Portraits of Yuknoom Ch’een

by David Stuart

Many interesting historical and artistic details are emerging from Hieroglyphic Stairway 2 from La Corona, Guatemala, just discovered this past April by the Proyecto Arqueologico Regional La Corona. The texts and images are now in the process of study, just as the various blocks are being drawn and documented for eventual publication.

One small but important detail comes from Block VIII of the new stairway, depicting a seated ruler facing to his right, toward another lord on an adjacent block. According to the incomplete text on these stones, the scene appears to show a certain type of ballgame or ritual contest (pitz) between the local La Corona lord Sak Maas and his overlord, the famous Yuknoom Ch’een of the Kan dynasty — one of the greatest of all Maya kings. The figures are both seated on the floor and hold stone hammers, presumably used in the game as well as in their apparent capacity here as Chahk impersonators (note the headdress). Ritual gaming and associated symbols of rain-making involving similar hammer-like stones have been investigated recently by Taube and Zender (2009). This pitz event took place on, or 11 Feburary, 635 AD. The figure here illustrated (below, right) is almost certainly Yuknoom Ch’een himself — the first well preserved image of him from a Maya monumental sculpture. Upon realizing the likelihood of the La Corona figure as Yuknoom Ch’een’s portrait, I was interested in comparing it to his only other known image, from a carved vessel now in Schaffhausen, Switzerland (Martin and Grube 2000:108; Prager 2004) (see below, left).

Two portraits of Yuknoom Ch'een, king of the Kan dynasty. Left: the king as the day sign Ahaw, from the Schaffhausen vessel; RIght: from Block VIII or HS2 at La Corona (D Stuart photo).
Two portraits of Yuknoom Ch’een, king of the Kan dynasty. Left: the king as the day sign Ahaw, from the Schaffhausen vessel; Right: from Block VIII or HS2 at La Corona (D. Stuart photo).

The two profiles are remarkably similar, each showing a man with a small mouth and distinctively weak chin. Clearly the different artists who produced the stairway block and the vessel each made attempts to convey true portraits of this important royal person.

In addition to simply giving us a pretty good idea of what the great Yuknoom Ch’een looked like, the two images reveal that some Maya artists outside of Palenque were sensitive to the idea of portraiture, even on small ceramic media — something that isn’t always very often seen or acknowledged.

References Cited:

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya (Second Edition). Thames & Hudson, London.

Prager, Christian M.. 2004. A Classic Maya Ceramic Vessel from the Calakmul Region in the Museum zu Allerheiligen, Schaffhausen, Switzerland. The Human Mosaic 35(1): 31-40.

Taube, Karl, and Marc Zender. 2009. American Gladiators: Ritual Boxing in Ancient Mesoamerica. In Blood and Beauty: Organized Violence in the Art and Archaeology of Mesoamerica and Central America, edited by H. Orr and R. Koontz, pp. 161-220. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, Los Angeles.

One thought on “Portraits of Yuknoom Ch’een

  1. Mario Giron-Abrego November 12, 2014 / 4:56 AM

    Dear Dr. Stuart,

    This is indeed very interesting, as well as very valuable to now have at least two portraits of such an important individual to Maya history, such as was the case of Yuknoom Ch’een or Yuknoom the Great, as he is also referred to at times. Correct me, if I’m wrong, but it is my understanding that Yuknoom Ch’een acceded to the throne of Calakmul on April 28, 636 CE. So obviously, this seemingly diplomatic interaction in the form of this pitz event took place prior to him becoming the king of Calakmul. It happened the year before in 635. Is there any mention of Yuknoom Head on these text at all, who presumably was Yuknoom Ch’een’s father and as you know Calakmul’s king at the time, perhaps to see if he had any role in commissioning this visit of his son to La Corona?


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