Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 2, 2017
Mary Ellen Miller and Claudia Brittenham The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak Austin and Mexico City: University of Texas Press and Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2013. 285 pp.; 600 ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780292744363)

When a group of late eighth-century Maya painters working at the modestly sized site of Bonampak rendered a dazzling mural program that presented local nobility with pomp and optimism, they were unaware that theirs would be among the final artistic efforts of the southern lowland Maya region. Their paintings, dating to 791 CE, span the walls of a three-room building in the rainforest of Chiapas, Mexico, and present confident scenes of military victory and courtly pageantry that appear at odds with the presumed realities of a society in decline. Rediscovered in 1946, these fortuitously preserved works have provided scholars with a window into the Maya nobility on the eve of the collapse of their society. Readers already familiar with existing literature on the Bonampak murals will recognize that Mary Miller has previously treated them, yet this dense material is well worth returning to. In their thorough text The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak, Miller and her co-author, Claudia Brittenham, draw from decades of study to advance fresh perspectives regarding the facture, narrative, and reception of these exquisite paintings.

The challenge this extensive and, in places, badly preserved series of images presents for a reconstruction of its meaning is immense, and documentation serves as a foundation for this task. In the preface, the authors offer an overview of the projects undertaken since 1946 to record the Bonampak murals and observe that changing documentation methods and technologies have steered scholarly interpretation. For instance, records and reconstructions of the painted walls and vaulted ceilings, central to this book and assembled as a catalogue following the text and as three foldout sheets that provide panoramic overviews of each room, enable a greater understanding of the narrative content of the murals and their creation, as the authors note that we can now observe the development of initial sketches into painted scenes (xix–xx). The images span the walls of three adjacent rooms in a sequence that begins, when one faces the building, with the room on the left. This first room presents a lively procession of musicians and dancers attended by the royal family and a likely child heir. The central room shows a gruesome battle on one wall, and, on the opposing wall, a post-battle captive sacrifice is overseen by the Bonampak ruler Yajaw Chan Muwaan. The third room presents an elite ceremony in the absence of the ruler, and treats viewers to three spectacular dancers, each identified as a ch’ok or prince. Despite a relatively complete record, the images and their texts have eluded efforts to identify a single protagonist or coherent narrative, and these challenges are discussed in the subsequent chapters.

The introduction and chapter 2, “Artistic Conception,” contextualize the murals that span the walls and vaults of Structure 1 within the Bonampak site and the greater Usumacinta region. The authors observe that the paintings’ extravagance and complexity reflect long-established artistic traditions, and they frame the murals as a summative instance of Late Classic Maya art. Miller and Brittenham show that the murals were carefully planned and executed within a conceptually unified architectural space in accordance with traditional aesthetic canons, including the application of flowing calligraphic lines within more rigid rectilinear frameworks. The authors also set forth the primary artistic conventions that likely informed the artists at Bonampak, particularly for rendering the human figure and arranging three-piece compositions. The chapter proceeds to the building’s layout and treats the space of Structure 1 as a comprehensive program comprising three intimate rooms, each fit with benches to facilitate viewing for a restricted audience.

The search for a narrative sequence and clear storyline has largely driven previous scholarship on the painted walls at Bonampak, and chapter 3, “The Story in the Murals,” draws on recent epigraphic and archaeological findings to offer fresh perspectives on these themes. Focusing on the narrative dissonance proposed by the mural images and hieroglyphs, the authors examine two possible and simultaneously viable viewing orders. While iconography supports a linear left-to-right chronology for the rooms, new textual data reveals that the battle scene in Room 2 likely predates the events of Room 1 (65). For the authors this temporal slippage—this movement backward and forward—was a cultural convention that may have provided opportunities for historical revisions by which the past could be “reworked to make it congruent with the present” (77). Much like the problem of narrative sequence, the search for a single protagonist has previously focused on the presence of the Bonampak king on the walls of Rooms 1 and 2. Notably, the recent discovery of the tomb of an adult male beneath the floor of the central room may shed light on the king’s absence from the scenes of Room 3. The untimely death of Yajaw Chan Muwaan was a calamitous scenario for Bonampak that would have rendered the mural program obsolete (74) and necessitated the insertion of the young princes vying to take his place on the walls of the final room (89–91).

In chapter 4, “Time, Motion, and Performance,” the authors frame the reception of the murals at Bonampak as a scripted encounter by which viewers inhabit the scenes, thereby becoming participants in the processions and battles and witnesses to the sacrifice. The study approaches viewership at Bonampak as a shared, social practice (105) hastened by formal arrangement, figural movement, and a spiraling sense of time that the authors term “the performative now” (113). Scenes rendered as if occurring “within a single human breath” (112) incite the audience’s identification with a spectrum of depicted victors, celebrants, and captives. A careful examination of the paintings shows spectatorship to most closely mimic the activities of the depicted ebeets, the messenger-witnesses charged with the task of traveling to Bonampak to observe the spectacles and then reporting back to their home courts. There is space here to further consider the implications of viewer connectedness to the messenger character, as this congruence may impart a visual contract by which audiences were also expected to disseminate the opulent events witnessed in the murals, and in Maya monumental art in general, in a similar manner.

In chapter 5, “Art and Politics,” the authors tackle the inconsistencies posed by the pompous rhetoric and high quality of the paintings in Structure 1 and their standing as the final known artworks at Bonampak. They frame these murals as an innovative response to a context of decline, expressed simultaneously as artistic diplomacy and as a sequence of performed political acts. Bonampak was, for Miller and Brittenham, negotiating its place as a small but newly prominent center in the midst of the disintegrating Usumacinta region. Yet what stands apart in this otherwise self-assured program is the disappearance of the ruler during the final act. The authors frame the absence of the king in Room 3 as the height of “the crises of the royal body” (173), an artistic manifestation that they link to the dwindling role of the ruler in imagery during an era of growing upheaval. “The political problems of this era were also on many levels problems of representation” (148), and the study traces a Late Classic iconographic pattern in monumental art in which rulers increasingly shared artistic space with subordinates and captives, and, as evident in the case of Bonampak, ultimately disappeared altogether.

The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court is a comprehensive study of a single artistic program that greatly advances our understanding of the potential for images to picture noble power amid the turbulence of the southern lowland Maya collapse. The text contributes novel theoretical revisions of prior studies based on recent findings, thereby enriching our knowledge of one of the most complex artworks produced in the pre-Columbian Americas. Although occasional digressions—for instance, various forays into the sculptural traditions of the southern lowland region—at times give the impression of straying from the work under discussion, the authors’ treatments do invariably reconverge at Bonampak. Enhanced by lavish illustrations, Miller and Brittenham’s volume provides a vital opportunity for scholars and advanced students to be enveloped by Bonampak’s twelve walls and carefully examine a summative artistic program that vividly illustrates why depictions of courtly spectacle mattered for assertions of royal power in the Late Classic Maya world.

Catherine E. Burdick
Instructor, Magíster en Patrimonio Cultural, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile