By: Dana Micucci
In two widely separated spots on the globe—Central America and Southeast Asia—two ancient civilizations created vast temple complexes that express a strikingly similar sense of man’s place in the universe. The remains of Angkor, the legendary city of the Khmer in Cambodia, and the city-states of the ancient Maya in present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras, are today among the most awe-inspiring legacies of man’s perennial quest to honor and actualize the sacred.
Nestled deep in northwest Cambodia’s dense tropical jungle, near the Tonle Sap lake and the provincial city of Siem Reap in the heart of Southeast Asia, the sprawling monuments of Angkor dazzle the eye with an exotic grandeur that invites days of exploration. Despite the accounts of early Chinese travelers and a few European missionaries and traders in the 16th century, Angkor was little known in the West until the 1863 publication of the illustrated travel diaries of the French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot. In the following decades, artists, writers and intrepid travelers began to visit Cambodia in
search of this mysterious lost city swallowed up by the jungle. From the late 1960s to the early ’90s, Angkor was inaccessible once again due to the turmoil of the Vietnam War and civil chaos (culminating in the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge), until United Nations peacekeeping forces reopened it to tourists and allowed international preservation groups to continue their restoration work.
One of the great archaeological wonders of the world, Angkor (the Khmer word for city) was Cambodia’s capital and the spiritual center of the Khmer Empire between 802 and 1432. Erected at the same time as the cathedrals of Chartres and Canterbury in Europe, it comprises the ruins of more than 1,000 stone temples and monuments covering an area of 120 square miles. Angkor’s mammoth structures, which rival the Egyptian pyramids in scale, were built of huge blocks of sandstone, without mortar, by thousands of local craftsmen for a succession of extravagant kings, and are recognized by scholars as the repository of some of the world’s greatest art and architecture.
The sophisticated artistry and cosmology of the Khmer civilization is particularly evident in the exquisite relief sculpture adorning Angkor Wat, the largest and best-preserved temple of the vast complex, and the breathtaking Bayon, within the royal city of Angkor Thom. These sculptures primarily depict deities and mythological figures from the Hindu and Buddhist religions, which coexisted peacefully at Angkor. Historical battles and scenes from daily life are also illustrated. Freestanding sculptures of Vishnu, Shiva and other Hindu gods, as well as the Buddha, which were created for temple sanctuaries, are now in major museum collections such as those at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh and the National Museum of Asian Art Guimet in Paris.
“For 1,000 years, beginning in the sixth century and particularly during the Angkor period, anonymous Khmer artists and craftsmen produced some of the world’s greatest sculptures,” says Helen Ibbitson Jessup, an independent scholar and curator specializing in the art of ancient Cambodia and Indonesia. “Khmer sculpture was influenced by Indian sculpture from as early as the sixth century, although it is less voluptuous and more streamlined and hieratic. It has an ethereal presence, yet also incorporates the naturalistic detail of the human form. Although sculptural styles fluctuate through the centuries between humanistic and more rigid, abstract portrayals, the exquisite combination of naturalistic and spiritual qualities is what makes Khmer sculpture so distinctive and appealing.”
Khmer kings believed in the concept of the devaraja or “god-king”—a religious belief introduced by Jayavarman II, the first ruler of the Angkor period—whereby they identified themselves with a particular deity who they believed would protect them and with whose spirit they aspired to merge. Some believe they were perceived as the earthly incarnations of gods such as Shiva or Vishnu, or of Buddha, endowed with divine power to protect their kingdom. “Idealized, deified portraits of the Khmer kings and their ancestors were among the freestanding sculptures, in both sandstone and bronze, that were used in Angkor’s temples,” says New York-based dealer Nancy Wiener. “Like other sculpture from the Angkor period, it has both a striking monumentality and subtle grace that can be mesmerizing.”
