The Murals of Bonampak, Chiapas Mexico

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The Discovery of the Bonampak Murals

Frescoes in Bonampak, Chiapas (Mexico). Detail showing a scene of a feast. (reconstruction)
Frescoes in Bonampak, Chiapas (Mexico). Detail showing a scene of a feast. Mayan Civilization, 9th Century. (reconstruction). G. Dagli Orti / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

The Classic Maya site of Bonampak in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, is best known for its mural paintings. The murals cover the walls of three rooms in the so-called Templo de las Pinturas (Temple of the Paintings), or Structure 1, a small building on the first terrace of Bonampak’s acropolis.

The vividly depicted scenes of courtly life, war, and ceremonies are considered among the most elegant and sophisticated mural paintings of the Americas. These are not only a unique example of the fresco painting technique mastered by the ancient Maya, but they also offer a rare view onto daily life in a Classic Maya court. Usually, such windows onto courtly life are only available in small or scattered form, in painted vessels, and - without the richness of color - on stone carvings, such as the lintels of Yaxchilan. The murals of Bonampak, by contrast, provide a detailed and colorful view of the courtly, warlike and ceremonial attires, gestures and objects of the ancient Maya.

Studying the Bonampak Murals

The paintings were first seen by non-Mayan eyes at the beginning of the 20th century when local Lacandon Maya accompanied American photographer Giles Healey to the ruins and he saw the paintings within the building. Many Mexican and foreign institutions organized a series of expeditions to record and photograph the murals, including the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the Mexican Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). In the 1990s, a project from Yale University directed by Mary Miller aimed to record the painting with a higher definition technology.

The Bonampak mural paintings completely cover the walls of three rooms, while low benches occupy most of the floor space in each room. The scenes are meant to be read in a successive order, from room 1 to room 3 and are organized over several vertical registers. The human figures are portrayed about two-thirds of life-size and they tell a story related to the life of Chan Muwan, one of the last rulers of Bonampak, who married a princess from Yaxchilan, probably a descendant of Yaxchilan’s ruler Itamnaaj Balam III (also known as Shield Jaguar III). According to a calendar inscription, these events took place in AD 790.

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Room 1: The Courtly Ceremony

Bonampak Room 1 East Wall, Procession of Musicians (Lower Register) (reconstruction)
Detail of Bonampak Murals: Room 1 East Wall, Procession of Musicians (Lower Register) (reconstruction). G. Dagli Orti / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

In the first room at Bonampak, the painted murals portray a courtly scene with a ceremony attended by the king, Chan Muwan, and his wife. A child is presented to the gathered nobles by a high dignitary. Scholars have proposed that the meaning of the scene was the presentation of the royal heir to the nobility of Bonampak. However, others point out that there is no mention of this event on the text that runs along the east, south and west walls, which, by contrast, mention the date in which the building was dedicated, AD 790.

The scene develops over two levels or registers:

  • Upper register: The higher level and the vault above it portray a series of giant masks connected to sky deities and stars. The central scene is represented just below it. From a higher throne on the west wall the royal couple assists with the ceremony. Fourteen high dignitaries and nobles, dressed in white cloaks, stand in front of another noble carrying a child, the possible presentation of the royal heir. On the north wall three dignitaries, one of which is the king, are dressing for the ceremony with elegant clothes, jaguar pelts, and feathered headdresses.
  • Lower register: The lower register of Room 1 portrays a series of standing figures. Some of them wear masks; others are musicians playing gourd rattles, wooden drums, and trumpets.
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Room 2: The Mural of the Battle

Bonampak Murals, Room 2. King Chan Muwan and Captives (reconstuction)
Bonampak Murals, Room 2. King Chan Muwan and Captives (reconstuction). G. Dagli Orti / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

The second room at Bonampak contains one of the most famous paintings of the all Maya world, the Mural of the Battle. At the top, the whole scene is framed by a series of figures and symbols of star constellations within a cartouche and brown spots that probably represent wooden beams.

The scenes depicted on the east, south and west walls portray the bustle of battle, with Maya soldiers fighting, killing and capturing enemies. Room 2's battle scenes cover the entire walls, top to bottom, rather than divided into registers as is Room 1 or the northern wall of Room 2. At the center of the south wall, noble warriors surround the military chief, the ruler Chan Muwan, who is taking a captive.

The north wall portrays the aftermath of the battle, which scene takes place within the palace.

  • Upper register: In the top level of the northern wall, the king stands at the centre with his lieutenants, two Yaxchilan representatives, the queen and other noblemen.They wear elegant headdresses, jaguar pelts and jade pectorals, which stand in high contrast with the barely naked captives at their feet, laying on the steps of the palace waiting for their fate.
  • Lower register: This section of the north wall is probably the most famous. A number of captives are sitting or kneeling on the stairs. Many have been tortured: blood spills from their hands and body parts. One captive lays dead below the king, with the severed head of another captive at his feet. The bottom drawing shows a series of standing warriors, probably waiting for the final sacrifice of the surviving captives.
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Room 3: The Battle Aftermath

Bonampak Murals, Room 3: Royal Family Performing a Bloodletting Ritual (reconstruction)
Bonampak Murals, Room 3: Royal Family Performing a Bloodletting Ritual. Preparations for war, Mayan Civilization, 9th Century.(reconstruction). G. Dagli Orti / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

The murals in Bonampak's Room 3 portray the celebrations that followed the events of Rooms 1 and 2. The scene now takes place in front and beneath the palace entrance.

  • Upper register: The eastern wall of Room 3 portrays a private scene of the royal family, sitting on a throne bench, and performing a bloodletting ritual to celebrate the success of the war. In front of them, a procession of dancers, musicians and members of the nobility participate in the celebration, in a scene developing all along the southern, western and northern walls.
  • Lower register:  the lower register is occupied by a scene taking place on the stairs outside and below the palace. Here, a series of dancers lavishly dressed and adorned with feathered headdresses dance at the bottom of the building's stairways, while a procession of nobles stand in front of the steps with banners and trumpets.

Sources

Miller, Mary, 1986, The Murals of Bonampak. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin, 2005, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson