Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Maya art at the National Palace

Mexico’s National Palace is hosting the grandest Maya exhibit I’ve ever seen. Mayas: Revelation of Time Without End brings together 470 pieces of ancient Maya art as well as a smattering of colonial and contemporary Maya art. Half the items on display are of recent discovery, many being displayed for the very first time. Many other items come from collections of Mexico’s various museums of Maya archeology. I was delighted to see so many pieces from museums I thought I knew well but where I never had access to what was in storage.

“They came out of storage rooms and have been cleaned and restored for this exhibit,” said Mercedes de la Garza, curator of the exhibit. Foremost among the storage rooms was the basement of the National Museum of Anthropology, which holds more items than are on display.

Every visitor will certainly leave with favorite pieces in mind. Stellar is the Tablet of the Throne, discovered in 2002 in Palenque’s Temple XXI. The exquisite detail, accompanied by hieroglyphic text, shows two deities along with Pacal Kin (the Palenque ruler buried in the tomb under the Temple of the Inscriptions) and two other governing dignitaries in a ceremony of blood-letting self-sacrifice.
I’m haunted by the life-sized sculpture in limestone of a man who has just offered his heart in sacrifice. It is on loan from the INAH’s regional museum in Campeche.

I was most intrigued by two figurines, each about six inches high, portraying a god embracing a woman. They are so similar that they must have come from the same potter’s workshop. However, one belongs to the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s (UNAM) Tlatelolco museum and the other to the Canton Palace museum in Mérida. They made me think of the technique developed by Dorie Reents-Budet of using neutron activation to determine if two pieces of pottery came from the same workshop or even from the same ball of clay.

A welcomed warming of international relations was palpable in last month’s inauguration ceremony as well as in the exhibit itself. French ambassador Elisabeth Beton sat on the speakers’ platform with President Peña Nieto, governors of states in the Maya area, and the heads of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and Council of Culture and Arts (Conaculta). It was a subtle way to underline a warming in Franco-Mexican relations under Peña Nieto’s presidency. 

In his remarks President Peña Nieto said the Maya exhibit will travel to Brazil and France before returning to tour Mexico. I was pleased to hear President Peña Nieto recognize the importance of Mexico’s ancient history when he said: “This exhibit — along with all the other work we are doing — will be a stimulus projecting Mexico to the rest of the world. More importantly it will make Mexican’s pride in our roots and our identity flourish.”

Approximately 20 percent of the pieces on display are on loan from three Guatemalan museums. This confirms a thawing of relations in archeological circles where a longstanding irritant has been the display in Mexico’s Templo Mayor museum of the Nobel Peace Prize medal won by Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchu. Menchu deposited it there in 1992 saying: “It will be transferred to Guatemala when conditions of respect of human rights and peace exist. They do not exist at the present time.” The medal is still on display but that text has been removed from the plaque.

The National Palace is a wonderful place to house this magnificent exhibit. You enter and leave through side-by-side narrow doors, spanned by a single arch, between two of Diego Rivera’s murals in the National Palace’s central courtyard. Set in what seems like a rabbits’ warren of spacious galleries, with no view to the outside, the exhibit winds around another of the palace’s many courtyards not even visible to the visitor until the very end of the exhibit.

Rafael Tovar y de Teresa, President of Conaculta, described the layout of the exhibit’s division into six sections: the Maya relationship with nature; Maya community and daily life; the ceremonial heart of the Maya cities; the Maya relationship with time and astronomy; and Maya sacred forces — in which two burials are exhibited just as they were found. The exhibit ends with colonial and contemporary textiles, musical instruments, and items of religious nature produced as the Mayas blended with Christianity.

Tovar also gave us the wonderful news that this exhibit is the first of a series that will be held in the National Palace during this presidential administration. It will be followed by equally impressive exhibits of Mixtec and Zapotec cultures, Teotihuacan, the Aztecs, cultures of Northern Mexico, and the Totonacs. 

Mayas: Revelation of Time Without End lives up to Mexico’s enviable reputation for the quality of its museums — in content, quality of the displays, as well as a logical progression in the presentation of the displays. It exceeds other Mexican museums in its friendliness. Admission is free for all visitors and photography is welcomed (without flash or tripods). Its schedule brackets Mexico’s busiest family vacation times. It opened last month before the year-end holidays, and will close April 27, 2014, after Holy Week. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Writing an icon

This week a wonderful cultural blend is happening in Cuernavaca. A group from Southern California is joining with Episcopalians in Cuernavaca to learn the Russian tradition of icon painting while visiting places with Mexican iconic art.

