by James Doyle (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Stephen Houston (Brown University), Beth Edelstein (Cleveland Museum of Art), and Brunella Santarelli (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
When Teobert Maler arrived in the Usumacinta region, he marveled at the landscape, noting stark contrasts of color and texture while walking among the white limestone cliffs “crowned by towering trees,” with the “nantsin-trees [Byrsonima crassifolia] just unfolding the splendor of their yellow blossoms” (Maler 1901:41). The site of Piedras Negras, Maler observed, took its name from the “splendid sandbanks with blackish limestone rocks rising out of them” (Maler 1901:42)—a distinctive feature now known to result from quarrying for the city. The color world of black, white, yellow, and green that Maler encountered is aggressively evident in the Parque Nacional Sierra Lacandon today, where the site of Laxtunich lies undocumented scientifically, and where the sculptor Mayuy created Laxtunich Lintel 1, his magnum opus.
Color creation and its application to eighth-century Maya monuments reflected the aspirations of Maya artists “to reproduce the effects of prime colorants” in nature (Houston et al. 2009:58). Maya artists made paints, or solid inorganic or organic colored materials suspended in liquid, and lakes, in which organic dyes were combined with inert clays, such as the well-known Maya Blue from indigo. Commonly used pigments included black from carbonized materials, red from hematite, yellow ochre from goethite, and white calcium carbonate (Houston et al. 2009:61-63). Many if not all of these occur on the Laxtunich lintels (Maya Lintel II).
Though the identities of the painters, unlike the master sculptor, remain hidden to us, the rich color world of the Yaxchilan-area nobles was essential to the lintels’ role as portals. Colors had deep symbolic associations for the Classic Maya. In glyphic script, colors took on double meanings as modifiers of people and things. Colors were also tangible substances (Note 1). In material form, colors patted and pinched into cakes were luxury goods taken to the afterlife by Maya kings and queens (Houston et al. 2015:159, fig. 3.70). Not all materials with the same color were created equal. Their richness and rarity were employed sparingly to underscore the preciousness of certain images or text. For example, in the Bonampak murals, imported cinnabar only appears in the dedicatory text of the building. There it brightened and enriched the dedication, in contrast to the more common, less costly iron-based reds elsewhere in the paintings (Brittenham 2015a:35; Magaloni Kerpel 1998:75). A casual visitor would not, we suspect, have distinguished between the two kinds of pigment. But the contrast mattered to makers and patrons.
The Bonampak murals are relevant for two other reasons. They show the most elaborate use of color in the same general time and region as Laxtunich Lintel 1. More to the point, they were almost certainly created by artists affiliated with Yaxchilan. That city provided carvers (and presumably painters) to Bonampak, as well as a queen and supervisory mention in the dedicatory text of the mural building. Mayuy, in carving for a vassal of Yaxchlan, must have known these artists (Maya Lintel II). Moreover, the lintels over the doorways at Bonampak are lavishly colored (Figure 1), and their pigments resembled those used and applied on the flat walls within (see Magaloni Kerpel et al. 1996; Magaloni 1998, 2004, for pigment studies). A reasonable claim is that rules for the transformation of colorants into paints were widely held by artists in and around the royal court of Yaxchilan, on both sides of the Usumacinta river. Sumptuary codes of a similar sort probably governed access to pigments at Bonampak and Laxtunich.
Figure 1. Lintel 1, Structure 1, Bonampak (photo by James Doyle).
Bonampak Lintel 1 celebrates the victory of the local king over a captive, and color signals the setting: the bright blue background suggests this violence took place against a clear tropical sky, as is found in the captive sacrifice scene in the murals within, or perhaps on a battleground deep in the green forest. In the mural, Chooj, the prince who dominates the murals, stands out sharply against the blue sky background with his deep reddish-brown skin, yellow and black jaguar tunic, and green headdress of quetzal feathers (Miller and Brittenham 2013:figs. 172, 190). There appears to have been a guiding logic in going from a background color to adjacent tones: the painters sought contrast, a dominant blue dictating a red frame and vice-versa (see below).
Perceptive research on the painting techniques of Bonampak artists by Diana Magaloni and colleagues reveals how paints and lakes were layered over white grounds to create a fluid, naturalistic look of great subtlety. Yet the surviving pigments on the Laxtunich sculpture hint that color was used in another way. Mayuy or those who painted the lintel—it is hard to imagine much disconnection between them—did not seek the blue sky and white stuccoed facades and walls. Rather, in his first lintels, he used a red background. This configuration resembles, if in darker tint, the coloring of Room 1 at Bonampak, a scene of tributary dance under a sky band and two sets of jewels for regalia (Miller and Brittenham 2013:insert for Room 1).
