Art and S.T.E.M.

Art Ambassador Highlight: Kathie Zumbro

Jester deity headdress piece. Jade with hints of cinnabar. Attaches to cloth headdress in upright position, forming a crown. Large central eye and upturned nose. Jaw has large single shark's tooth characteristic of the Jester gods of Palenque.
Mexico, Yucatan region or possibly Guatemala, Maya culture, Late Classic Period (600-900), Jester Deity, jade with traces of cinnabar, purchased with funds from Friends of the Art Museum Museum, UMFA1985.020

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Hello, my name is Kathie. I am an Art Ambassador at the Utah Museum of Fine Art. For my tour, I drew inspiration from my education background in science and math. I have chosen an object from the museum’s collection to examine and discuss using S T E M, which is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

The Jester Deity Headdress gets its name from archeologists who re-discovered it. The three tipped points that crown the head of the deity reminded him of a medieval jester’s hat. The sculpture is carved from jade. The green color, from the presence of iron in the stone, symbolized fertility which made it precious throughout Mesoamerica.

On the Mohs scale, which is used by mineralogists to determine hardness, jade is ranked at 6 to 7. Only diamond, a 10 on the scale, is hard enough to carve Jade. However, in the absence of diamonds what might have been used to carve this sculpture? Could they have used tools of hard stone for hammering and chiseling, sand with wet string for fine cutting and polishing and bone or pointed sticks for drilling of holes? What elements of STEM were applied in the process of making this piece?

Looking more carefully now, what color do you see traces of? Do you notice the faint red colors? The red is cinnabar (mercury sulfide), which is a toxic mineral found in volcanic areas and is easily ground to powder to make red paint. What role might STEM have played as artists created this paint? Perhaps chemistry?

The sculptor carved both natural geometric shapes and organic free-form, cloud-like shapes to create facial features. The face appears somewhat reptilian. What does it look like to you? Certain “Jester Deity” display bird or shark traits. Some have fish fins on the face, possibly a shell in the depression below the large circle. Can you see the shark tooth in this piece? (In the upper jaw) This is characteristic of the Jester Deity of Palenque. How would the artist’s knowledge of science inform the design of the face?

Our object is one of the largest examples known. What knowledge does the artist use to make the object symmetrical and balanced given the tools and weight of the stone? The artwork has the same carving on both sides making it symmetrical, and is compact from top to bottom. How do you think this piece, a headdress, attached to someone’s head? Who might have worn it?

There are many ways to enjoy the treasures found in the UMFA collections. Looking at art through STEM is one. Hopefully, this discussion of the Jester Deity will encourage you to apply your knowledge to observe art from this viewpoint. 

A fun fact: this object was loaned to the Legion of Honor Museum for and exhibit entitled The Courtly Art of the Ancient Mayan in 2004.