The Maya society was wide-ranging in its territories —occupying lands from eastern Mexico down through Central America. Over more than 1,000 years, the Maya built city-states and created works of art that propitiated the gods, illustrated mythological and historical events, cemented political alliances, and honored important individuals. “Jaina figures” form one particular class of objects. They are so-called after the mortuary Island of Jaina, located off the coast of Campeche, where many such figurines commemorated and accompanied the dead to the afterlife.
Some Jainas depict deities, but most portray human subjects. Vast quantities were made in multiples by pressing moist clay into molds. But the finest Jaina figures were completely hand-modeled, as is the case with this seated dignitary.
This extraordinary, sensitive figure depicts a mature man, seated upright with his right leg crossed over his left, the left hand (now lost) resting atop the right foot, and the right arm bent with the palm held outward at chest level, the fingers delicately curled to accept or offer some object. His expression is somber, with slightly squinting eyes and downcast mouth, suggesting that he was a supplicant. His individualized face has slim contours, high cheekbones, a strong nose, the bridge of which is embellished with dots of scarification (a frequent embellishment among the Maya elite), and a jutting chin. The distinctiveness of his features indicates that this figure may very well be a portrait His physique is characterized by a long, robust torso and slender limbs. But the body is generalized, i.e., it lacks the level of detail the artist provided for the face.
The personage wears a simple fez-shaped cap, large (jade) earspools, a bead that was originally part of a necklace, and a loincloth, the apron of which is finely incised with a zigzag design and three punched dots that may represent a tie-dyed design in each triangle of the zigzag.
This Jaina figure is one that conveys a haunting, human quality. As such, it may be characterized as a Maya masterwork.
Daniel Finamore and Stephen D. Houston, Fiery Pool —The Maya and the Mythic Sea [New Haven, 2010] pp. 188f, no. 64.
Mary Miller and Simon Martin, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya [San Francisco, 2004], p. 42, plate 13.