moon goddess

Depictions of the Moon Goddess in Maya Vases

        Differences in style and content between two Maya vases– Kerr 559 and Kerr K2733- will be  analyzed in this post.  A focus on the moon goddess Ix Chel in each vase’s imagery reveals multiple attributes of the deity.  On Kerr 559 Ix Chel alludes to fertility, and on Kerr K2733 the lovely deity is reminiscent of her sexuality and promiscuity.

ImageKerr 559 (above) is located at the Museum of Fine Arts at Boston as, “Moon Goddess giving birth to rabbit. Goddess O helps the rabbit nurse.” The polychrome vase’s dimensions are a height of seventeen centimeters, a diameter of ten and one half centimeters, and a circumference of about thirty-three centimeters.  The vase is in good condition except for a few minor surface scratches.

Image  Kerr K2733 (above) is located at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  Like Kerr 559, this vase is also polychrome except Kerr K2733 is a few inches larger all around.  The vase has a height of fifteen and one half centimeters, a diameter of fifteen centimeters and a circumference of about forty-nine centimeters.  The damage and erosion on the vessel is extensive, making it necessary to include a sketch of the surface detail.

Repetition in both vases is used to create unity.  Kerr K2733 has a series of three large circular forms seen in the far left figure, and serpent’s body loops to the center and right.  The undulating form of the vision serpent throughout the composition is similar to the repetition of deities in Kerr 559.  There is an equal amount of space between each figure creating equal distances of order and harmony in Kerr 559.  Instead of cluttering the scene with glyphs and iconography the artist(s) chose to create an orderly scene that was easily read.  On each vase the eyes are guided smoothly along the composition despite differences in their use of repetition.

The proportions and naturalism in each vase are different.  Kerr 559 has realistic proportions, except for the rabbit that is idealized and contrasts starkly with the realistic proportions of the deity and midwife. It is possible the artist did not wish to place emphasis on the rodent.  The rabbit’s limbs are more human than rabbit, and his eyes are simple circles, which stand out from the realistic human figures and elegant proportions. Differences in realism between figures on Kerr 559 indicates more than one artist was at work on this vase.  The imagery on Kerr K2733 is detailed but less naturalistic.  Kerr KS733’s subject matter has an effect on the degree of naturalism and realism seen in the imagery.  The artist spent no time worrying about proportion- the anthropomorphic creature under the vision serpent is much larger than the moon goddess, indicating the world painted here is not of this realm. 

Ix Chel can be seen in both vases accompanied by her rabbit.  In Kerr 559 the moon goddess is giving birth to the rabbit in the scene to the left, and in the subsequent scene she is holding the rabbit on her lap while facing goddess O, helping goddess O nurse the newborn rabbit.  The focal point of the composition is the Moon Goddess, since she has the darkest coloring and appears more than once.  In Kerr K2733, Ix Chel and her rabbit are tangled between a loop of the celestial monster, and she is sitting on a crescent moon.  There are three other loops on the celestial monster that have images of deities in each, but the moon goddess stands out from the scene.  Her poised and carefully drawn figure contrast with the cluttered and organic imagery surrounding her.  The emphasis placed on Ix Chel and the rabbit in both vases indicates the importance of the moon goddess to the Maya.

There are stark differences in the style of the vases.  Kerr 559 is a logical, narrative scene, while Kerr K2733 is abstracted and ambiguous.  Kerr Number 559 has two separate scenes, clearly separated by the chair, or throne, in the center of the image: the birth scene, and the nursery scene.  In comparison, Kerr K2733 has no beginning or end, and “Neither was it intended to be narrative or instructive; rather, the image functions to transform an ordinary container into an object that focuses power through ritual.  It is addressed not to a human user, but to the gods called forth in ritual” (Schele).  The stylistic differences indicate a difference in usage and ownership. 

Due to the complex imagery on Kerr K2733 Linda Schele has commented on it in her book Blood of Kings.  Kerr K2733 is associated with ritual, indicating the ownership was that of priests and ritual enactors.  The cluttered, unrealistic imagery is depicting the Maya underworld of Xibalba, and therefore does not need to be understood by humans (Schele).  The celestial monster that spans the length of the vase guides the eye flowing throughout the image, surrounding multiple deities.  There is no clear focal point within the scene, enabling the viewer to focus on the aesthetically pleasing organic lines and shapes.  In contrast, Kerr 559 is clearly showing a connection to fertility, birth and childcare. Kerr 559 also has celestial imagery but the artist chose to focus on Ix Chel and not a multitude of characters.

Due to the excellent physical condition of the piece, I believe Kerr 559 was kept in a domestic setting such as a house or a form of nursery.  The potential of the vase being kept and used in a domestic context such as a nursery may allude to Maya childcare norms. The narrative scene on the vase denotes that Maya women, of elite status, kept midwives to care for their infants and children.  The narrative also indicates the vase’s production purpose as an expectant mother’s gift or newly born child’s gift. 

The moon goddess symbolizes fertility and childbirth in Kerr 559, but she has other attributes not indicated by this vase.  The moon goddess also alludes to a variety of things like weaving, creation and destruction, disease, and sexual promiscuity (Sigal).  In Kerr K2733 the moon goddess is representing sexuality, and not strictly maternal attributes as in Kerr 559. The organic lines surrounding the moon goddess in Kerr K2733 exude sensuality. Male deities placed around the moon goddess within the loops of the vision serpent conjure ideas of promiscuity.  Further, the sun god was her husband, and is among the convolution of deities in this image (Schele).  

The celestial imagery on each vase is both formally beautiful and alludes to the moon goddess and her rabbit.  When viewing both vases different attributes of the moon goddess are shown: fertility on Kerr 559 and sexuality on Kerr K2733.  The artists that made these vases represent different perceptions of beauty, style and technique among the Maya. The differences between depicting the same deity indicate room for experimentation and new ideas about what was beautiful among the ancient Maya.  Further, the contrasting imagery of the same deity, Ix Chel, on each vessel indicates the multifaceted characteristics of deities prevalent in Maya religious beliefs.