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Photography Comes to Palenque

Temple of the Inscriptions in 1985 Maudslay photo from Meosweb

Temple of the Inscriptions in 1895
Maudslay photo from Meosweb

Excerpts from the archeological field journal of Francesca Nokom Gutierrez, fictional archeologist in the Mists of Palenque series. Early photography in Palenque by Desire de Charnay, Teobert Maler, and Alfred Maudslay is described by Francesca in The Controversial Mayan Queen: Sak K’uk of Palenque, Book 2 in the Mayan queens’ series.




Photography initiated a new era in documentation of Maya ruins.

Before the camera, on-site drawings or white paper cast molds were the best techniques available.  Drawings depended on the skill and perseverance of the artist, and molds were subject to melting in the extremely wet and humid tropical climate.  In 1839 Daguerre invented the first camera using a complicated “wet” chemical process.  The enterprising French explorer Desiré de Charnay used this camera on his expedition to Palenque in 1860.  He spent nine days there, using the cumbersome process to take the first photos of the ruins. (more…)


Palenque Goes International: Stephens & Catherwood

Catherwood Drawing of Palenque

Catherwood Drawing of Palenque


Excerpts from The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque


Incidents of Travel Vol-1_

The Travel Writers of Their Time

Thanks to the remarkable four-volume books Incidents of Travel, by John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, we are given much insight into the hardships of travel and the impact of this splendid and high civilization on these explorers.


John Lloyd Stephens

John Lloyd Stephens

John Lloyd Stephens is a masterful storyteller and Frederick Catherwood a fine artist.  Their first two-volume book, featuring Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, was published in 1841.  It became an instant success, with publisher Harper and Brothers in New York making 11

Frederick Catherwood

Frederick Catherwood

printings of 20,000 copies each in only three months.  I keep a copy with me to enjoy comparing their impressions with present-day Palenque.  Although his prose is typical for that period, it’s richly descriptive and amusing.  Stephens weaves details of their harrowing adventures, gives astute character profiles, evocative descriptions and levelheaded reasoning, spiced with wry humor.  Catherwood provides distinctive drawings and quality architectural designs with floor plans, elevations and outside views of Palenque’s major structures.  Thirty-one of his Palenque drawings were converted to engravings and published in the two Central American volumes.

You get a real sense of travel in the mid-1800s in the back-country of Mexico and Central America. 

Stephens and Catherwood came from Guatemala to Ocosingo and followed the same route Dupaix took thirty years earlier, an ancient Indian path over mountains giving “one of the grandest, wildest, and most sublime scenes I ever beheld.” They made the trip in five days to reduce nights in the wild during the rainy season.  Clambering along steep paths hovering over thousand-foot precipices, they mostly walked leading mules and occasionally risked being carried in a chair by an Indian using a tumpline across his forehead.  The chair-bearer’s heavy breathing,

Trek over mountains Catherwood carried in "silla" by Maya bearer

Trek over mountains
Catherwood carried in “silla” by Maya bearer

dripping sweat and trembling limbs failed to inspire confidence and made them feel guilty, so they used the chair very little.  The descent was even more terrible than the ascent, and the sun was sinking.  Dark clouds and thunder gave way to a violent rainstorm, men and mules slipping and sliding.  Stephens admits “. . . it was the worst mountain I ever encountered in that or any other country, and, under our apprehension of the storm, I will venture to say that no travelers ever descended in less time.”

Once on the plains below and camped for the night, they suffered an onslaught of “moschetoes as we had not before experienced.”  Even fire and cigars could not keep the vicious insects at bay.  After a sleepless and much-bitten night, Stephens went before daylight to the nearby shallow river “and stretched myself out on the gravelly bottom, where the water was barely deep enough to run over my body.  It was the first comfortable moment I had had.”

“Moschetoes” and rainstorms continued to plague the explorers after they arrived at the ruins of Palenque.  They no sooner got their wood frame beds and stone slab dining table set up, with a meal of chicken, beans, rice and cold tortillas prepared proudly by their mozo Juan, than a loud thunderclap

Catherwood Drawing Palenque Palace Interior

Catherwood Drawing
Palenque Palace Interior

heralded the afternoon storm.  Though located on the upper terrace of the palace and covered by a roof, the fierce wind blasted through open doors followed instantly by a deluge that soaked everything.  They moved to an inside corridor but still could not escape the rain, and slept with clothes and bedding thoroughly wet.

