Among the most beautiful artwork of the ancient Mayas are the carved stone and stucco panels of Palenque.
This city flourished from 400-900 CE in the mountain rain forests of southern Chiapas, Mexico. It became the regional vortex of creativity and the dominant ritual-political center during the reigns of K’inich Janaab Pakal and his sons. Rediscovered in the 16th Century by Spanish explorers and brought to international attention in the mid-1800s by John Lloyd Stephens’ travel books (1,2), Palenque enthralled visitors with its graceful, realistic figures on numerous panels and pillars, its harmonious architecture and copious glyphic writing.
The relief panels were carved of high quality limestone and coated with layers of stucco, creating smooth surfaces. Originally these were painted vibrant red, green, yellow and blue but the colors faded over the centuries. Many buildings had panels set into the walls of chambers and figures adorning pillars, including the Palace, Temple of the Inscriptions, and Cross Group. Panels set inside the interior chambers of buildings were best preserved; many pillar carvings deteriorated over time due to the humid tropical climate and encroaching vegetation.
The Most Beautiful Panel
In a small temple just west of the Otolum River, not far from the Cross Group, once resided “the most
beautiful piece of art of the aboriginal Indians,” said Paul Caras in his 1899 article published in The Open Court journal, Volume 13. It was a panel depicting a single male figure dressed simply, seated on a double-headed jaguar throne. This panel is known as the Beau Relief for its beauty. The elegant position of the figure’s arms and legs evoked a languorous dance. Rows of hieroglyphs bordered the upper sides and the throne was set upon two powerful claw-like legs. The panel was set on the inner chamber’s rear wall in the small, nearly square temple that sat on top of a hill. Steep stairs climbed to the entry chamber where a single front doorway gave access; its rear door led to the inner chamber. An opening in the floor of the inner chamber led to stairs that descended into a basement chamber.
The first European to depict the Beau Relief panel in this jungle-shrouded temple was Ignacio Armendáriz, an artist who accompanied Antonio del Río, artillery captain serving in the Spanish outpost in what is now Guatemala. By order of King Charles III of Spain, the ruined cities in the jungles of his new territories were to be explored and documented. In 1787 the Spaniards climbed the steep, treacherous trail following river cascades up to the ruins of Palenque, led by local Ch’ol Maya guides. After a month of clearing off trees and shrubs, the group exposed several impressive stone buildings. Del Río dug for artifacts and collected some art objects, while writing descriptions of Palenque’s buildings. Armendáriz drew pictures of 30 subjects, including tablets of the Temples of the Sun, the Cross and Foliated Cross, hieroglyphic tablets from the Palace subterranean passageways, and the Beau Relief tablet in the Temple of the Jaguar.
Considering the adverse conditions Armendáriz faced, his work is remarkable. He suffered debilitating
heat of tropical spring, working in half-lit interiors of sweltering chambers, drawing on damp paper soaked with humidity and perspiration, trying to capture complex details of images completely alien to him. In comparison to modern renditions, his drawings seem stilted and inaccurate in many details. But, they captured the essence of a strange and unknown culture. His is one of only two original drawings of the Beau Relief and is historically very significant. It was copied by José Castañeda two decades later and appeared in books published in early-mid 1800s. (3, 4, 5)
The second artist to draw the Beau Relief was the flamboyant Jean-Frederic Waldeck, a self-proclaimed count with a colorful and controversial history. Waldeck resided at Palenque for about one year in 1832, and carefully drew the panel on a grid, adding embellishments such as fine-line suggestions of musculature and costume details that gave a classic Roman look. Waldeck intended his work for popular consumption and believed the amazing ruined cities were created by ancient Asian or European cultures, or reflected cross-cultural stimulation. Shortly after Waldeck completed this drawing, the upper portion of the Beau Relief was destroyed, leaving only the throne and its legs. It is not clear how this occurred; some Mayanists believe Waldeck caused the figure’s destruction for unknown reasons. (6) During this time period, looting artifacts from ruins was common, including removal of portions from wall panels and pillars.
Now the Temple of the Jaguar is a partially collapsed ruin sitting on top a high hill, infrequently visited because of the steep path through dense jungles leading to it. We can only imagine what this magnificent sculpture in stone and stucco – the Beau Relief – must have looked like when freshly created, possibly portraying Pakal in his glory as the greatest ruler of Palenque.
- Stephens, John Lloyd (1841) Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. Two volumes, Harper and Brothers, New York.
- Stephens, John Lloyd (1843) Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. Two volumes, Harper and Brothers, New York.
- Humboldt, Alexander de (1810) Vues des cordilléres en monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique. Chez F. Schoell, Paris.
- Del Río, Antonio, and Paul Felix Cabrera (1822) Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City… Henry Berthoud, London.
- Kingsborough, Lord (1829-1848) Antiquities of Mexico… Nine Volumes, London.
- Stuart, David and George Stuart (2008) Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.