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The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak.

The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak

Mary Miller and Claudia Brittenham

Austin, University of Texas Press, 2013, 285 pages, over 340 ills, most in color; 5 maps and plans, 3 foldout plates; $55.00 cloth. ISBN 978-0292-74436-3.

In an average year, almost six million visitors view Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, arguably the most famous fresco mural in history. In the same average year, less than one percent of that number visits the ancient Classic Maya site of Bonampak in southern Mexico, to view the lesser known fresco murals on the interior walls of the structure known only as Structure 1. The modern world has only known of the Bonampak murals since 1946. Owing in large part to focused research and scholarship in the past thirty years spearheaded by Professor Mary Miller of Yale University, the Bonampak murals have gradually emerged as the example par excellence of Ancient American painting, often assuming the mantle of the "Sistine Chapel of ancient Mesoamerica."

The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak, co-authored by Miller and Claudia Brittenham of the University of Chicago (a former student of Miller's), presents a multifaceted summary of the Bonampak Documentation Project (BDP) initiated by Miller in the mid-1990s. The BDP was supported primarily by the National Geographic Society and the Getty Institute, and employed multiple modes of recording and documentation of the entire late eighth-century mural cycle, consisting of approximately 130 square meters of frescoed surface divided among three rooms, to create the most accurate and detailed reproduction of the entire mural cycle to date. Long hidden and unprotected deep in the humid jungle of southern Mexico, the murals are subject to environmental erosion and deterioration as well as increased human visitation. Indeed, when viewed in natural light today, the imagery can be very difficult to discern with the naked eye. However, in comparison to other surviving examples of Mesoamerican frescoes, the Bonampak murals retain an extraordinary amount of imagery in a relatively good state of preservation. Somewhat ironically, the mural cycle was apparently never completed; it seemingly remains a work-in-progress to the present day.

Early scholarship on the Bonampak murals, including Miller's seminal 1986 monograph The Murals of Bonampak, focused on formal descriptions and iconographic interpretations: exactly who and what is depicted in the scenes? (1) The BDP incorporated previous historic (though technically flawed) reproductions and photographs with an exhaustingly comprehensive database created by the project using high resolution film, digital, and infrared photography. The result is a set of life-sized painted reproductions housed at Yale University by project artists Heather Hurst and Leonard Ashby. The new reproductions ostensibly present the most accurate version of the entire mural cycle to date, in terms of original color, detail, scale, and perhaps most significantly, restored hieroglyphic texts imbedded in the scenes. These newly revealed and updated images provide the basis for the authors' revised interpretations regarding the significance of the murals to both the ancient Maya and modern scholars.


Following an opening Preface, the volume is organized in six chapters followed by a separate catalog of paired color and infrared photographs of the entire mural cycle, plus three poster-sized (23" x 38" each) foldouts in the rear cover pocket presenting rollout paintings and drawings of the entire mural sequence.

The preface and chapter 1 serve as general introductions to Classic Maya art and Bonampak. The preface reviews the history of the discovery of, and conservation efforts expended on, the murals prior to the BDP, and the development of the BDP itself. The murals have occasionally benefitted, but more often suffered from repeatedly inadequate and often damaging preservation and recording events. The BDP emerged in part in collaboration with an extensive photographic project initially developed by the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) following an extensive round of cleaning in the 1990s. (3) Miller assembled a team of esteemed specialists and colleagues and the BDP commenced recording in 1995. The modern history of the murals in this chapter is compelling. The murals immediately gained international attention following their 1946 rediscovery (7-8). Yet rather ironically, until recently the site of Bonampak historically lacked significant archaeological and critical interpretation. Without the murals of Structure 1, the relatively small site would most certainly only be of interest to Maya specialists (3-5).

Chapter 1: Introduction presents an overview of the site of Bonampak and a brief history of Classic Maya art as it relates to the Maya painting tradition. The authors rightly point out that the Bonampak murals were not unique. Frescoed walls were widespread throughout Mesoamerica, as numerous recently discovered examples from other Maya sites attest. Although not specifically noted by the authors, the larger, more politically influential site of Yaxchilan, only some forty kilometers away, bears faint surviving remains of extensive frescoed surfaces in structures similar to Bonampak Structure l. (3) The fame and popularity of the Bonampak murals have historically rested in large part on their fortuitous state of preservation, rather than any original "uniqueness."

Chapters 2 and 3 present updated description and analysis of the form, composition and content of the mural cycle. Chapter 2: Artistic Conception presents an extended analysis of the formal, artistic, and spatial aspects of the murals. A particular strength of this chapter is extensive comparison of the murals to other works from across the entire Classic Maya area. The Bonampak murals have frequently been treated as extraordinary, almost unique, examples of Classic Maya mural painting. But most of the artistic conventions for which the murals are so famous do in fact have precedents in other Classic Maya art. Chapter 3: The Story in the Murals presents a revised analysis of the subject matter and iconographic content. Early historic attempts to translate the Bonampak texts were severely hindered by a lack of understanding of the Maya writing system, and by the poor condition of the texts, but Maya writing is now highly readable. Miller initially interpreted the central narrative in her 1986 book, and this basic story remains unchanged. Bonampak King Yajaw Chan Muwaan commissioned the murals around 791 CE to legitimize an heir to the Bonampak throne. An initial dedication ceremony, a battle and its aftermath, and the subsequent ceremony provide the story line in presumed chronological sequence across the three rooms (64). The updated infrared photographs revealed a substantial amount of previously hidden text, providing considerable new detail for the subject matter. Rather than a single story, the main narrative is interlaced with various sub-themes, temporal shifts, and more fully identified supporting figures (xiv). The iconographic layering of the scenes is substantially richer than previously realized. This constitutes one of the most significant contributions of the BDP.

