The surviving works of Maya civilization range from the smallest objects to great edifices. Among the small-scale artworks of the Maya are many exquisite ceramic figurines only a few inches high. Despite their diminutive scale, these are also among the most fully realized of Maya sculptures in the round. This figurine vividly evokes a Maya lord costumed to impersonate a dynastic ancestor. The rectangular device over the mouth, along with the shield in one hand and the now-missing spear in the other, closely resemble the accoutrements of the nine ancestral figures in the sarcophagus chamber of Palenque’s Temple of the Inscriptions. The figure’s wide belt once supported a backrack of feathers, and his knee-length apron is marked with a symbol of the World Tree, the central axis of the Maya world. Elements of the complex costume below the headdress recur in other portrayals of Maya rulers; they define and reiterate his rank, and his position in the cosmos.
The role of these figurines in Maya belief and ritual is not clear, but their common appearance in Maya burials suggests a ritual function of some importance. Here the royal associations of the subject may indicate a rite performed by the king and commemorated through the making of this figurine.