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Mayan art – learn about the origins of Mayan paintings and sculptures

Around 1500 BCE, small towns in the countryside of Central America began to form. The Mayan civilization would be made up of these groups of people. We call the Maya people by this name, even though it’s not what they called themselves. Also, it’s important to remember that they didn’t see themselves as one big group but as many small ones.

Chichen Itza: The Temple Of Kukulkan
Chichen Itza: The Temple Of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza was built to be dedicated to the God of Mayan. © Wikimedia Commons

People think the Maya and other pre-Columbian cultures, such as the Aztecs, came after the Olmec people. They lived in a big part of Mesoamerica, from the southern part of Mexico down to Nicaragua. More than 40 different Mayan towns existed. Even though they spoke different dialects, they all believed and practiced religion the same way.

Between 250 and 900 CE, during what is called the Classical Mayan period, the Mayan civilization was at its strongest. Around two million Maya lived at this time. They had religion, art, math, and science, which are all signs of a strong society.

Mathematics and astronomy

The Maya developed a sophisticated system of mathematics based on a place value of 20. They were one of few ancient cultures to use the concept of zero, allowing them to count into the millions.Using their sophisticated mathematical system, the ancient Maya developed precise and accurate calendars.
The Maya developed a sophisticated system of mathematics based on a place value of 20. They were one of few ancient cultures to use the concept of zero, allowing them to count into the millions. Using their sophisticated mathematical system, the ancient Maya developed precise and accurate calendars. © Wikimedia Commons

The Maya had math, science, and astronomy, which are signs of a strong civilization. They used these to make their religious calendars and big buildings, which will be discussed later in the article.

The Mayan calendar and mathematics

The Maya were one of the first groups to use a number system with a zero. A shell hieroglyph showed this. Other numbers were made of dots and dashes. They had a well-developed number system that made it easy for them to figure out big numbers. Many of us have listened to the Mayan calendar, which said the world’s end would happen in 2012.

Sun stone
Among their other accomplishments, the ancient Mayas invented a calendar of remarkable accuracy and complexity. © Wikimedia Commons

The Maya had three calendars that all worked together. They had a “Haab,” 18 months with 20 days each. This was figured out by watching how the planets moved, and it is the same as our solar calendar. But you might notice that the Haab only has 360 days and not 365 like ours. This is because every year, there are five days called the web.


The Maya were very interested in astronomy. They thought that certain events happened simultaneously as certain cosmic events. So they could see into the future by keeping track of the stars. The sun, the moon, and Venus were the main things that made them laugh. But they knew that there were other planets out there.

They thought chaos would break out when Venus was visible as the morning star. They used this event in the sky to figure out when to fight with other tribes. During this time, a lot of people were killed as sacrifices.

Politics and government

The Mayan civilization consisted of many tribes and chiefdoms that did not see themselves as one empire. Most of the time, bigger tribes would take over smaller ones and rule over them. But since there were always fights, Mayan politics were always changing. Even so, each tribe seemed to have a pretty consistent hierarchy.

Mayan art, which will be discussed separately, clearly shows that their king was all-powerful. Like in the West, the next king was chosen from the male descendants of the previous king. When a new king was crowned, there were a lot of parties and ceremonies.

Kings were in charge of many things related to religion and war. People thought that you needed their blood to talk to the gods. Even people who might be heirs had to start giving their blood for rituals when they were about five years old. A king was also expected to be a strong army leader and a fierce fighter. His court was mostly made up of warriors, priests, and people with a lot of money. When court members disagreed, they would either do a ritual dance or kill a person as a sacrifice.

Fall of the Mayan civilization

Around 900 CE, the Mayan culture began to fall apart quickly. The number of people living there went down, and they went back to living in simple farming communities. Historians say that several things caused this collapse. Changing weather patterns could have been the most important reason the Mayan empire fell apart.

Around 900 CE, they started to have droughts, which were likely made worse by cutting down trees. This meant that they couldn’t take care of so many people. Mayans had also been fighting with each other for hundreds of years, which was starting to hurt them.

People think that war changed trade networks and even moved water sources. This meant that there were fewer resources, which hurt many tribes. So, when the Spanish came in the 1500s, they were already in bad shape.

Mayan art

Maya; Male figure; Wood-Sculpture
Mirror-Bearer, Maya; Male figure; Wood-Sculpture © Wikimedia Commons

Now that you know about Mayan culture, it’s time to talk about the most important part of the article: Mayan art. This part will examine a few different things about Maya art. What did their art mean, and why did they make it? What kinds of works of art did they make? Lastly, what are the most famous Mayan works of art we’ve found?
Why did the Maya people make art?

We have a natural desire to make ourselves and our surroundings look nice. Not even the Maya were different. They put intricate works of art in their homes, temples, palaces, ceremonial courtyards, and even on themselves.

Art is one sign that a society is doing well. It means that the people in that society were not only staying alive but also doing well. If someone has time to make art, it stands to reason that they have enough money to spend collecting and making things just for fun. This is why most of the art we find from the Maya came from the Classical period when they were doing well.

The Maya made art for many reasons, not just to make their surroundings look nicer. Most of the ancient Mayans’ art came from their religious beliefs. Temples inside and outside are decorated with murals of their many gods and stories about them.

Art was also a way for the Maya to record their history. The Maya had a way of writing that used more than 1,000 symbols called hieroglyphs. Most of the time, these hieroglyphs were added to the art. As is common in history, only a small group of Maya elites could read these hieroglyphs. Because of this, Mayan art was the main way to tell stories.

Art would show different parts of Maya history that the Maya thought was important to remember. Art has been used to record and explain cosmological events like eclipses. Rituals were often shown with detailed diagrams that mixed mythology and reality.

Famous Mayan art

Archaeologists have done much work recently to learn more about the Mayan people. They have done this in part by using Mayan art found in the ruins of old cities.

The Stelae of Quiriguá, Guatemala

Stelae of Quiriguá, Guatemala
The Stelae of Quiriguá are one of the wonders of the Mayan world. © Wikimedia Commons

Even though the Maya used stelae a lot as a form of art, none are as impressive as the ones in the Guatemalan city of Quiriguá. First of all, they are the biggest stelae found in Central America. Stela E is the largest monolith from any culture in the Americas, which was found at this site.

This is because they were carved out of a kind of sandstone that is very strong. Because the stone was so strong, they were able to use a technique called middle or half relief to carve the stelae.

On the stelae are pictures of the kings of Quiriguá from the past. Cauac Sky, one of the most important rulers of Quiriguá, was one of these kings. During the Mayan Classical Period, Cauac Sky was king for more than 60 years. This was impressive because the average Maya life span was less than 30 years.