Ah Maxam

A vessel with water lilies and delicate inscriptions painted by Ah Maxam.
Also known as
Aj Maxam

Active in the mid- to late eighth century, Ah Maxam was a member of the royal lineage of the kingdom of Naranjo, in the Petén region of Guatemala. Although we know little about his life, his works Vessel of the Dancing Lords (AD 750/800) and Water-Lily Vessel (AD 750/800) attest to his refined abilities as an artist.

The simple and elegant designs of his vessels, executed with a perfectly controlled brush, incorporate natural elements, religious scenes, and hieroglyphic text, highlighting important features and beliefs of Mayan culture. As its name implies, Water-Lily Vessel is painted with water lilies, which for the Maya symbolized the watery surface of the underworld and the earth’s regenerative powers. The informative inscription on Water-Lily Vessel—the first to be deciphered on a Classic Maya vessel—states the artist’s name, declaring that Ah Maxam is a member of the nobility of Naranjo. It also mentions his mother and father, whose names appear on other dynastic monuments from the region.

According to ancient Maya belief, the gods only succeeded in populating the earth when they shaped humanity from maize, the staff of life. Ah Maxam’s Vessel of the Dancing Lords depicts a Maya ruler dressed as the maize god in three almost-identical panels. The ruler wears an enormous rack containing brilliant feathers, heraldic beasts, and related emblems, and is shown in the company of a dwarf. To the Maya aristocracy, dwarfs were special beings, with powerful connections to the earth and the underworld, the home of the ancestral dead. Consequently, the vase may refer to a rite of passage in which dwarfs assist the soul of the deceased to the land of the dead. Vessel of the Dancing Lords may have been painted as a funerary offering for a noblewoman with dynastic connections in the city of Naranjo, where it was made.

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