Each ruler of Angkor consolidated his power by erecting a temple-mountain in honor of his chosen god. A symbol rooted in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, the temple-mountain represents the cosmic Mount Meru, home of the gods. “For many ancient cultures, one of the loftiest symbols of spiritual power was the mountain, where the gods resided and watched over the world,” says Jessup. “To enter Angkor’s temples is to move from an earthly to a spiritual realm. According to Hindu and Buddhist mythology, spiritual beings inhabited different levels of the mountain. So devotees ascended the various levels of the temple for spiritual preparation, but only the priests were allowed in the innermost sanctuaries.”
Angkor Wat, with its five lotus-bud shaped towers surrounded by numerous courtyards and chambers, was built as a temple-mountain in the early 12th century. Dedicated to Vishnu, it also served as a funerary temple for King Suryavarman II. Its ascending terraces and steep stairways are flanked by long, covered galleries of elaborate bas reliefs that narrate Hindu epics, such as the Ramayana and theMahabharata, and depict historical Khmer battles. Hindu deities, Buddhas, mythological beings and ornate foliage and scroll motifs also animate the lintels, walls, pillars and pediments of this majestic temple.
Deeper within the Cambodian jungle, beyond thick masses of fig and gum trees whose roots have grown over many of Angkor’s ruins, lies the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom, with its impressive temple-mountain, Bayon. More than 200 faces carved on Bayon’s 54 towers bear the serene and compassionate smiles of the bodhisattva Lokesvara. The faces also have been said to represent Jayavarman VII, the last great builder king of Angkor, who continued construction in the 12th and 13th centuries. “The Bayon is like a giant sculpture,” says Wiener. “Beholding it, you feel as if you’ve merged with the bodhisattva. Angkor’s architecture is meant to take you on a sacred journey. Walking through it is an active meditation.” Like Angkor Wat, Bayon is noted for its stunning galleries of bas reliefs. But unlike the ancient myths and battles depicted in the sculpture at Angkor Wat, they illustrate scenes of everyday life among the Khmer who lived at Angkor, including activities such as festivals, cockfights and even getting a haircut.
Unfortunately, Angkor’s transcendent beauty could not save it from the forces of man and nature. In 1431 an invasion by Thailand forced the Khmer to move their capital south to Phnom Penh. As the Khmer empire declined, the temples of Angkor were abandoned to the ever-encroaching jungle, only to be rediscovered centuries later.
Halfway around the world in Central America, the ancient Maya also left traces of a formidable architecture embellished with sculpture that embodies a profound sense of harmony between the human and the divine. Though the Mayan civilization spans more than 2,500 years, its great cities—extending from Copan in Honduras and Tikal in Guatemala to Palenque in western Mexico and Uxmal and Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula—flourished from 200–1200 in a tropical jungle setting much like that of Angkor’s. Like Angkor, these cities were constructed by generations of anonymous artisans in service to ambitious kings who paid homage to a pantheon of gods. They remained more or less shrouded in mystery from the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century until their rediscovery in 1839 by the American explorer John Lloyd Stephens and the English artist Frederick Catherwood. Since then, they, too, have become sites of continuing excavation and restoration.
“Angkor and the Mayan city-states had at their core ceremonial centers dominated by temples, many of which served as burial sites for their royal patrons,” says Michael Coe, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale who is a scholar of both the Mayan and Khmer cultures. “The Mayan temple-pyramids often contained royal tombs, whereas the temple-mountains at Angkor usually held the ashes of the ruler. And like those at Angkor, Mayan temples were also places of worship dedicated to gods favored by the rulers.” In Mayan cosmology, those gods had to be placated continuously with offerings and sometimes sacrifices, notably human blood.
But there is more to this highly evolved pre-Columbian civilization than the violent images of bloodthirsty warriors and human sacrifices that have been popularized in the media. For example, the Maya excelled as astronomers and mathematicians and created the only fully developed writing system in the New World. They discovered the use of the zero long before other cultures and invented a highly complex calendar based on precise observations of equinoxes, solstices and the courses of the sun, moon and planets, which could project dates millions of years into the past and future.
