Bonampak’s murals are housed in Temple I, which stands on a low level of the Acropolis, a large stepped structure that backs onto a jungle-covered hill. In front of the Acropolis is a plaza with low buildings around the other three sides. Researchers believe that the story told through the murals should be read from left to right, from Room 1 to Room 3.
The setting of Room 1’s mural is the palace, where the child-heir is presented to the court and 336 days later is the focal point of a celebration with actors and musicians. The murals in Room 2 tell the story of a jungle battle, probably in honor of the heir, led by Chaan-Muan. This is considered the greatest battle scene in Maya art.
Next the scene moves to a staircase, where the captives are ritually tortured while Chaan-Muan watches from above. In Room 3 the setting is a pyramid, where costumed lords dance and a captive awaits his death. To the side, noblewomen ritually let their blood, while a pot-bellied dwarf is presented to the court. Anthropologists believe that the child-heir never ruled Bonampak, because there is evidence that the site was abandoned before the murals were even completed.
The murals have faded with time and were damaged when the first researchers used kerosene to clean them—the kerosene brought out the colors but weakened the paints’ adhesion and hastened the flaking and decay. The Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City has a reproduction of how the murals likely looked in their full glory, and lesser copies are found in Tuxtla Gutiérrez and Villahermosa. But, though they are old and damaged, you still can’t beat the originals.
When visiting Bonampak (and Yaxchilán) be sure to look at the beautifully carved scenes on the underside of the lintels (the slab of stone that forms the top of a doorway). Their location makes them easy to miss, but they are truly some of the best Maya relief carvings you’ll see outside of a museum. In Bonampak, Lintel I shows Chaan-Muan holding a captive by the hair; Lintel II shows Itzanaaj B’alam doing the same; and Lintel III shows a figure, possibly Chan-Muan’s father, Knot Eye Jaguar, spearing a victim in the chest.
© Liza Prado and Gary Chandler from Moon Chiapas, 1st Edition