There are several issues in interpreting the colors of Laxtunich Lintel 1. The main ones involve the lack of context and possible alteration or deterioration of the carving as it journeyed from the site to private collections in the 1960s (Graham 2010:429). Under ultraviolet light, the breaks and linear cuts through the stone are plainly visible as darker lines, with modern restoration seen in the large diagonal break (Figure 2). The lighter areas of a greenish fluorescence, such as in the body of Shield Jaguar IV on the upper left, may indicate a modern consolidation of delicate paint surfaces as revealed by the manual removal of calcite accretions. Those deposits grew, we believe, from centuries of water leaching before the lintel cracked and its housing collapsed. Indeed, the length of the original carving (its dimensions may be appreciated in the Lamb photos, Maya Lintel I) indicates a wide doorway and heavy weight above, as well as the lintel’s overall, inherent fragility. Building collapse might well have been sudden and catastrophic. Alternatively, the damage had taken place only a short time before Lamb’s arrival. In one note on the back of a photo he mentions the recent fall of a large tree (Maya Lintel I).
Figure 2. Ultraviolet fluorescence of surface, Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photograph by Beth Edelstein).
Despite the deposits and damage during transport, several fields of color survive on the lintel (Figure 3). A close examination discloses intense blue-green applied to the quetzal feathers, jade jewels, and frames around the hieroglyphic texts in the upper and lower registers. Blue-green seems also to cover the border of the entire scene, mirroring the preciousness surrounding the glyphs. A darker red with purplish tinge decorates the face and bodies of the four large human characters, and a lighter red-orange covers the background and certain hieroglyphs. A yellowish orange appears in the k’in, “sun,” element of the “quadripartite badge” (perhaps a stylized censer or offering cache) protruding downward from the right side of the horizontal dividing line (Taube 1998:fig. 5).
Figure 3. Surviving color, Laxtunich Lintel 1 (drawing by Stephen Houston, photograph by James Doyle).
To evaluate the pigments present on Laxtunich Lintel 1, qualitative, non-destructive, open-architecture x-ray fluorescence analysis was performed in situ on various areas of the stone. [Note 2] The locations of the sampling appear in Figure 4. Our team also scraped some of the pigmented areas for SEM-EDS and Raman analysis, in places corresponding to a number of the XRF analysis points.
Figure 4. Location of XRF sample points, Laxtunich Lintel 1 (photograph by Beth Edelstein).
Surface XRF analysis of the red and yellow pigments suggests that both are iron oxide pigments. One sample area of red indicated the presence of arsenic (point 1), so SEM-EDS analysis was performed to confirm that substance. However, the scraping taken from point 1 turned out to have no pigment, only stone or carbonaceous crust. The EDS results from the other scraping (taken from point 7) also denotes iron oxide, not arsenic, as the most likely identification. The source of the arsenic is unclear, though it may be present in crusts on the surface of the stone.
The blue and green pigments were examined with XRF, SEM-EDS and Raman spectroscopy. The XRF spectrum primarily showed elements in the stone itself (calcium and iron), but the EDS registered elements characteristic of a clay (silicon, aluminum and magnesium); the Raman spectra of both blue and green samples matched that of indigo (Figure 5). Together, these results signal that the blue and green pigments are Maya blue, a mixture of indigo dye and palygorskite clay. The blue area on Laxtunich Lintel 1 exhibited a small copper peak, as seen in Figure 6. SEM-EDS, however, was not able to identify copper, making it unlikely that the mineral pigment derived from this element.
Figure 5. Raman spectra of blue and green pigment samples, with reference spectrum of indigo (in gray).
Figure 6. XRF Spectrum of blue pigment, Laxtunich Lintel 1 (analytical point 1).
The iron oxide reds and yellows, Maya blue, and likely carbon-based dark pigment of Lintel 1 are visually similar to the color scheme of Laxtunich Lintel 2, also in a private collection, especially the Maya blue on the frame around the hieroglyphs (Figure 7, center). Striking differences arise in comparison with Mayuy Series Lintel 1, which shares the blue background of the Bonampak lintel and murals (Figure 7, right). There are several reasons for this discrepancy. First, the blue background on the more courtly scene may refer to the sky, as in Bonampak, or to the preciousness of the innermost chambers of the royal court. Second, the red background potentially underscores the setting of the interaction depicted on Lintel 1, namely, the golden-red sky of the equinoctial dawn (or sunset) or an evocation of some primordial event (cf. mythic referents on the red-background “Vase of the 13 Gods” at the Los Angeles Museum of Art, M.2010.115.14 and Maya Lintel IV).
