FRAME|WORK: A Maya vessel from the department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas

FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. Later this week, the San Francisco Tribal and Textile Arts Show opens at Fort Mason. In that spirit, we feature an outstanding new acquisition, Lidded vessel in the form of a turtle shell, currently on display at the de Young in Gallery 2.


Lidded vessel in the form of a turtle shell. Mexico, Central Lowlands, Maya. A.D. 350–450. Earthenware. Gift of Gail and J. Alec Merriam in memory of Merle Green Robertson. 2011.55.4a-b

The Maya likened the hard, articulated shell of the turtle to the dry, cracked earth from which maize would emerge with annual rains. In this way, they understood the turtle to be the earth in miniature, both earth and stone. Like the landmass of earth, the turtle is rounded, lumbers slowly and is surrounded by water. The ancient Maya believed that the Maize God would be reborn time and again from the earth's surface.

Ceramic vessels of this sort are known as basal-flange bowls because of the lower lip, or flange, that makes them easy to carry and support. Most examples come from 4th- and 5th-century tombs, and held foodstuffs for the interred. In a tomb, such a work offered the promise of eternal renewal.

This extraordinary vessel, one of the finest collected by Gail and Alec Merriam, was recently gifted to the museums in memory of Merle Greene Robertson and is a testament to their shared dedication and enthusiasm for Maya art.

If you’d like to preview the offerings available at this weekend’s San Francisco Tribal and Textile Arts Show, consider attending the Preview Gala. Proceeds benefit the de Young’s departments of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, and Textile Arts.

On Thursday, February 9 we invite you to attend Museum Fakes, Forgeries, and the Quest for Authenticity: A Mini-Symposium at 10:00 a.m–12:30 p.m. in the Koret Auditorium. For more information and to purchase tickets, please click here.

Further reading: Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya (2004), by Mary Ellen Miller and Simon Martin