Maya Imagery, Architecture, and Activity: Space and Spatial Analysis in Art History ed. by Maline D. Werness-Rude and Kaylee R. Spencer (review)
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Maya Imagery, Architecture, and Activity: Space and Spatial Analysis in Art History, Maline D. Werness-Rude and Kaylee R. Spencer (eds.). University of New Msexico Press, 2015. 423 pp., $75 hardcover (ISBN 978-082-6355-79-9).

This book begins with a promising goal: to expose readers to new art historical theories that investigate how Maya imagery and urban planning expressed and constructed cultural and cognitive conceptions of space. The compiled essays, previously presented as conference sessions, consider these issues in diverse media, including ceramics, architecture, sculpture, and ritual performance. While this theoretical focus is a welcomed addition to the study of Maya art history–a field that in the past has only timidly embraced theory–the disparity in scope and quality of the contributions prevents the volume from effectively fulfilling its goal.

In place of an introduction, editors Maline D. Werness-Rude and Kaylee R. Spencer open the book in Chapter 1 with a survey of basic principles of Maya art such as writing, artistry, patronage, media, visuality, and reception. In a book that focuses on theoretical perspectives of space, readers will miss a more thorough discussion of the spatial theories that have dominated the scholarly literature in recent years, especially of those that underline the essays as a whole. The selection of a thematic bibliography for this chapter, instead of an alphabetic list of sources, leaves much of the information presented unverifiable. The rest of the chapters are grouped by themes, beginning with those that explore iconography (Chapters 2-4), followed by a section on architecture and urbanism (Chapters 5-8), one contribution on contemporary Maya ritual (Chapter 9), and closing with an epilogue.

Chapter 2, by Penny Steinbach, analyzes the iconography of the Jester God, examining the correspondences between three of its visual manifestations—anthropomorphic, piscine, and avian—and three realms of the Maya cosmos. The result is a catalog of motifs that addresses only superficially the spatial implications of the artifacts discussed. In Chapter 3 Michelle M. Bernatz contextualizes another common motif, God L, within the larger topic of Maya religion. The author rejects traditional interpretations of God L as a strictly underworld deity, to identify it instead as an Earth Lord, who had connections with all three levels of the cosmos and authority over natural resources.

Focusing on Chocholá ceramics, Chapter 4 by Werness-Rude attempts to decode this group’s spatial references by exploring the artists’ compositional choices and the ways in which ancient Maya viewers could have understood them. The result is a long, at times repetitive, stylistic analysis that seeks to define the visual attributes of a sub-style within [End Page 283] the Chocholá group: pots bearing the Isolated Bust Scene. The chapter fails to convince that the decoration of this sub-style had such sophisticated spatial implications, or that the artists’ aesthetic choices offered more than the usual markers of political affiliations and geographic distribution. Readers might ask: who were the intended viewers, and under what circumstances did they interact with these vessels?

The chapters that deal with architecture prove a more fertile ground for theoretical discussions of Maya spatiality. Chapter 5 by Flora Simmons Clancy explores plazas in the ancient city, providing an account of their development across all Maya regions and time periods, and examining how issues of design, theatricality, access, and viewership contributed to the creation and understanding of their meaning. The decoration of Maya plazas is the topic of Chapter 6, in which Kaylee R. Spencer considers the captive reliefs on the East Court of the Palace of Palenque. One achievement here is the focus on ancient viewers’ experience, and on how the reliefs elicited a way of looking that underscored Palenque’s political and military supremacy. However, Spencer does not address the problematic question of the specific viewing circumstances. Since spaces within the Palace became increasingly restrictive over time, it is difficult to imagine how the confined space of the East Court was an effective platform for grandiose political displays. Furthermore, if the reliefs were spolia, as has been accepted for some time, the author’s suggestion that they manipulated viewers to a calculated degree through scale and proportion is...