Art of the Ancient Americas

The Gallery’s collection of art from the ancient Americas comprises approximately 1,500 objects, crossing cultural boundaries from the Olmec to the Inca and spanning more than 3,000 years. Its strength lies in the art of the Maya and their predecessors. The collection also includes strong representative holdings from Costa Rica, West Mexico, and the Andean regions.
Ocarina, probably a Kinkajou
Brazier with deity combining elements of Tlaloc and Maize God
Wool Pile Cap
Gold Crown
Large standing female ballplayer figurine
Head

About Art of the Ancient Americas

Inspired by renowned Yale scholar and professor George Kubler, the Yale University Art Gallery began collecting ancient American art in the 1950s, with a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Fred Olsen. The Olsen collection provided a representative base of Mesoamerican art and established the strength of the collection in the art of the Maya and the cultures of West Mexico, including outstanding Maya terracotta figurines from Jaina Island and striking Nayarit figures and house models. The collection has grown, fostered by Professor Mary Miller, with special focus on the Maya and the ballgame, including a rare clay model of a ballgame, figures of ballplayers, yokes, hachas, and other ballgame paraphernalia. South American cultures are represented by a range of vessels, sculptures, and textiles. Recent acquisitions have included the largest carved Maya femur known, along with notable Olmec and early Maya pieces and a major donation of antiquities from Costa Rica.

The permanent-collection gallery of the ancient Americas traces themes in art from ancient Mexico to Peru, across cultural boundaries from the Olmec to the Inca, spanning more than 3,000 years and exploring themes of religion, music, writing, and the arts. As in ancient cultures across the world, the art and religion of the ancient Americas focused on the natural environment—mountains, water, wind, and fire—and the animals and plants on which the people depended for survival. Corn was so fundamental to life that it became a god, with rituals devoted to its cultivation. Rain and fire were also gods. Mountains and animals such as jaguars embodied cosmic powers. All were frequent symbols in art. One display case devoted to the ballgame centers on a clay model of a game and includes players—women, too—and their equipment. Areas of the installation highlight themes of warfare, wealth, and power, featuring gold, jade, shell, and textiles, which were items of luxury and emblems of status.

Dominating the permanent-collection gallery is the rotating display of the three murals of Bonampak, the finest Maya wall paintings known today, shown at Yale in the painstaking reconstructions by artist and anthropologist Heather Hurst and artist Leonard Ashby. The originals remain in situ in Mexico, difficult to visit but renowned and studied through copies such as this and the life-size replica in Mexico City. Vividly portraying Maya court life, with colorful processions of beautifully garbed lords and ladies, musicians, and dancers, and striking scenes of war and ritual sacrifice, these murals provide the thematic framework for the gallery.

Note from the Curator

In planning the new thematic installation, working closely with Professor Mary Miller and Jorge Gomez-Tejada, Ph.D. candidate in the History of Art at Yale, we were excited to find a rich holding of objects related to music in the collection. Among these was the recent gift from the Appleton family of Denver of a ceramic flute (ocarina) from Costa Rica in the shape of a kinkajou. The kinkajou, a playful and friendly animal related to the raccoon, is curled in a circle, its face, with its large round eyes, looking toward the viewer. Its prehensile tail has become a branch that it clutches with all its limbs. The mouthpiece for playing the ocarina is on the kinkajou’s back, the playing holes on its flanks. Rare though this piece is, it is nearly identical to one at the Denver Art Museum, the gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer. In antiquity, it was probably used with other instruments at religious ceremonies and ultimately placed in a tomb.

Susan B. Matheson

The Molly and Walter Bareiss Curator of Ancient Art

Ocarina (Whistle) in the Shape of
a Kinkajou,
Costa Rica, Nicoya Region, Carrillo, ca. 1200–1500. Ceramic with pigment and incisions. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Bryce Appleton, B.A. 1965, Marc Appleton, M.Arch. 1972, Lynnie Appleton, and Lili Appleton in honor of their mother, Ariel Bryce Appleton, and her interest in Costa Rica, its people, and their art

Meet the Curators

Susan B. Matheson

Susan B. Matheson, the Molly and Walter Bareiss Curator of Ancient Art, oversees the collections of art from the ancient Mediterranean and ancient Americas. She has organized exhibitions on Greek vases, Dura-Europos, and Neoclassical and Gothic Revival Art, and she was cocurator of the exhibition I, Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome in 1996. Her books include Polygnotos and Vase-Painting in Classical Athens, volumes on Yale’s Athenian vases and ancient glass, and Art for Yale: A History of the Yale University Art Gallery. She teaches courses on Athenian vase painting for the departments of Classics and the History of Art at Yale.

susan.matheson@yale.edu

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Lisa R. Brody

Lisa R. Brody, Associate Curator of Ancient Art, received her B.A. from Yale and her Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York Univeristy. She has excavated around the Mediterranean and on Yale’s campus, and her publications include Aphrodisias III: The Aphrodite of Aphrodisias. In 2011 she co-curated Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity, which was on view at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College and Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, and she coedited the accompanying book. She is currently working on an exhibition of art from the Roman provinces.

lisa.brody@yale.edu

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Further Reading

Kubler, George, ed. Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico and Central America. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery 1986.

Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec, rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Miller, Mary, and Karl Taube. An Illustrated Dictionary of The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

Stone-Miller, Rebecca. Art of the Andes: From Chavín to Inca. 2nd ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Whittington, E. Michael. The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame, exh. cat. Charlotte, N.C.: Mint Museum of Art, 2001.

Young-Sanchez, Margaret, et al. Nature and Spirit: Ancient Costa Rican Treasures in the Mayer Collection at the Denver Art Museum. Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2010.

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