They are not actually coming here to learn to paint icons, they are coming to learn to write icons. Workshop participant Mike Roeder, an icon collector and scholar himself, explained “the verb ‘to write’ an icon has been adopted by English speakers partly because icons in the Orthodox or Russian tradition depict various aspects of the life of Christ who is also known as The Word. Iconographers are expressing ‘the word’ in their work and thus iconography is a cross between painting and writing.

The Russian language has many words for paint but Russians use the verb to write to mean ‘to paint meaningfully.’   Russians would say that icons are theology expressed in line and color.  Icon, in the original Christian sense, meant a visible image of the invisible – God.”  Creating an icon is a spiritual discipline as well as an artistic effort.

Early Christian icons dating to within 100 years of the life of Jesus have been found in Egypt and Crete.  As Christianity spread iconography also spread east and west, growing particularly strong in the Byzantine Empire. Icons are written to tell a story in an unfolding of dark to light… ignorance to truth.

The workshop is taught by U.S. iconographer Teresa Harrison. Teresa has been painting icons for over 20 years and has a large commission installed in St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. She learned from Philip Zimmerman, a Pennsylvania icon writer in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and from master iconographer Ksenia Pokrovsky, a self-taught Russian iconographer who was instrumental in reviving icon painting after repression during the Soviet era.

I’m delighted to take the group to places to see both ancient Mesoamerican and modern Mexican iconic depictions. I’m especially delighted to hear from workshop organizer Carol Hopkins, my collaborator on Charlie’s Digs, that people were turned away because the workshop was filled—a welcomed change from a couple of years ago when it was harder to attract people to travel to Mexico. I think this bodes well for the resurgence of tourism in Mexico.

Mexico is appropriately rich with icons. In Cuernavaca’s Cortez Palace participants will see and follow Diego Rivera’s iconic story of Mexico from the conquest to the Revolution.  At Xochicalco’s Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent the story will unfold depicting Quetzalcoatl as patron god of a meeting of astronomer-priests gathered to adjust the Mesoamerican calendar.

Mexico’s famed Anthropology Museum also tells a story. I particularly like the way one can wend from room to room following Quetzalcoatl. He’s first portrayed as The Feathered Serpent, then transforms from god to person and then to god-person.  Cuernavaca’s Cathedral, which is housed in a 16th century Franciscan church and monastery, reveals the story leading to the martyrdom of Mexico’s first native-born saint -- San Felipe de Jesus.

The workshop, held at the La Mancha B&B in Cuernavaca, begins each morning with prayer and celebration of the Eucharist. Then following breakfast the group will discuss various facets of icon writing, the history of icons, and the spiritual implications of icon writing.  Participants will “write” their icons mostly in silence or accompanied by Gregorian chanting.

Participants from the U.S. are residents of Southern California.   Those from Mexico are members of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Cuernavaca.  The workshop is also coordinated by The Reverend Tamara Newell, formerly of Christ Church, Mexico City and retired from St. Michaels. Reverend Newell was the first female Episcopalian priest ordained in Latin America.

At the workshop several different icons are being written.  In honor of Mexico’s beloved Guadalupe some have elected to create icons of Our Lady.  Mike Roeder is working on John the Baptist.  Others are focusing on St. Francis, and several who have walked the Camino de Santiago Compostela are writing St. James. Others are reproducing the beautiful, mysterious 6th century icon of The Sinai Christ, housed at St. Catherine’s in Egypt at the base of Mt. Sinai.

Ms. Harrison says “Iconography has spread the Christian faith for centuries; it’s fascinating to be in a culture where a different form of iconography has been used to maintain a cultural history of its people.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to come to Mexico with dear friends and share the experience with residents of Mexico.”

In further conversation with Ms. Harrison I discovered that our paths had previously crossed in of all places Barranquilla, Colombia where we attended the Karl C. Parrish Elementary School at the same time.  My only incursion into oil painting was in Mrs. Rozzano’s fourth grade class.  My painting from that class hangs to this day in my study.  Can Teresa’s love for art be traced back to Mrs. Rozzano?

You are invited to meet the workshop’s iconographers at St. Michael’s and All Angels Church in Cuernavaca, at 10 a.m. Sunday, January 12 when their icons will be presented and blessed.