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Stucco Portrait Head
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Stucco Portrait Head

Description Conservation Exhibitions Provenance Credit
Description A fundamental feature of Mesoamerican formal architecture was the use of molded, modeled, and carved stucco decoration. Painted either monochrome red or in a variety of colors, these façades narrated key precepts of religio-political ideology, displaying the supernatural patrons and worldly authority of the aristocracy that used the structures. The façade decoration also could reveal a building's function as well as its symbolic identity. This stucco head, which was part of a larger pictorial façade narrative, illustrates the close connection between the gods and Maya aristocracy. The head with intact earflares depicts the maize god, recognized by the tau-shaped tooth, sloping forehead, and tonsured hair. He is adorned with the abundant jadeite jewelry typical of renderings of the deity, including earflares and a tubular bead headband with a large, central diadem. The Maya would often intentionally destroy a building's decorative façade and then collapse the vaulted chambers prior to constructing a new building atop the rubble. Frequently, the rubble contained fragments of the old stucco narrative now buried below the new platform. Most often it is the heads that survive in the debitage which suggests that the Maya paid particular attention to the faces of deities and royalty when they destroyed stucco façades during renovation projects. In addition, stucco façade heads have been found as offerings in tombs or other ritual caches placed inside buildings. Such special treatment indicates the prestige and likely perceived spiritual power of these stucco portraits among the Classic Period Maya.

This head was built up from multiple, successive layers of stucco, a durable material made from limestone or shell, which is heated, ground, and mixed with sand and a natural resin, forming a white, plaster-like material that can be used to coat walls and form sculptures. Once it was almost dry, painted decoration was applied. In cross-section, the white stucco is the underlying layer, on top of which were applied the layers of red-orange and green paints. The red paint has soaked into the white stucco, indicating that it was still slightly wet when the paint was applied. While the compositions of the paints have not yet been identified, the Maya are known to have used iron pigments or cinnabar for red paint and a mixture of the special paint called Maya Blue and yellow iron pigments to create green paint.

Date Description Narrative
8/31/2011Treatmentexamined for exhibition; stabilized; cross section of painted surface
  • Art of Ancient America, 1500 B.C.-1400 A.D.. Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe. 1998-2008.
  • Exploring Art of the Ancient Americas: The John Bourne Collection Gift. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville. 2012-2013.
  • Transformation: Art of the Ancient Americas. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. 2018-2019.
Provenance Stendahl Galleries, Los Angeles [date and mode of acquisition unknown]; John G. Bourne, 1970s, by purchase; Walters Art Museum, 2009, by gift.
Credit Gift of John Bourne, 2009

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550-850 CE (Late Classic)
stucco, paint
Accession Number
H: 11 x W: 9 7/16 x D: 7 1/16 in. (28 x 23.9 x 17.9 cm)
Location Within Museum
Not On View


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