Brought to modern attention in 1946, the Bonampak murals of Mexico are the best preserved and most complete programme of Maya painting to survive from the first millennium AD, when Maya civilisation was at its peak in Guatemala, southern Mexico, Belize and northern Honduras.
The very survival of these paintings was a fluke: within a few years of their completion in 792, a leaky roof allowed water to stream across the surface of the paintings, depositing layers of calcium carbonate that preserved them for more than a millennium. Within a decade of their discovery in 1946, the murals had been disseminated so widely that they were often treated as if they were photographic documents, rather than the complex cultural constructions that they are. The paintings had the good luck to be discovered by a photographer, so the images found their way to The Illustrated London News and Life magazine, and they often featured ancient Maya faces that seemed to reach out and speak to the modern world, making a lasting impression on their viewers. But because of the difficulty of photographing large areas as well as the problem of parallax posed by the steep pitch of the walls, hand-painted copies became the standard version of the paintings. For 50 years, both specialists and the general public have had little choice but to depend on the copies.
Over the years, archaeologists and conservators made various attempts to shore up the building housing the paintings, resulting in a considerable application of concrete to the structure. Though these efforts may have kept the building from collapse, they also introduced the salts of modern cement
facture to the structure. In short order, these salts dissolved, migrated to the paintings, and recrystallised on the surface of the paintings, obscuring them with a white frost.
To bring the paintings back to life, a team of Mexican conservators carefully scraped the salts off the surface of the paintings in the 1980s. In two books of limited distribution published in Mexico, photographs of the cleaned paintings revealed details never seen before, such as the dramatically foreshortened captive seemingly flying out of the picture plane in Room 2 (see illustration). More widely seen was my work on the digital enhancement in 1995 by National Geographic magazine of five areas of the paintings, vividly revealing the walls as they might have looked in AD 800.
Several years ago, the director of the Institute of Aesthetic Investigations of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Beatriz de la Fuente, made a commitment to document all pre-Hispanic paintings of Mexico. The first two volumes, on Teotihuacan, appeared in 1995; now the next two, on Bonampak, have been issued, one dedicated to documentation and the other to studies of the paintings. For the first time, every square metre of the painted walls has been recorded and published, and in printing that offers an accurate rendering of Bonampak's palette. De la Fuente's team has also mosaicked the photographs together and digitally mapped them back onto the walls, so that the viewer can also understand the orientation of the paintings within their architecture.
The studies based on the Bonampak paintings raise issues that will not be settled quickly, including the work that Stephen Houston and I contributed on the inscriptions of the paintings. The only striking lacuna here is the absence of a substantive study of the paintings' conservation, and particularly the campaign of the 1980s, whose efforts have never been fully reported. More considerations on Bonampak will emerge in the next few years, including from the collaborative project that I direct, which has turned its attention to retrieving lost details through infrared photography.
Meanwhile, despite the difficulties at the National University, where strikes closed the institution indefinitely in March, the de la Fuente project has now turned to the paintings of Veracruz and to those of Cacaxtla. We can only hope that her work will go forward and be published with the same lavish attention to detail that makes this book on Bonampak such a valuable contribution.
Mary Miller is professor of the history of art, Yale University, Connecticut, United States.
La Pintura Mural Prehispánica en México, II: Area Maya Bonampak - Voulme One: Catalogue; Volume Two: Essays
Editor - Beatriz de la Fuente with Leticia Staines Cicero
ISBN - 968 36 4741 3
Publisher - Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
Price - $142.00
Pages - 253 and 340