Affectionately dubbed the “Sistine Chapel of The Americas”, Bonampak is without doubt one of the most fascinating artistic legacies left behind by the Maya. A diminutive site in comparison to the relics of Campeche State, Bonampak draws tourists for one reason alone – its murals. Nestled upon a fork of the thundering Usumacinta River, Bonampak sits almost parallel to Yaxchilan in the rugged South East of Chiapas State – accessible for a day trip by road or ferry, from the historic city of Palenque.
Rediscovered by American scholars John Bourne and Herman Charles Frey in 1946, Bonampak is accredited with changing our modern perception of the Maya. Prior to the revealing of Bonampak to the Western world, archaeologists believed the Maya to be a peaceful, scholarly civilization whom made key advancements in studies of astronomy and astral alignment. Bonampak shed light on a rather different facet of the culture; one which we now know aggressively invaded neighboring kingdoms and offered human sacrifice to Kinich Ahau - God of The Sun.
A long, narrow structure with vaulted ceilings and a triadic facade, Temple of the Murals resembles many of the more modest temples found at Palenque, primarily used for worship or holding court. Surprisingly well lit, with the addition of open niches some 20 feet from the base, the temple interior is a stark contrast to the dark, dank chambers of palatial pyramids found at Calakmul. Its clear these great halls were created as a show of Mayan exhibitionism, demonstrating the great talent and philosophical intelligence of Bonampak's serving artistes.
Frescoes adorning the walls of Chamber 1 appear to have been completed in stages. As sunlight bounces off white stucco, you'll notice colors becoming more vivid the higher you focus. Completed around 790 B.C, the highest murals are thought to represent King Chaan Muan and his family indulging in the self-cleansing ritual of bloodletting (releasing great quantities of impure blood, so as to rid themselves of disease.) Chamber 2 is a distinct departure from the jovial dancing and royalty portrayed previously. Here, the regal head Chaan Muan can be seen leading his warriors into battle, armed with terrific spears and determined grimace. As the scene unfolds, the king appears to goad his warriors, grabbing the hair of an opposing troop and threatening with his spear. His tunic connotes just how powerful the ruler was deemed to be, enhanced by the Jaguar emblem of Yaxchilan – a Mayan settlement known for its ferocity in battle. The vast North wall portrays the final demise of prisoners at the hands of their Bonampak captors – bloodied, tortured and finally beheaded at the feet of the king.
Standing afoot these behemoth frescoes, one can well imagine the sheer effort and time that went into creating such a masterpiece. Unlike Michaelangelo, the Mayan artists of Bonampak did not have great scaffolds upon which to balance whilst painting – making their Chiapas legacy ever the more awesome, to our modern eyes.