"Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya" places some of the finest pieces of Maya art into a coherent and focused story about the life of the kings and courts that ruled the splendid city-states in what is now Mexico and Central America during the height of Maya civilization from the years AD 600 to 800. Maya art has long been admired for its beauty and scenes of realistic action. "There is a poignancy about Maya art that reaches into your heart and soul," says Kathleen Berrin of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, a curator of the exhibition. "There is an elegance and beauty that appeals to Western taste."
Women played a prominent role at court. This is illustrated by three deeply carved doorway lintels from the city of Yaxchilan in Mexico, not far from [Palenque]. They come from the house of Lady Xok (pronounced "shoke"), the wife and queen of Shield Jaguar the Great, ruler of Yaxchilan. Two lintels were lent to the exhibition by the British Museum, the third by the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. They have not been seen together since a British explorer spirited two away from the Yaxchilan site in the 1880s. In the first lintel, Lady Xok, performing a vital ritual, is offering her blood as a sacrifice while Shield Jaguar hovers over her with a torch. She yields blood by pulling a rope with thorns through her tongue. In the second lintel, the Maya gods reward Lady Xok with a vision of a warrior, presumably Shield Jaguar, emerging from the mouth of a serpent. In the third lintel, Lady Xok hands a shield and a helmet fashioned from the head of a jaguar to Shield Jaguar, her husband and king now dressed as a warrior.
The head's beauty stems from its idealized simplicity. [Pakal] bears the sloping forehead that the Maya imposed on their children with cradle boards. He sports an enormous nose, a feature so admired by the Maya that they sometimes attached a false piece over the bridge to make their noses seem longer. His thick hair sweeps upward in the form of ears of corn much like the headdress usually worn by the Maya maize god with whom most kings identified.