Their brilliance in the sciences was matched by an architectural genius that gave rise to sophisticated urban planning and massive limestone structures built without the use of the wheel or domestic animals. “The Maya, like the peoples of Southeast Asia, lived in rhythm with the cycles of time and planned their lives around the movement of the planets, which were associated with various gods,” says Coe. “The concept of cyclical time also permeates their architecture, which often was constructed to harmonize with the four directions and their attendant gods. So the Maya were constantly aware of their connection to the cosmos.”
One has only to wander among the sun-dappled pyramids, temples, sprawling palaces and vast ball courts of Uxmal and Chichen Itza, adorned with elaborate limestone and stucco relief carvings, mosaics and gaping masks of gods once painted in vivid colors, to experience the superb sacred artistry of the Maya. Monuments such as these served as the canvases upon which Mayan sculptors worked their magic with polished stone tools, developing an intricate naturalistic, anthropomorphic style that bears some resemblance to the sculptural reliefs at Angkor. Although Mayan sculpture tends to be more stylized and abstract than that of the Khmer, which often displays a subtle sensuality, both possess a profound mystical quality rooted in a complex iconography that glorified an established divine and social order.
“Mayan architecture, with its extensive repertory of bas reliefs, sculpture, painting and inscriptions, is an expression of religion and power that functions as a recorded history in stones for a civilization about which very little documentary evidence exists,” says New York dealer Spencer Throckmorton.
The relief sculpture at Uxmal and Chichen Itza depicts sovereigns, priests, warriors and deities. Portraits of Mayan royalty typically display elaborate headdresses and jewelry. Deities include the mountain god Witz, with protruding eyes and a long trunk-shaped nose, who is often portrayed in obsessive repeating patterns on facades, such as that of Uxmal’s grand Pyramid of the Soothsayer.
The plumed serpent god Kukulkan, who is associated with the planet Venus and the ritual of death and resurrection, variously adorns lintels, pillars, stairways and applied stucco decoration at both sites. It is sometimes sculpted with a human head in its mouth, symbolizing the constant interaction between this world and the otherworld of the gods. Kukulkan also famously appears as a snakelike shadow slithering down the great Castillo pyramid at Chichen Itza during the spring and fall equinoxes.
Another prevalent sculptural motif is the traditional Mayan thatched-roof hut, whose simple construction served as an architectural model for temples and palaces. Its features, including square-shaped doors and walls made of woven branches, often recur on facades such as those at Uxmal’s elegant Nunnery Quadrangle, so named because its four sides form a cloister-like quadrangle. Believed to have housed Mayan sovereigns, priests and high-ranking dignitaries, this group of buildings is a supreme example of Puuc architecture, which developed in northwest Yucatan at the end of the Classic Period (250–900) and influenced modern architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. Named after the region’s Puuc hills, this exquisite architectural style is distinguished by complex geometrical designs, limestone mosaics and intricate latticework on friezes adorning the upper walls of buildings.
Like other Mayan palaces, the Nunnery Quadrangle was built on a horizontal plane, which contrasts with the verticality of the pyramids. The palaces were meant to house mere mortals—though these inhabitants formed a small elite, while the populace lived in huts—whereas pyramids, with long stairways stretching toward the heavens, were the abode of the gods. Like those at Angkor, Mayan pyramids are stylized sacred mountains.
The great Mayan cities began to collapse in the early 10th century. Proposed causes for the mysterious decline and fall of the Mayan civilization are overpopulation, drought and famine, epidemics, excessive building and deforestation, and civil wars, according to Justin Kerr, a scholar and photographer who specializes in depicting Mayan ceramics. “It was probably a combination of all these factors,” says Kerr. “But the spirit of the Maya lives on in their stunning art and architecture, with its constant references to the worlds of the human and the divine and to the invisible passageway between them, which remind us of our universal connection to all that is sacred.”
Christie’s New York
Doris Wiener Gallery, New York
Galerie Mermoz, Paris
John Eskenazi, London
Nancy Wiener Gallery, New York
Sotheby’s New York
Stendahl Galleries, Los Angeles
Throckmorton Fine Art, New York