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date: 15 November 2019


  • Mary Ellen Miller

Site of a Maya ceremonial center in the tropical rainforest of the Chiapas, Mexico, that flourished around the end of the 8th century ce. Bonampak is best known for its colorful and complex wall paintings, which are the most complete indigenous examples in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The paintings, brought to modern attention by Giles Healey in 1946, are preserved in situ on the walls of a fragile three-room building known as Structure 1. A full-scale replica building holds color copies of the paintings in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City. The rest of the site is still largely unexcavated, but several fine sculptures have also been found.

The paintings in Structure 1 were commissioned in 791 ce to celebrate various events in the reign of the last known Bonampak king, Yajaw Chaan Muwan (reg. 775–? ce), and after his death, when young lords competed to be successor. In 2010, a small but important tomb was found under the bench in Room 2, probably that of Yajaw Chaan Muwan. To make the paintings, bright pigments were applied to damp stucco on walls, vaults, benches, and doorjambs by a team of painters following the program of a single master. Black and white pigments were used last, for outlines, highlights, and hieroglyphic writing. The positions of such architectural features as benches partly determine the reading order of the scenes. The text and image work together, neither subordinate to the other. In no other work of Maya art do so many individuals appear; they are painted throughout at about two-thirds life-size.

There are three scenes in Room 1, beginning with a great dance on the lower register of all four walls: the representations of the three young lords at center stage on the south wall were later badly damaged. The east wall is lined with paintings of fine-featured musicians playing drums, turtle carapaces, rattles, and trumpets, as well as mummers in costumes of aquatic and terrestrial creatures. On the opposite wall, sahals (subject governors) are depicted in procession. This scene is preceded by the surprisingly intimate painting of these same young lords donning ritual attire on the upper register of the north wall; this—like all north wall scenes of the three rooms—would only have been visible to a person seated on the built-in bench. Above, fourteen lords, dressed in their white capes for travel, present tribute—including 40,000 beans of chocolate—to a lord enthroned amidst family, including a young child, perhaps an heir, held up to the visitors. The captions above the throne remain unpainted, perhaps once intended to have named the now-dead king.

Scholars generally agree that the text records a date for the event in the Maya Long Count system (see Mesoamerica, Pre-Columbian §II) corresponding to December 14, 790, when a new individual took office under the auspices of his maternal uncle, king of Yaxchilán. The text then records a second event, the dedication of the building itself, on November 15, 791.

The scenes on the east, south, and west walls of Room 2 depict a battle years earlier, in 785, led by Yajaw Chaan Muwan. A boustrophedon reading order is indicated, beginning at the upper left, and the narrative is sequential; some individuals occur twice. The text records a war that may have coincided with the movements of Venus, a time chosen by all Mesoamerican peoples for warfare. On the north wall, set to be viewed from the bench, victorious Bonampak lords present and torture captives on stairs under constellations associated with Venus. The vulnerable figures of naked captives are considered the finest representations of the human form in Maya art.

On the east, south, and west walls of Room 3, and without dated inscription, the paintings show the sacrifice of captives, while Bonampak lords, in elaborate feathered costumes, dance in celebration on the steps of a pyramid. On the upper east vault, noble women gather to perforate their tongues with spines. A painting of the little royal child sitting in a woman’s lap brings the narrative back to the timeline of Room 1. (For further discussion of painting at Bonampak see Mesoamerica, Pre-Columbian §V.)

The sculptures at Bonampak date mainly to the Late Classic period (c. 600–c. 900 ce). There is, however, an unprovenanced Early Classic period (523 ce) panel (ex-Wray priv. col.) that carries the Bonampak emblem glyph (a sign indicating place or lineage). This panel is among the first Maya sculptures to represent two persons facing one another. Three carved stelae, four carved lintels, and five miscellaneous sculptures remain at the site. The stelae all date to the reign of Yajaw Chaan Muwan. Stela 1, one of the largest such monuments ever set on an ancient plaza, depicts the king over a large basal panel of maize gods emerging from the earth, represented as a creature known as the Witz monster, or personified mountain. Stela 2 shows the king undergoing a bloodletting ritual in the company of his wife and mother, in commemoration of his accession to office. No other Maya sculpture of the Classic period shows a man with two women. On Stela 3 Yajaw Chaan Muwan, dressed in war costume, humbles a captive, and raises an atlatl—often considered to be a foreign, Central Mexican weapon—in his hand.

The three doorways of Structure 1 have carved lintels bearing thick coats of stucco pigments. Each shows a warrior pressing a captive to the ground. Lintel 4 from Structure 6 is an archaistic representation of a king also named Chaan Muwan but from a previous era. The positions of the hands on this monument appear typically early, but it must actually be of a later date, judging from the representation of a human bust, unknown in the Early Classic period. Miscellaneous sculptures 1 and 5 are wall panels that each depict an enthroned king at his accession receiving offerings from lesser lords, incised so finely as to suggest a calligraphic line. On Miscellaneous sculpture 2 a deity within a full lunar cartouche holds a rabbit, embodying the struggle between sun and moon. Miscellaneous sculpture 3 is a roughly carved, life-size representation of a segmented cayman, similar to those found at the neighboring city of Yaxchilan. Miscellaneous sculpture 4, carved in relief, records the death of an early 7th-century king, depicted posthumously in the guise of God L, a god of trade and tribute.


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