Lot 72
  • 72

Maya Polychrome Ritual Container of a Diving God, Mayapan Late Postclassic, Circa 1200 - 1500 AD

150,000 - 200,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • ceramic
  • Height: 5 1/2 in (14 cm)


Alphonse Jax, New York, acquired in the late 1960s
European Private Collection, acquired from the above prior to 1981


Musées royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels, Trésors du nouveau monde, September 15 - December 27, 1992
Musée Rath, Geneva, Mexique, terre des dieux. Trésors de l'art précolombien, October 8, 1998 - January 24, 1999


Lin & Emile Deletaille, eds., Trésors du nouveau monde, Brussels, 1992, p. 248, fig. 212
Musée Rath, ed., Mexique, terre  des dieux. Trésors de l'art précolombien, Geneva, 1998, p. 228, no. 263
Eleanor Elbert, The Postclassic Maya Diving Maize God, (unpublished MA thesis), Princeton, 2012, fig. 7


Overall excellent condition. Extended feather flange of bird headdress on right side missing lower portion as shown. Small break and repair just above loss. Some overpaint to the tip of the bird beak. Otherwise hand and extremeties all in good condition.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

'The Maya diving maize god was part of a pan-Mesoamerican, cross-cultural understanding of maize agriculture as both literally and metaphorically responsible for continued survival through rebirth and fertility.'

(Elbert, The Postclassic Maya Diving Maize God, 2012, p. 25)

This rare and delicate vessel is part of set, and one of only two left in private hands, with the others all in US institutions and museum collections. 

The finely modeled inverted figure known as the diving god, honors the essential substances of life-giving maize, the most important crop in ancient Mesoamerica,  and cacao, the sacred chocolate drink of the Maya elite and royalty. The diving god is holding the cacao pod gently between both hands. The figure’s legs are bent back and upward in an acrobatic, contorted posture, forming the symbolic branching cacao tree itself.

The containers were made during the Postclassic era in a distinct coloring and painting style influenced by the Central Mexican codices. However the essential imagery on the cups was based on important early Maya images of maize and cacao. In her The Postclassic Maya Diving God (unpublished MA thesis, Princeton, 2012), Eleanor Elbert thoroughly discussed this cup (Vessel 5), among the set of seven vessels; she notes they refer 'to the maize god as a costumed participant in dance, self-referentially linking the objects with what was probably an aspect of the very ceremony in which they were used' (ibid., p. 49). The vessels 'made manifest an avenue for communication with the god represented on them, and their exquisite craftsmanship was intended to please him so that he would bless them with rainfall and agricultural good fortune' (ibid.)

While the vessels are significant as sacred cached objects, they should viewed within a larger framework of complex religious ideas expressed by the Maya artist; the vessels 'incorporated stylistic and iconographic components purposefully, seeking to establish the elite status of the objects through a highly-educated process of manufacture and engagement with style and subject matter of iconographic images' (ibid., p. 72).

A Postclassic Diving God Vessel

Dicey Taylor, Ph.D

This vessel is one of seven small vases said to have been found on the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico. All are unslipped redware cups with pedestal bases and 'diving god' figures modeled in relief, their legs directed upward. As in this example, the god’s face appears in the open mouth of an avian messenger, whose upper beak is capped by two maize plants sprouting silken threads, painted in blue and black. The face has lines running through the eyes and the ear spools are painted blue. The diving figure in this example holds a cacao pod; in others, the gods hold small round cakes of maize tamales. The vases are all about five inches high and are so similar that they were probably made by the same artist. Three of the seven belong to the Jay Kislak Foundation Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; a fourth is in the Princeton University Art Museum in New Jersey; and a fifth resides at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. Only two, including this one, are privately held. Painted in post-fire pigments of black, red, blue, white and yellow, they probably date to the 14th or early 15th century.

The diving god image became popular in the Yucatan Peninsula during the early phases of the Postclassic period (AD 800–900), appearing as sculpted stucco figures on building façades at Coba, Sayil and Chichen Itza. The deity was also featured on façades at later centers such as Mayapan, Tulum and Santa Rita. He is the Maize God, or First Father, a central figure in the Maya creation story. Before the dawn of present time, according to the myth, First Father was called to the underworld, where the death gods decapitated him and placed his head in a cacao tree. Later, miraculously resuscitated by his sons, the Hero Twins, he danced out of the underworld, bringing maize and cacao - the staple crops of the Maya - to earth. Classic Maya art (AD 250–800) typically portrays the reborn Maize God emerging from a cracked turtle shell representing the surface of the earth. However, there are well-documented images of him as a diving god, his symbolic death, descending a cacao tree into the underworld at the end of the summer maize season. The murals of San Bartolo in Guatemala (circa 100 BC) show him as a diving figure, attesting to the antiquity of the creation story, which endured and was recorded by the Maya after the Spanish conquest in a book called the Popul Vuh. This diving god vessel thus evokes the death and resurrection of First Father and his gifts of maize and cacao to the ancient Maya.