Mayan Artwork

who were the maya?

In around 1500 BCE, small agrarian communities began forming in Central America. These communities would make up what is now known as the Mayan civilization. In modern society, we refer to the Maya people, although this is not a name they gave themselves. It is also worth noting that they did not see themselves as a united group, but rather as many small ones.


The Maya, as well as other pre-Colombian civilizations such as the Aztecs, are thought to be the successors of the Olmec people. They occupied a large part of Mesoamerica, spanning from southern Mexico down to Nicaragua.


The Mayan religion was highly complex. They believed in a heaven made up of 13 tiers, each with its own god, as well as an underworld of nine tiers.

why did the maya make art?

The Maya produced art for several reasons. Ancient Mayan art was rooted in their religious beliefs. Murals depicting their multiple gods and mythology were used to decorate the insides and outsides of temples.

the snake

The Mayan god Kukulcan was commonly depicted as a snake with feathers. This gave him the ability to travel between earth, the underworld, and the heavens.

the jaguar

It was believed that shamans and even some kings had the ability to shapeshift into jaguars. This is often shown by making one side of the face human and the other that of a jaguar.

mayan twins

It is believed that the twins eventually became the sun and the moon, which resulted in the beginning of a new era. The Mayan royal family was said to descend from the twins.

the eagle

The Maya also believed that eagles were divine beings as they could enter the heavens. They were primarily associated with the sun god Kinich Ahau who was responsible for producing heat and light for the earth.


The most common colors used by the Maya were red (made using clay, berries, and insects) and black (made using obsidian). These resources were in abundance for the Maya.


A stela is a large stone slab, which is dug into the ground so that it can stand vertically. They would typically be made of limestone as it was soft and easy to carve, yet still very durable.

wood carving

Few wooden Mayan carvings survive in the modern day. This is due to the wood rotting as well as the fact that all wooden idols would have been destroyed by Spanish conquistadors.

stone statues

Stone sculptures frequently depicted either kings of the past and present or important deities. The stones most commonly used were limestone and sandstone as they were relatively soft and easy to sculpt.

ceramic statue

Copious ceramic statues have been found in several different Mayan cities. Often Mayan artists created small clay sculptures to adorn the tops of pot lids.

jade statues

Jade was known by the Maya as the stone of eternity, due to its links with the supernatural. It was a very meaningful stone in the Mayan religion, particularly with more green variations.

famous mayan artworks

The Stelae of Quiriguá, Guatemala

The Funerary Mask of the Red Queen

The Heads of the Lords of Xibalba