Art History Bonampak
Mary Miller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0048


The murals of Bonampak are the most extensive and complete wall paintings of the ancient Maya, remarkable discoveries since 1990 at San Bartolo, Calakmul, and Xultun notwithstanding. With dates of 790 and 791 embedded in the paintings themselves, the murals are among the last major programs executed by the lowland Maya. Painted at roughly half to two-thirds life size, they wrap around the interiors of three rooms, with dozens of individual painted figures, some of which are repeated from room to room; King Yahaw Chan Muwan appears only in Room 2, on both the north and south walls. Carved and painted lintels frame each room, featuring Yahaw Chan Muwan over the doorway of Room 1, and King Shield Jaguar of neighboring Yaxchilan over Room 2. Good general overviews of the Maya include information about the site, its carved stone monuments, and its architecture, in addition to commentary about the paintings of Structure 1. The small site, which lay within the sphere of Yaxchilan, is also the home to three important stelae and a number of wall panels. A significant tomb was discovered in 2010 within Structure 1, in the bench of Room 2.

General Overviews

The late 8th-century Maya wall paintings of Bonampak have been treated in both specialized and general works since their discovery in 1946. One should always start with the first substantive publications: Villagra Caleti 1949 and Ruppert, et al. 1955. Long the standard publication of the murals, Ruppert, et al. 1955 included the reconstructions of Antonio Tejeda, well known and widely reproduced because of their presence at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Thompson’s strong opinions about Maya civilization led him to make many misjudgments about the paintings. The most recent and comprehensive considerations can be found in Miller and Brittenham 2013 and de la Fuente and Staines Cicero 1998: they both fully supersede all previous publication. Espinosa, et al. 1988 were the first to report on the paintings following the 1985–1986 cleaning by INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia). General works to be consulted include Coe and Houston 2015 and Miller and O’Neil 2014. Miller 2002 in RES is a good short overview of the paintings and their meaning.

  • Coe, Michael D., and Stephen Houston. The Maya. London: Thames and Hudson, 2015.

    Coe’s general book on the Maya has long provided ample attention to Maya art; the new edition with Houston expands its coverage to the murals of Bonampak.

  • de la Fuente, Beatriz, and Leticia Staines Cicero, eds. La Pintura Mural Prehispánica en México II: Área Maya—Bonampak. 2 vols. México City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones, 1998.

    Comprehensive volume with iconographic and architectural studies by many scholars associated with the Instituto de Investigaciones Esteticas. Includes foldouts that reconstruct the paintings photographically and map them into the architecture of Bonampak’s Structure 1.

  • Espinosa, Augustín, Mauricio Rosas Kifuri, Beatriz Sandoval, and Abelardo Venegas. Bonampak. México City: Citicorp, Citibank Mexico, 1988.

    Excellent color photographs and fresh readings based on the cleaned paintings.

  • Houston, Stephen D., David Stuart, and Karl A. Taube. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.

    This study of Maya thought includes interpretations and readings based on the Bonampak paintings, although not organized by site.

  • Miller, Mary. “The Willfulness of Art: The Case of Bonampak.” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 42 (2002): 8–23.

    A good short essay on the paintings and their meanings.

  • Miller, Mary, and Claudia Brittenham. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Paintings of Bonampak. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013.

    Including large-scale foldouts of color reconstructions by Heather Hurst and Leonard Ashby, this volume incorporates the work of the Bonampak Documentation Project, which conducted archaeological research and novel imaging techniques at the site in 1996.

  • Miller, Mary, and Megan O’Neil. Maya Art and Architecture. 2d ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 2014.

    Miller and O’Neil devote a chapter of this edition to Maya murals.

  • Ruppert, Karl, J. Eric S. Thompson, and Tatiana Proskouriakoff. Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico. Publication 602. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1955.

    Long the standard publication of the murals, this volume includes the well-known reconstructions of Antonio Tejeda, well known and widely reproduced because of their presence at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Maps and photographs document architecture and sculpture

  • Villagra Caleti, Agustin. Bonampak: La ciudad de los muros pintados. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Secretaría de Educación Pública, 1949.

    Augustín Villagra Caleti made one of the first sets of reconstructions, working alongside Antonio Tejeda, and they appear as foldouts in this short book. Working under the guidance of Alfonso Caso, Villagra precociously recognized war, constellations, and a likely historical meaning of hieroglyphic captions.

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