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The Murals of Bonampak, Chiapas Mexico

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The Discovery of the Bonampak Murals
Detail of Bonampak mural, room 1 east wall: Maya nobles attend a ceremony at court

Detail of Bonampak mural, room 1 east wall: Maya nobles attending a ceremony at court (Upper register)

photo credit: Mattia di Paolo

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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