj’s human and bird persona display identical eyes with square pupils and wear the same necklace and headgear. The headdress feathers, on rotation, have turned into those of the bird’s wings and tail. Three stacked Time Head Stones in the two columns separating the two scenes draw attention to the Maya notion of three-part time driving the deity’s transformation. This animation was extracted and adapted from Kerr (2000:1010), file no 7821. (Jenny and Alex John / The Maya Gods of Time )
Maya artists never imagined the entire artwork would be viewed in an instant, instead they used the turning of a ceramic to inject animation in a way that is comparable to flicking the pages of a flipbook. Maya animations reveal a world of transformation, where figures shape shift and metamorphose. Until now, experts have thought that many of these figures represented different characters, rather than multiple recorded actions of a single individual. An example of this is the famous Princeton Vase, or the Vase of the Seven Gods, which should, more aptly, be re-named the Vase of the Three Gods.
Animation in Maya Monumental Art
Beyond animations decorating ceramics, there are other examples of moving pictures that have been hidden in plain sight in Maya monumental art for hundreds of years. In these instances, it is the motion of the viewer’s eyes flicking along the length of a mural wall at Santa Rita and Bonampak, across a platform at Chichen Itza, or between the two sides of a stone monument at Quiriga, that activates the animations. The key is to see what is different between sequential images and to imagine and fill in the gaps. Maya artists created visual puns requiring the viewer to find the hidden and unseen message of their civilization’s perception of time, fun to play when visiting archaeological sites and museums.
Quirigua Zoomorph P, Guatemala, showing a ruler seated in the wide-open maw of a large monster. Both sides of the monument reveal a hidden animation (see the next image below). (Jenny and Alex John / The Maya Gods of Time )
East and West Side details carved onto the surface of Quirigua Zoomorph P (previous image). As the viewer moves around the monument, the details animate a young deity, possibly the wind god, to exhale and inhale. This is done by including a flowery breath symbol placed before his nose and mouth is shown rising and falling. Simultaneously, the large reptile maw holding the head unfurls as it swells in size with the intake and exhalation of breath. This animation has been extracted and adapted from Maudslay 1889-1902, vol. II, plate 61. (Jenny and Alex John / The Maya Gods of Time )
Similarly, walking around stone monuments, or between the Yaxchilan and Bonampak doorway lintels, the equivalent of the turning motion of a ceramic, also leads the viewer to the unlocking of Maya animations. In these examples it is the motion of the viewer that creates the moving picture.
Maya animations – previously unrecognized by tourists and archaeologists – survive at most major archaeological sites across Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. The animations bring Palenque, Chichen Itza, Bonampak, Tikal, Yaxchilan, Tulum, Lamanai and Copan, to name a few, back to life by providing an extra philosophical dimension for visitors to appreciate when viewing their art. The beauty of the animations – unlike the glyphic texts , which take years of study to decipher and begin to comprehend – is that the concept of reading Maya animations is easy to understand and master.
“Interbecoming” in Maya Art
A further reason for scholars having missed the many animations woven into Maya art involves multiple examples of moving pictures occurring between pairs of what are clearly different figures. To address this issue, we have recently completed cataloguing the many animations we have detected in the Late Classic Bonampak murals in Mexico.
Details of a Bonampak mural section animating a lord to dress in two steps. The lord’s minimal movement, merely attending to the tying of his own wrist bands, accentuates the busy animation of his attendants, twirling around his person, dancing to tend all his robing needs. This comes from the Late Classic Bonampak mural, Structure 1, Room 1, north wall details. Animation extracted and adapted from fig. 133 in Miller and Brittenham (2013:78). (Jenny and Alex John / The Maya Gods of Time )
The Bonampak mural animations are trickier to read, which is why we have created aids on our website that allow the visitor to see the murals in their original and unadulterated form. The key to becoming accustomed to reading their moving pictures involves the recognition that while the figures often represent different characters, they are nevertheless connected, reflecting the Maya philosophy and belief system that saw different elements of the world as related and interconnected, including the actions of different people. The Mesoamerican scholar Marcos has coined the belief “interbecoming.” This is a dualistic frame central to Mesoamerican beliefs, which held that living and inanimate objects filling the world are both different and yet connected.
Details of a Bonampak murals section which, on passing, animate a warrior to fall to the ground within a battle scene. The figure’s increasing state of undress emphasises defeat and progressive descent. Late Classic Bonampak Structure 1, Room 2, north wall, southwest corner. (Jenny and Alex John / The Maya Gods of Time )
The “Unseen” in Mayan Literature
The same structural device we are describing here in reference to animating figures in Maya art has also been recognized in the positional arrangement of words in Mayan literature, called a merismus. Dr. Allen J. Christenson, in his translation of the Popul Vuh (Postclassic Maya Book of Council), defines a merismus as “the expression of a broad concept by a pair of complementary elements which are narrower in meaning.” He gives some examples:
‘Sky-earth’ refers to creation as a whole,
‘mountain-valley’ describes the face of the Earth as a whole,
‘deer-birds’ denotes all wild animals, while
‘dogs-turkeys’ refers to all domesticated animals.
