National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: Virginia E. Miller

Affiliation: University of Illinois at Chicago

Virginia E. Miller is Emerita with the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She holds her Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Texas, Austin, and her research covers a range of topics in Maya art, with recent work focusing on northern Yucatán during the Terminal Classic period (ca. A.D. 800-1000), particularly at the important regional capital of Chichén Itzá.  Professor Miller has also been exploring 20th-century Maya revival architecture and monuments, particularly those built in post-revolutionary Mérida, Mexico.  Her publications include The Frieze of the Palace of the Stuccoes, Acanceh, Yucatan, Mexico (1991), a pioneering edited volume, The Role of Gender in Precolumbian Art and Architecture (1988), and numerous articles on Pre-Columbian art and architecture.


The Aztecs considered the bones of slain captives to be powerful, a belief probably shared by the earlier Maya: one Maya hieroglyph for “captive” translates as “bone”. Nevertheless, at southern Maya sites like Tikal and Yaxchilán during the Classic period (A.D. 300-900), war-related art focuses more on the capture and humiliation of enemies rather than on their sacrificial deaths or their post-mortem remains. In contrast, at northern Maya sites in Yucatán and at Chichén Itzá in particular, battle scenes, sacrifice, skulls, and bones are frequent themes in reliefs, murals, and other media such as jade and gold. The skullrack, a new architectural form decorated with sculpted impaled skulls, was prominently placed right next to the massive ballcourt. This may have served as a grim reminder of the potential power of Chichén’s rulers,  even when no human heads were on display. Why this upsurge in graphic sacrificial and death imagery between about A.D. 800 and 1000? Were the Itzá militarily more successful than their predecessors? Why are both victors and defeated presented in groups and anonymously, in contrast to the southern Maya practice of naming individual captors and captives? Did the northern Maya practice human sacrifice on a more massive scale, foreshadowing later Aztec practices? These are just some of the questions to be addressed in the lecture.

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