5129 - Tradition Vs. Innovation at Bonampak: A Reevaluation of Form as Meaning in Epiclassic Period Battle Murals

George Kubler’s writings respond to a tension between the ontology of objects and the ways in which they are interpreted or categorized, with the latter acknowledged as reflecting contemporary assumptions and concerns. In his essay “Period, Style, and Meaning in Ancient American Art” Kubler noted that no human action lacks its styles, a statement that can be implicitly extended to the practice of art historical writing (139). Building off of Kubler’s methodologies, this paper will reconsider the relevance of battle scenes in the corpus of Mesoamerican monumental art while simultaneously tracing the “Shape of Time” of the interpretive literature pertaining to this topic.

When a mural depicting warfare was rediscovered at the site of Bonampak in 1946, prevailing opinion viewed it as an anomalous, isolated representation of militarism by the Classic Maya, who were at that time characterized as peaceful astronomer priests. Over the next generation, martial iconography became increasingly recognized in Maya art, so that today the uniquely crowded and chaotic battle scene found at Bonampak is generally discussed as being essentially identical in content and message to the numerous carved depictions of triumphant rulers grasping lone, defeated captives. Continuities indeed exist between these artworks, but this swing of the interpretive pendulum has gone too far, ignoring the dramatic formal differences and shifts of rhetorical emphasis the battle mural presents in comparison with other types of Mesoamerican martial iconography.

Keywords: visual studies, mesoamerica, mural painting, warfare, art history

Author: Finegold, Andrew (Columbia University, Ud States of Am / USA)


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