Maya literary merismi highlight the importance of reading what is unseen or unwritten between words, which we, in our new theory, relate to the interpretation of Maya visual imagery on how to read the unseen, or unpainted and uncarved, included between figures in Maya art . Maya artists also worked as scribes, leading us to propose that they employed visual pairs of different figures to frame a broader central concept, pictured as unseen animation. Consequently, we discovered that Maya artists were using visual equivalents of their literary devices in the conception and execution of their art works.
Seeing the “Unseen” Is Key to Reading Maya Animations
Classic period Maya vase animating the transformation of a human into a supernatural and spearing of a serpent. The finely-incised vase describes the figure sitting in a canoe floating on stacked water symbols, while, once transformed, the grotesque figure wears a water bird atop his headdress. The speared reptile transforms from a coiled serpent into a larger, skeletal version. Animation extracted and adapted from Kerr (1989:79), file no. 1391. (Jenny and Alex John / The Maya Gods of Time )
In studying Maya animations over many years we have developed new perspectives on Maya culture, ultimately enabling a new theory dealing with what lies at the very heart of ancient Maya philosophy. The Maya juxtaposed the stasis of snapshot figures and what is seen with what is unseen. That is, they balanced a moment with the turning (hidden) movement needed to activate the animation. The combination of two seemingly opposite notions forms what the Maya perceived as balancing time. Our studies in Mesoamerican philosophy have permitted the identification of a dual frame placed on time by the Mesoamerican people which we call the duality of time. Evidence suggests that the Maya recognized and worshipped this notion of time for over 2,000 years.
The Number ‘Three’ Symbolized Time to the Ancient Maya
Compiling our database, we noticed that many animations were arranged in threes. In the past, the number three has been associated with the wind god, the unseen motion of wind neatly fitting into our theory on animation. However, until now, the symbolic value of the number three had not been properly explored, despite experts having long recognized that numbers held symbolic meaning in Maya thought.
For example, the number nine is associated with the layers of the underworld and the number thirteen represents the layers of the sky. The number twenty – matching the number of toes and fingers of a person – is linked to counting and the calendar, while the number four symbolizes the four Maya world directions and colors. Our research adds the new idea that the number three was symbolic of time and was therefore also associated with transformation and sound, as evidenced in the murals’ animation.
Classic period Maya vase animating the transformation of an upright-walking jaguar beast. On rotation of the vase, the beast’s shell-like ear grows and while the antlers of its first and second depictions disappear, in the third representation its snout elongates and its fangs turn into tusks. On the original vase, the beast wears a bright red scarf linking its three representations. Simultaneously, the figures animate the lifting and lowering of the beast’s paws. Animation extracted and adapted from Kerr (1989:115), file no. 1835. (Jenny and Alex John / The Maya Gods of Time )
The new theory we present suggests that the concept of three was extended to the three-stone arrangements of temples, stelae and lintels found across the region. For example at Chichen Itza , Quirigua, Bonampak and Palenque, each stone bound to a trinity of gods linked to the notion of time. These three deities constituted the cornerstones of Maya thought and existence, and their omnipresence is nowhere more clearly evidenced than in the art and animations of the Bonampak murals, where the tripartite concepts of time, movement and sound merge to depict, reflect and honor the three quintessential lords of life and death; the God of Birth, the God of Growth and the God of Death – the Maya Gods of Time.
To see more Maya animations and in depth descriptions, visit our website and follow us on Facebook or Instagram. For those who want more information about the philosophy behind the “unseen” hidden in Maya art, buy our book .
Top image: Jenifer and Alexander John have spent the last decade investigating the ancient animations hidden within Maya art, providing a new perspective onto their belief systems. This image is of a Late Classic Chama-style vase in which the researchers have discovered an animated sequence. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Chinchilla Mazariegos, O. 2017. Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya . New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Christenson, A J. 2007. Popol Vuh, The Sacred Book of the Maya: The Great Classic of Central American Spirituality, Translated from the Original Maya Text. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
John, J. and A. 2018. The Maya Gods of Time . Koyopa Press.
John, J. and A. 2019. The Maya Gods of Time . Available at: www.mayagodsoftime.com
Kerr, J. 2000. The Maya Vase Book: A Corpus of Rollout Photographs of Maya Vases , Vol. 6. New York: Kerr Associates.
Marcos, S. 2006. Taken from the Lips: Gender and Eros in Mesoamerican Religions . Leiden, Boston: Brill.
Maudslay, A. P. 1889-1902. Biologia Centrali-Americana: Archaeology, Vols. I-VI. London: R H Porter and Dulau and Company.
Nielson, J and S Wichmann, 2000. “America’s first comics? Techniques, contents, and functions of sequential text-image pairing in the Classic Maya period” in Magnussen A. and Christiansen, H-C. (eds.). Comics and Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics, 59-77 . Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen.
Robicsek, F., Hales D. M. and Coe, M. D. 1981. The Maya Book of the Dead: The Ceramic Codex, The Corpus of Codex Style Ceramics of the Late Classic Period . Charlottesville, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, University of Virginia Art Museum.
Wichman, S. and Nielson, J. 2016. “Sequential Text-Image Pairing among the Classic Maya” in Cohn, N. (ed.). The Visual Narrative Reader . 283-313. London: Bloomsbury Academic.