Greek, Mayan and Moche ceramics united at Getty Villa Museum

The J. Paul Getty Museum presents Picture Worlds: Greek, Maya, and Moche Pottery, an exhibition that brings together three major world ceramic traditions: that of the Greeks in the Mediterranean, the Maya in Central America, and the Moche of northern Peru.

On view at the Getty Villa Museum from April 10 through July 29, 2024, this will be the first major exhibition to juxtapose the painted pottery of these distinct societies, devoting special attention to the narrative art and social settings in which these dynamic objects were seen and handled.

Pottery production has been virtually universal around the globe, and image-making almost as ubiquitous. But among the many ancient cultures that decorated ceramics, the Greeks (Archaic and Classical Periods, 700-323 BCE), the Maya (Late Classic Period, 550-850 CE), and the Moche (Early Intermediate period and Middle Horizon, 200-850 CE) stand out for their painted vessels adorned with depictions of heroic adventures, divine encounters, ritual actions, and legendary events. These pots – made for drinking and feasting, gift-giving or trade, and as offerings – are fundamentally social objects, and the narratives painted upon their surfaces prompted and perpetuated the sharing of cultures, stories and ideals.

“Maya, Moche, and Greek painted pottery have long been studied, collected, and displayed separately,” Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, said. “Bringing them together will not only allow visitors to encounter the vessels in fresh ways, but also to explore the communal practices that these richly evocative images made possible.”

About the Exhibition

Left: Drinking Vessel with the Maize God and Other Supernaturals, Maya, probably made in El Zotz, Guatemala, 600-700 CE, Ceramic with polychrome slip. 
Right: Stirrup-Spout Vessel with Wrinkle Face Fighting Opponents, Moche, made in northern Peru, 500–800 CE. Terracotta.
Left: Drinking Vessel with the Maize God and Other Supernaturals, Maya, probably made in El Zotz, Guatemala, 600-700 CE, Ceramic with polychrome slip. Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey. Gift of Stephanie H. Bernheim and Leonard H. Bernheim Jr. in honor of Gillett G. Griffin. 2005-127 VEX.2024.3.59. Right: Stirrup-Spout Vessel with Wrinkle Face Fighting Opponents, Moche, made in northern Peru, 500–800 CE. Terracotta. Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert L. Lucas, Jr. Photo: Donald Cord. VEX.2024.3.39

Throughout the exhibition, Greek, Maya, and Moche vessels will be displayed side by side, and their presentation is organized thematically. The first gallery, “Makers and Users“, draws attention to the people who handled these vessels, starting with the potters and painters, and then turning to the individuals who drank from them, gave them as gifts, or deposited them in tombs.

“Each vessel in this exhibition is a ‘picture world,’ full of expressive possibility,” David Saunders, associate curator of antiquities at the Getty Villa Museum, said. “Seeing them together sharpens our understanding of the three ancient cultures, and – we hope – will invite new perspectives on topics such as image-making and storytelling, that continue to resonate today.”

In all three cultures, stories of epic adventures and divine deeds explained and reflected belief systems and ritual practices. Such tales were retold, shared orally, and – among the Greeks and the Maya – sometimes written down as well. Painted terracotta vessels provided these narratives with engaging visual forms, and the second section of the exhibition, “Stories and Images,” presents a selection of important myths, such as the Trojan War for the Greeks, episodes involving the Maize God and other Maya deities, and adventures of the Moche divinity known today as Wrinkle Face.

All demonstrate the powerful role of images in traditions of storytelling.

Although they depicted different subjects in distinct visual styles, Greek, Maya, and Moche potters and painters faced a common challenge: how to convey complex stories on the curving surfaces of pottery. The final section of the exhibition, “Handling Narrative,” addresses the ways in which rotating or handling these vessels animated the painted narrative. In order to make this tangible, the exhibition will feature specially-commissioned replicas of three vessels on display, so that visitors can better appreciate the dynamic and immersive potential of these painted ceramics.

“We hope that visitors will connect to the stories conveyed in the imagery from these three ancient civilizations and, through them, learn more about the artists and societies who made them and how their legacies continue today,” Megan E. O’Neil, assistant professor of art history at Emory University, said.

The show will travel following the close in July and be on view at the Michael E. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta from September 15 through December 14, 2024.

Picture Worlds: Greek, Maya, and Moche Pottery is co-curated by David Saunders, associate curator of antiquities at the Getty Villa Museum, and Megan E. O’Neil, assistant professor of art history at Emory University.

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