Figure 7. Shifting color schemes in Laxtunich Lintels 1, 2, and Mayuy Series Lintel 1 (photographs by James Doyle [left], courtesy of Justin Kerr [center], and the Kimbell Art Museum [right]).
Or perhaps the red background with blue glyphs advertised that these events were taking place at Yaxchilan itself, rather than at provincial centers. Artists might have used red to reference the dense, stuccoed, and painted core of Yaxchilan; blue would have correlated with the smaller hilltop palaces at the local sajal courts. Against this interpretation is the Kimbell Lintel or Mayuy Series Lintel 1. That scene, in which Aj Chak Ma’x offers human tribute to his overlord (ti yajaw), has a blue background, yet the event probably took place at Yaxchilan (see Piedras Negras Stela 12 for a similar display; CMHI 9:61). Consistency was important, it seems. The two early Mayuy lintels came, we suspect, from the same building, suggesting that such conformity of appearance guided the makers, whatever the distinct themes in the lintels themselves (Maya Lintel II). Mayuy may even have wanted a vivid contrast between the earlier and later lintels.
The red-versus-blue background schemes in the Yaxchilan kingdom have parallels in the murals at Cacaxtla, painted several hundred kilometers away (see Brittenham and Magaloni Kerpel 2016; Brittenham 2015b). There, in the Red Temple, so-named after the background of its luxuriously painted murals, the artists highlight the blue-green preciousness of jade, quetzal feathers, maize plants, and watery abundance against a deep red background (Brittenham and Magaloni Kerpel 2016:74-81, fig. 3.23-4). The red scenes at Cacaxtla blur human and supernatural identities, while the blue background of the Battle Mural indicates “present-day” action, namely, close to the time of painting (Brittenham 2015:177). At Cacaxtla, as in the Laxtunich lintels, one color determines the juxtaposition of the other. Yet the lintels differ in one important respect by offering few divisions between the dynastic present and the supernatural. Lintel 1, a cosmic scene, and Lintel 2, a political presentation, share the same red ground (Maya Lintel II and Maya Lintel IV). Nor can we be certain of full evidence: the Laxtunich building may well have contained murals.
Contrast mattered. Mayuy took artistic license in his choice of red or blue background to amp up the contrast between the red-hued human figures, festooned with jade and textiles, and the ground field, which would otherwise have been yellowish-white stone. This seems also to be the case with the murals and lintels from the site of La Pasadita, the contemporaneous center of a sajal noble court (Figure 8). A lintel in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, likely to be from La Pasadita, carries the same color scheme of red background, blue and green jade and feather highlights, and a yellow-orange daubed on a few attributes. More than his peer at Laxtunich, the sculptor of the La Pasadita lintels, Chakalte’, mastered a more subtle, low relief technique. Yet the same rules seem to inform the post-dedication painting of these upper surfaces of doorways.
Figure 8. Comparison of paint schemes: (left) enhanced multispectral image from Fragment 1, Structure 1 murals, La Pasadita, Guatemala (now in the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, Guatemala City, Kamal et al. 1999:fig. 10); (right) La Pasadita Lintel 3 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1979.206.1047).
The overlord of the courts producing these three artistic schemes of sculpture and painting—at Bonampak, Laxtunich, and La Pasadita—was the same ruler, Shield Jaguar IV. Resource procurement of pigments and knowledge of recipes were probably more or less equal across his territory. Yet differential levels of skill become obvious when comparing the facture of painted lintels and murals. The careful preparation of stucco surfaces and layering of paint in murals give way to an almost clumsy, caked-on painting of the carvings, begging the question of who applied the pigment.
One can imagine the master sculptor shaping a quarried stone. The lintel would then be raised, positioned, and dedicated, possibly with subordinate nobles bearing the weight of the masterwork. (These lords either did the lifting or, more probable, given their elite status, assisted metaphorically by commissioning the construction.) The lintel thus placed, the roof completed, the building could then be completed ritually by having fire enter it for the first time (Stuart 1998). We cannot know for certain, but perhaps paint was applied in an almost ritual sequence, blue early on, in a workshop or just after carving, then red and yellow-orange paint, symbolic of the fiery dawn, at the time of dedication. The crude dark coloring over the Itzam in lower center may reveal some other application, perhaps even from a resinous torch, thrust upward at this spot alone or done later by visiting Lacandon Maya. Someone took great care, however, to reach behind the floating arm and dab Maya blue on the beaded jade necklace of the Itzam (see essay 4 in this series).
