Mayan Yaxchilán Lintels

Yaxchilán was a major urban center of the Mayan Empire during its Classical Period, between 250 and 900 CE. Under the rule of Emperor Bird Jaguar IV, public buildings adorned with relief sculptures began to spring up around the settlement. Pieces of these sculptures are known as lintels, and art historians have been studying them for years in order to gain insight into the mysterious and often brutal Mayan culture.

Yaxchilán lintel 16 (commissioned by Bird Jaguar IV for Structure 21), after 752 C.E., Maya, Late Classic period, limestone, 76.2 x 75.7 cm, Mexico © Trustees of the British Museum.

Known simply as Lintel 16, this shallow relief sculpture depicts Emperor Bird Jaguar IV standing over a submissive captive. The non-naturalistic, idealized king figure stands with dignity, his arm and sword directly above the cowering prisoner who looks up fearfully. Note how intricately patterned Bird Jaguar’s garbs are in  comparison to the other figure. The Mayan military’s strategy relied heavily on taking prisoners, for these were the individuals used in ritual sacrifice.

Yaxchilán lintel 24, structure 23, after 709 C.E., Maya, Late Classic period, limestone, 109 x 78 x 6 cm, Mexico © Trustees of the British Museum

Lintel 24 also depicts a violent Mayan ritual known as bloodletting. One of the most famous pieces of Mayan artwork, it shows Lady Xoc pulling a string covered in sharp obsidian shards through her tongue, an accession ritual. A detailed image is displayed at the top of this post. The woman wears a huipil which is woven intricately, indicating her status. She performs the ritual, lines of blood seen spilling from her mouth, over sheets of a paper-like material meant to catch the blood, symbolic of the Mayan gods’ bloodletting to create the human race in their creation story. The text which is inscribed on the lintel reads, “burning spear,” probably referring to the Emperor and his spear which stands above her. It also reads the date at which the art was created, October 24, 709 CE– the Mayans had a complex understanding of astronomy and therefore had a surprisingly accurate calendar.

Bloodletting was a Mayan ritual which emerged as early as 400 BCE, and occurred at all kinds of public rituals. Pulling a string through one’s tongue was one way to do it; other ways included incising oneself with lancets made from obsidian, bones, or even stingray spines.