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HOME : Pre-Columbian Art : Pre-Columbian Masterpieces : Mayan Vessel in the Shape of a Howling Dog
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Mayan Vessel in the Shape of a Howling Dog - PF.4602 (LSO)
Origin: Kaminaljuya region, Guatemala
Circa: 200 BC to 250 AD
Dimensions: 16.5" (41.9cm) high
Catalogue: V24
Collection: Pre-Columbian
Medium: Terracotta

Additional Information: SOLD

Location: United States
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This dynamic sculpture was designed and executed during the meteoric rise of the Maya Empire, which sprawled across southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, western Honduras and the Yucatán Peninsula. Despite being intensely vulnerable to natural disasters, this notoriously changeable area produced one of the foremost civilisations of the New World, with technological and cultural advances that far outstripped their neighbours and contemporary societies farther afield. The main strides were in the development of monumental architecture, writing and astronomy, and the earliest reliable calendrical system in the New World. Their artistic achievements were no less striking, as in the present case.

The piece represents a Mexican Hairless Dog, known locally as a Xoloitzcuintle. These occupied an important position in the mythology, history, iconography and – perhaps most importantly – the diets of many Native American groups, including the Maya, the Nayarit and the Moche. They appear as symbols in calendars and glyphs, accompanied humans in many a mythological story, and were kept as pets; the extreme corpulence of some dog sculptures suggests that they may have been intentionally fattened for the table. The current piece is a case in fact.

Stylistically, the Classic Period is associated with naturalistic and monumental works of art, both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic; pieces dating to this period were influenced by Teotihuacan and the Aztecs. The Pre-Classic period, however, is noted for more expressionist works that owe a considerable stylistic debt to the Olmec culture that preceded the Maya in the same general area (1,200 – 400 BC). As a result, both groups share a penchant for deliberately adjusting shape, line and proportion to emphasise what they viewed to be important, or distorting the ordinary to make it supernatural. Notable Olmec examples of this expressionist tendency include were- jaguar figures, while this piece is a good Mayan example.

The piece is formed from two large oval shapes – the fat, barrel-shaped body and the head, which is perched upon a comparatively long neck and with mouth agape. The fluidity of the forms is remarkable, for while the shapes themselves are monolithic in their massivity, the effect is both graceful and dynamic. The legs are likewise nugatory, and are appliquéd onto the surface of the body with only vestigial eminences protruding as supports. The morphological features are also strongly reductivist or interpreted. The neck is – as stated – elongated, while the head is so remodelled that is almost resembles that of a duck, with more emphasis being given to maintaining a good silhouette. The eyes are plain, applied eminences, separated by a raised ridge with hatched design running down the middle of the head to the tip of the nose. The ears are pendulous in form yet mainly stand out due to the detailing incised into their surfaces. Pairs of swirls denote the presence of whiskers on the muzzle, while the lips are denoted by an incised line circling the mouth.

The domesticated status of this particular dog is indicated by the ornate collar encircling his neck. Any further doubt as to his cosseted status is dispelled by his remarkable rotundity; his torso is largely unadorned save for a second ornate collar which encircles his trunk roughly level with his shoulders and chest, and a edentate ridge running from the nape of the neck to the base of the short tail. The piece is constructed from a hard, dark ceramic, and has developed a notable gloss from repeated usage. The shape of the piece suggests that it might have been used for containing and pouring liquids such as maize beer or similar, or alternatively that it received libations as a sacred or socially important object. The subject matter and the manner in which it has been portrayed suggest that it was a piece of some note to its makers and eventual owners. Its good condition suggests that it was probably part of a grave offering group, intended to serve the deceased after death, or perhaps reflecting some mythical character or story now lost to us. Whatever the motivation, however, this is a truly remarkable piece of ancient sculpture. - (PF.4602 (LSO))


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