There might have been a deeper, devotional meaning to the mixing and application of bright paints. Rather than an end product—a colorful, naturalistic scene as in the murals—the painting of lintels was, perhaps, an iterative process. Multiple hands labored over many moments. The blue pigment of jade beads hanging from the deity in the lower register, hidden by its now-missing arm, indicates a careful and purposeful marking of even the smallest details. Valuable things needed valuable, materially accurate color. Could visitors have applied paint over time, in a ritual act like touching a mezuzah when entering a Jewish household? At the least, the Laxtunich lintel expresses thoughtful application of pigment, enjoining us, by its example, to understand local motivations and schemes in configuring color.
Note 1. For a comparative study in ancient China, see Lai (2015).
Note 2. Spectra were acquired with a Bruker Artax instrument using unfiltered Rh radiation at 50 kV, 700 μA, with a 1 mm collimator in a Helium atmosphere, and with 60 seconds live-time acquisition.
Special thanks go to the Departments of Objects Conservation and Scientific Research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for permission to disseminate the technical study of the pigments, performed by Beth Edelstein and Brunella Santarelli. Ellen How and Federico Caro also participated in the visual and macroscopic examination of the stone.
Brittenham, Claudia. 2015a. Three Reds: Cochineal, Hematite, and Cinnabar in the Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican World. In A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World, edited by Carmella Padilla and Barbara Anderson, 26–35. Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe / Skira Rizzoli, New York.
Brittenham, Claudia. 2015b The Murals of Cacaxtla: The Power of Painting in Ancient Central Mexico. University of Texas Press, Austin
Brittenham, Claudia, and Diana Magaloni Kerpel. 2016. The Eloquence of Color: Material and Meaning in the Cacaxtla Murals. In Making Value, Making Meaning: Techné in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Cathy L. Costin, 63–94. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, Washington, DC.
Graham, Ian. 2010. The Road to Ruins. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
Houston, Stephen, Claudia Brittenham, Cassandra Mesick, Alexandre Tokovinine, and Christina Warinner. 2009. Veiled Brightness: A History of Ancient Maya Color. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Houston, Stephen, Sarah Newman, Edwin Román, and Thomas Garrison. 2015. Temple of the Night Sun: A Royal Maya Tomb at El Diablo, Guatemala. Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, San Francisco.
Kamal, Omar S., Gene A. Ware, Stephen Houston, Douglas M. Chabries, and Richard W. Christiansen. 1999. Multispectral Image Processing for Detail Reconstruction and Enhancement of Maya Murals from La Pasadita, Guatemala. Journal of Archaeological Science 26:1391–1407.
Lai, Guolong. 2015. Colors and Color Symbolism in Early Chinese Ritual Art: Red and Black and the Formation of the Five Color System. In Color in Ancient and Medieval East Asia, edited by Mary M. Dusenbury, 24–43. Spencer Museum of Art, the University of Kansas, Lawrence.
Magaloni Kerpel, Diana, Richard Newman, Leticia Baños, and Tatiana Falcón. 1996. Los pintores de Bonampak. In Eighth Palenque Round Table, 1993, edited by Martha J. Macri and Jan McHargue, 159–168. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.
Magaloni, Diana. 1998. El arte en el hacer: Técnica pintórica y color en las pinturas de Bonampak. In La pintura mural prehispánica en México II: Área maya, Bonampak, edited by Beatriz de la Fuente, 49–80. Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City.
Magaloni, Diana. 2004. Technique, Color, and Art at Bonampak. In Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya, edited by Mary Miller and Simon Martin, 250–252. Thames and Hudson, London.
Maler, Teobert. 1901. Researches in the Central Portion of the Usumatsintla Valley: Report of Explorations for the Museum, 1989-1900. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol. II No. 1. Cambridge, MA.
Miller, Mary Ellen, and Claudia Brittenham. 2013. The Spectacle of the Late Maya Court: Reflections on the Murals of Bonampak. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Stuart, David. 1998. “The Fire Enters His House”: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen Houston, 373–425. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.
Taube, Karl. 1998. The Jade Hearth: Centrality, Rulership, and the Classic Maya Temple. In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen Houston, 427–478. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, DC.