Book Review

James L. Fitzsimmons

Books reviewed

MARY MILLER & CLAUDIA BRITTENHAM. The spectacle of the late Maya court: reflections on the murals of Bonampak. xxii+261 pages, numerous colour and b&w illustrations. 2013. Austin: University of Texas Press; 978-0-292-74436-3 hardback $75.
The spectacle of the late Maya court: reflections on the murals of Bonampak

When we look at any collection of images, carefully planned and extravagantly detailed, many of us want to see a story. We might search for a broad narrative with a clear beginning and end, perhaps with a protagonist or an overarching event to neatly tie everything together. We gaze at the Bonampak murals and crave a plot. That there is none is rather painful, especially given the fact that the Bonampak murals were created in the twilight of the Classic Period, as sites were being—and would continue to be—abandoned throughout the Maya lowlands. As Mary Miller and Claudia Brittenham note, however, the absence of a clear story does not mean that there was no larger vision for what the murals were supposed to represent. Instead of a story, the audience is provided with a broad view of the “pageant of rulership” (p. 1) in the late eighth century AD. As a series of vignettes and short, occasionally overlapping narratives painted out of chronological order, the murals give us a glimpse of the wealth and power—some of it real, some of it propaganda—of the lords of Bonampak. The spectacle of the Late Maya court explores how and why the murals came into existence in the late eighth century. The authors also illustrate why the Bonampak murals are integral to any study of Maya visual culture. Both the end of a tradition and the beginning of a new one, the murals give us insight into the life and social landscape of a society on the eve of collapse.

The book consists of six chapters followed by a meticulous catalogue reproducing colour as well as infrared images. These are accompanied by foldouts of the reconstruction paintings made by Heather Hurst and Leonard Ashby for the Bonampak Documentation Project. Altogether, this is the most complete treatment of the murals ever published and is reminiscent of the Palenque volumes published by the late Merle Greene Robertson. Every doorjamb, caption and character—from ruler to captive—is highlighted, with well over 300 figures in the main text alone. The plates in the catalogue present the photographic and infrared images side by side, allowing the reader to see the different types of information revealed by both techniques. Miller and Brittenham have set a very high standard indeed.

The opening chapter delves into the history of the discovery and documentation of the murals. It also examines Bonampak’s geopolitical setting in the Terminal Classic and, apart from some minor issues (e.g. on the map, the site of Zapote Bobal is set in the Petexbatun rather than east of La Florida), is an excellent introduction to the volume. It outlines the primary concerns of the book clearly and effectively: the artists and their identities, issues involving layout and style, and the interplay between text, image and politics. Miller and Brittenham likewise illustrate the ways (sometimes hilarious, as in an example involving a Jeep commercial) in which the murals have impacted how the public sees both the ancient and the contemporary Maya.

Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the artists and the nobility, respectively. In the former, Miller and Brittenham explore how the murals were actually painted and demonstrate that one can trace the preferences, abilities and habits of different artists throughout the rooms. Room 1, as the authors demonstrate, seems to have been filled with painters who preferred thick pigments and brilliant colours. The artists of Room 3, by contrast, used watery pigments and played around more with the properties of the paint itself. The information we have on the artists is particularly striking given Chapter 3, where we learn that someone as readily identifiable as the ruler of Bonampak is unexpectedly difficult to locate in the murals: he appears in rather marginal contexts or—occasionally—not at all. The authors suggest this might mean that the ruler had died before the murals were completed, with the inevitable jockeying for power reflected by the prevalence of different royal heirs and other nobles throughout the paintings. Chapter 4 addresses the larger meaning of the murals and the ways in which the texts and images contribute to our understanding of the Terminal Classic.

Along the way, the authors connect imagery at Bonampak to sites and features within Mesoamerica and even further afield. One surprising connection involves the ties between one of the scenes—involving a potential ‘green corn’ ceremony—and ritual behaviour in the south-east USA. This is a fascinating piece of scholarship that begs for further development. Likewise, the idea that the artists of the murals were captives themselves, forced to paint their compatriots in defeat, needs further expansion in order to become a convincing argument rather than an intriguing suggestion.

The final two chapters explore the political nature of the murals and the ways in which they may have featured in the imagination of the ancient Maya. In Chapter 5 the authors suggest, for example, that many of the buildings depicted in the Bonampak murals were not real. They were more a way of giving observers the impression that the rulers of Bonampak were capable of erecting new structures when, in fact, they were not. Similar points are made about the wealth of jade, feathers and other finery in the murals. Mural art at this time seems to have carried a “heavier burden” (p. 148) of social and political expression than it had before. Given that these paintings “were not easily seen—nor, conversely, was it easy for the observer to be seen or witnessed” (p. 94), that the rooms themselves fit perhaps no more than a dozen people inside, and that their viewing was likely restricted by social station, one has to wonder whose imagination the murals were intended to captivate. Perhaps the only people reassured by these images of wealth were the rulers themselves. After the collapse, this art came to be viewed by different audiences, each of whom attributed—and continue to attribute—changing value and meaning to the images and vignettes of the Bonampak murals. This book will allow future scholars to do just that, and overall there is no way to view The spectacle of the Late Maya court as anything other than a triumph.

Author

  • James L. Fitzsimmons
    Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Middlebury College, Vermont, USA (Email: jfitzsim [at] middlebury [dot] edu)
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