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Video transcript

we're here in the Maya galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at a very rare figure rare because it's made out of wood and it dates to the 6th century so this is really old and has survived remarkably well we have very few objects made out of wood from the classic Maya civilizations it's humid in Guatemala and we just doesn't survive we only have a handful of portable wooden sculptures from that period now his posture is very unusual but we can explain that by thinking about his role and what he was doing he's kneeling he's folding his arms and clenching his fists to his chest indicating someone who would hold a reflective plaque towards the ruler and this we call mirrors but they were actually probably made of obsidian or pyrite and they were mosaics they weren't flat mirrors the way that we think of them right they would probably be composed of many tiles holding a mirror to a ruler makes sense when you think about the kings of the Maya kingdoms and their divine status and so you can imagine a royal figure looking at himself imposing in front of this mirror in addition to using them while getting dressed or to adjust the royal regalia they may have had a cosmological or spiritual significance as devices used for divining or guiding decisions in the royal court or even as portals to another world exactly and we have some evidence from later cultures that these were indeed conceived of as portals to different realms we know that there were likely real human figures who performed this role at the Royal Court and likely dwarfs like in many courtly societies across the world people born with forms of genetic dwarfism were thought of as very special and desired people to have in royal courts so the Maya rulers are often shown getting dressed or performing ceremonial duties with dwarf attendants and it's clear that he is special he's fabulously dressed he's got on this large pectoral his ear Flair's eye dangling decorations from the ear flares this woven garment I think the woven garments are actually we have zero that survived from Classic Maya context so we have to infer what they would have looked like from representations like this right because textiles don't survive in a human environment one of the most unique aspects of his attire is this sash that goes around his neck and comes behind his arms and connects to the skirt that he's wearing we've not seen that in other depictions so it's a very unique garment he leans back in order to hold up the mirror but also seems like a pose of honoring the king the arms are often brought to the chest either both arms or one arm in a sign of deference to the ruler when we talk about the Maya we're not talking about one kingdom we're talking about many kingdoms and rivalries between the kingdoms the prevailing model for the political organization is not one unified territory or Empire like in other cultures but we do see competing city-states that are headed by these divine rulers at the center of their royal courts and they would commissioned works to both reinforce their own status as the divine rulers in their territory but they would also use art as diplomatic gifts so let's look closely at that pectoral that he wears the pectoral is likely representing a mosaic made of jade or green stone that shows the face of either a person or a deity surrounded by jewelry that the petrel wears itself green stone was incredibly valuable and even had supernatural associations for the Maya and for many Mesoamerican culture yes Jade was more valuable than pretty much any other material including gold for the Maya it was closely associated with maize agriculture as the staple crop and it was the embodiment of the maize God himself so is that also Jade that he's likely wearing in the ear flares most likely we see these types of circular assemblages in Jade a lot the other possibility is that it could be representing an ear flare assemblage of marine shell and there's an interesting figure at the very base those dangling circles that come down from the ear flare that is a probably reptilian creature we don't know a secure identification or name for it but it is often in royal regalia it is distinguished by its curled snout and the lack of a lower jaw we can see red pigment here still so this would have been much brighter originally the Maya often adorned sculptures with red pigments this is an iron based pigment probably hematite and there are even flecks of specular hematite which look like glitter that are still present on the surface of the wood and we can even see it in the notches they would have helped to hold the mirror in place and it seems to have been rubbed all over the torso as well when my scholar looks at this you're going to compare it to other works with similar court scenes there's one vaz in particular that seems to show a figure that's similar to this one there is a painted vessel in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia that shows a king sitting on his throne surrounded by courtiers and musicians and directly in front of him is a smaller figure that could be a representation of a wooden mirror Bearer in the company of other quarters including a human dwarf who is drinking from Bowl that scene is wonderful because it gives us an idea of the way in which this may have been used in the life of the court when the courtly person who commissioned it specified this they probably were representing an embodiment of an ideal courtier the ideal mirror Bearer this has been in the Mets collection for decades but we don't know exactly where it was found which is unfortunate because if we had a fine spot we might know a lot more about it this was likely found in a royal tomb probably either in northern Guatemala or southern Mexico so likely a very dry sealed environment that kept this protected so that we could enjoy it here today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art you