Chapters 4 and 5 offer expanded interpretations of the broader social and political context of the murals. Chapter 4: Time, Motion, and Performance considers the importance of Classic Maya public spectacle, a primary function of most major Classic Maya temples. The Bonampak murals present the most extensive large-scale painted depiction of Maya ceremony yet documented. Remarkable new details regarding Maya costuming and behavior are revealed. Time and motion are integral aspects of the mural experience, as both subject matter and viewer reception (93). The murals depict a dynamic series of events reflecting broad themes common in Classic Maya art: elite validation of the right to rule, perpetuation of a royal genealogy, and the political relationship with other sites. At the same time, the murals compel physical engagement (movement between the rooms) and changing points of view within the rooms (eye and head movement) on the part of the viewer. The "action" of the murals exists both as subject matter and as a mode of perception. "Order, chaos and renewal" provide the symbolic narrative structure of the three rooms, and the authors' assert that perception of the imagery was intended to evoke a similar, mimetic process in the viewer (94).

Chapter 5: Art and Politics considers the murals as both a reflection of, and an active agent in, the construction and implementation of a Maya political agenda. The significance of the murals (according to the authors) lies in their creation at the end of the eighth century and the beginnings of mass abandonment of the Classic Maya area (the so-called "collapse," 147). At this time, the Maya world was experiencing substantial social and political turmoil. Political allegiances were growing ever-more complex and transient. The authors suggest that the murals were created in an attempt to navigate these political complexities. This argument derives from a close reading of various compositional aspects of the scenes, such as the relative placement and spatial relationship of figures of different political status to each other and to the primary antagonists. A variety of courtiers, visiting dignitaries, family members, and personal associates of the King are depicted, but their placement within the composition does not necessarily follow any expected symbolic hierarchy. The relative political status of these figures to both Bonampak and each other is thus symbolically manipulated and perhaps defined by the very composition itself. The title term "Spectacle" thus carries multiple references: the subject matter of the murals is "spectacle," the paintings themselves are visually spectacular, and the abundant display of such "spectacle" played a critical role in Maya politics of the time (146).

Categorizing the Bonampak murals as "public" art is debatable. Very little of the mural cycle is actually visible from the outside, and the rooms themselves are not large; they comfortably accommodate only six to eight people at a time. Originally, entrance was probably restricted to only to a few chosen elites. The symbolic narrative of order, chaos, and renewal was more propaganda than reality, a visual code to appease those elite. Regardless, the political complexity presented in the murals, with its implied chaos and contradictions, provides the basis of the authors' arguments regarding the political context and influence of the murals in contemporary and later Maya society. In this sense, the "Spectacle" of the murals represents both a crowning artistic achievement and a harbinger of decline for Classic Maya civilization (175).

Chapters 5 and 6: Conclusion present the authors' more personal and interpretative perspective on the Bonampak murals, and in this regard represent the spiritual heart of the entire work. The central hypothesis is that while the murals were not unique in Classic Maya art, they do represent a pinnacle of Classic Maya artistic production, and simultaneously anticipate a critical juncture in Maya history. To what extent the original painters understood this broader context is unclear (175). Miller's admiration for the murals is obvious in these chapters, drawn from over thirty-five years of personal engagement with the paintings; the "Reflections" in the title are clearly tinged with a certain degree of romanticism regarding a career of dedicated research. There is a potential danger in the perspective of one so close to the work, one universally regarded as the primary authority with little other scholarly competition on this topic. Given Miller's specific expertise, the critical reader has few scholarly weapons to challenge the authors' broader assertions. But the writing is never pretentious or coercive, and questions and problems with their ideas are consistently acknowledged. To both authors' credit, the writing never seems to sink to the level of pompous self-aggrandizement.

The target audience for this book is not the novice reader unfamiliar with Maya art or the Bonampak murals. The vast amount of photographic detail and technical data, along with the extensive comparisons with other Maya works, may initially seem overwhelming to those with little previous knowledge of Maya art. In less polished hands (or perhaps less art historically-oriented writing), this book could easily become technically overbearing, perhaps rather boring to read at length. However, the authors employ a familiar, often informal writing style to present the material in an easily readable fashion, so the dedicated novice should not be intimidated or dissuaded from engaging with the book. Indeed, it is the success of that very technical accomplishment that drives the publication. Scientific and technical processes for pigment analysis and photo-imaging have advanced rapidly in the last twenty years, and these techniques have become standard elements in art historical scholarship. (4)

Reflecting the primary goals of the BDP, the book contains over 300 beautifully rendered color illustrations, the most effective of which are the numerous comparisons of infrared and normal photographs of the same image. This in part explains the larger size of the book (11' x 13"), rather than the more typical 9" x 11" dimensions of comparable hard cover art historical treatises. It does make the book rather cumbersome to handle in restricted reading spaces (such as on an airplane!), and it must be shelved in the oversized section of the library. But the lush illustrations are worth the size. The book will no doubt serve for years to come as the ultimate reference source for the Bonampak murals, this much-revered although until now somewhat misunderstood Classic Maya masterpiece.

James Farmer

Virginia Commonwealth University


(1.) Mary Ellen Miller, The Murals of Bonampak, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

(2.) Beatriz de la Fuente and Leticia Staines Cicero, eds. La pintura mural prehispanica de Mexico II: Area may a--Bonampak. 2 volumes. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Institute) de Investigaciones Esteticas, 1998.

(3.) Carolyn Tate, Yaxchilan: The Design of a Maya Ceremonial City, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992: 234-235.

(4.) See the recent Getty publication Jackson Pollock's Mural: The Transitional Moment (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2014) or Claudia Brittenham's recent The Murals of Cacaxtla (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015), in which similar microphotography is applied to determine pigment and application sequence.
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Author:Farmer, James
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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