A beginner’s guide to famous Mayan art

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As Guatemalans, we often talk about the many different influences on our culture. And of course, one of the most significant is the way that Mayan artists have shaped our artistic traditions.

So, here is our beginner’s guide to some of the most famous Mayan art and artists, and their impact on our country.

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The most famous Mayan art: ancient murals and wall art

When we think of Mayan art, many of us Guatemalans think of murals. The ancient Mayans were monumental architects, and their paintings were often equally large scale. Many of these ancient murals and stone carvings are still around today, and you can see them in all their glory at many of the country’s Mayan sites.


And yet one of the most fascinating sets of Mayan murals was found in far more humble surroundings. A farmer in the Guatemalan highlands decided to renovate his kitchen and cleared the plaster off an old wall. Beneath this layer he discovered a set of 300-year-old Maya wall paintings.


Not the most ancient Mayan art, but significant nonetheless, as it depicted the arrival of European settlers in the area. And Mayan mural tradition has had a deep impact on later Guatemalan art, as we will see.


Andrés Curruchich

Curruchich was known as a ‘naive’ painter and he is one of the most important artists in the history of Mayan art. Why? Well, in part because of his influence.


The movement he started in his hometown of San Juan Comalapa has created a real artistic centre in there. It’s a wonderful place that is now home to many artists thanks to Andrés. Today, it’s also home to the largest mural in Guatemala.


He was a member of the Kaqchikel people and his paintings are a beautiful evocation of daily life in the local area. His style was simple, but deeply powerful. Our country recognised his reputation and lasting contribution to Mayan art with the prestigious Order of the Quetzal.


Juan Sisay

Today, the area around Lake Atitlán is known for its artistic and bohemian feel. And one of the area’s most famous sons is an internationally renowned Mayan painter, Juan Sisay. Sisay’s colourful paintings of Mayan life are inspired by his own upbringing. He was born into a poor family and worked as a labourer before becoming an artist.


His painting career happened almost by accident – he saw a visitor to Atitlán painting and asked if he could try the paints. He sold the resulting painting for a dollar and realised he could become a commercially successful artist.


Sisay was entirely self-taught, and as his reputation grew, so did the price of his paintings. He was also awarded with the Order of the Quetzal by our government.


Efraín Recinos

As we mentioned before, murals have always been an important element of Mayan art. And so, it is possible to draw a direct line from the ancient wall paintings in sites such as San Bartolo to the creations of the most famous name in Guatemalan art, Efraín Recinos.


Recinos was hugely talented and tried his hand at everything from painting to sculpture and even architecture. But it is his murals that are among some of his most remarkable and lasting achievements.


So, the next time you visit Guatemala City, make sure you seek out some of Efraín Recinos’s murals. You will find them on several public buildings, including the La Aurora International Airport and the Guatemalan National Music Conservatory.


He also designed the remarkable Mayan-inspired Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias in Guatemala City. A true giant of Mayan art.

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