Rather, they tried to sleep but “suffered terribly from moschetoes, the noise and stings of which drove away sleep. In the middle of the night I took up my mat to escape from these murderers of rest.”  Finding a low damp passage near the foot of the palace tower, Stephens crawled inside and spread his mat as bats whizzed through the passage.  However, the bats drove away the mosquitoes, the damp passage was cooling and refreshing, and “with some twinging apprehensions of the snakes and reptiles, lizards and scorpions, which infest the ruins, I fell asleep.”

They solved the mosquito problem by bending sticks over their wood beds and sewing their sheets together, draping them over the sticks to form a mosquito net.  Not all insects were odious.  At night the darkness of the palace was lighted by huge fireflies of “extraordinary size and brilliance” that flew through corridors or clung to walls.  Called locuyos, they were half an inch long and had luminescent spots by their eyes and under their wings.  “Four of them together threw a brilliant light for several yards around” and one alone gave enough light to read a newspaper.

Exploring the Ruins

To explore the heavily forested ruins they hired a guide, the same man employed by Waldeck, Walker and Caddy.  It’s hard now to imagine how dense the jungle was then, trees growing on top of every structure and filling plazas.  Without the guide, they had no idea where other structures lay and “might have gone within a hundred feet of all the buildings without discovering one of them.”  The palace was most visible and could be seen from the northeast path leading to the ruins.  Stephens described its many rooms, stuccos, tablets, and ornaments while Catherwood rendered detailed floor plans and copied images.  Stephens hoped their work would give an idea of the “profusion of its ornaments, of their unique and striking character, and of their mournful effect, shrouded by trees.”  Perhaps readers could imagine the palace as it once was “perfect in its amplitude and rich decorations, and occupied by the strange people whose portraits and figures now adorn its walls.”

Catherwood Sketch of Palace

Catherwood Sketch of Palace

Catherwood Drawing Principle Court of Palace

Catherwood Drawing
Principle Court of Palace









According to the guide, there were five other buildings that Stephens numbered, but none could be seen from the palace.  The closest was Casa 1, a ruined pyramid that apparently had steps on all sides, now thrown down by trees that required them to “clamber over stones, aiding the feet by clinging to the branches.”  From descriptions and drawings, this structure is the Pyramid of the Inscriptions Bas-relief stuccos on the four piers of the upper temple were reasonably well preserved, depicting four standing figures holding infants.  The famous hieroglyphic tablets covering the interior wall were also in good condition.

Catherwood Sketch and Architectural Floor Plan Temple of Inscriptions

Catherwood Sketch and Architectural Floor Plan
Temple of Inscriptions

Casas 2, 3 and 5 are part of the Cross Group.  Stephens and Catherwood were deeply impressed by the stuccos and tablets that we now know belong to the Temple of the Cross and Temple of the Foliated Cross.  The fantastic tablets from the first temple were incomplete and only the left tablet containing glyphs was in place.  The middle tablet with two figures facing a cross had been removed and carried down the side of the pyramid, but deposited near the stream bank below.  A villager intended to take it home, but was stopped by government orders forbidding further removal from the ruins.  The right tablet was broken and fragmented, but from remnants they saw it contained more glyphs.

The second temple contained another tablet in near-perfect condition.  It had a central panel with two figures facing a large mask over two crossed batons, flanked on each side by panels of glyphs.  The four piers of the temple’s entrance once contained sculptures; the outer two adorned with large medallions were still in place.  The other two panels had been removed by villagers and set into the wall of a house.  Copied earlier by Catherwood, these panels depicted two men facing each other.  One was richly dressed and regal, the other an old man in jaguar pelt smoking a pipe.  Later these famous sculptures were moved to the village church, and again later to the Palenque museum.

Temple of Foliated Cross L. Schele drawing, FAMSI

Temple of Foliated Cross
L. Schele drawing, FAMSI

Smoking Lord, Temple of the Cross L. Schele drawing, FAMSI

Smoking Lord, Temple of the Cross – L. Schele drawing, FAMSI













Casa 4 was farthest away, southwest of the palace.  It sat on a pyramid 100 feet above the bank of the river with the front wall entirely collapsed.  The large stucco tablet inside showed the bottom half of a figure sitting on a double-headed jaguar throne, the lovely Beau Relief partially destroyed by Waldeck.  Stephens regretted this loss greatly (as do I) because it appeared to be “superior in execution to any other stucco relief in Palenque.”  This small structure is now called Temple of the Jaguar.

The Beau Relief drawn by Jean-Frederic Waldeck

The Beau Relief


This story is told in my post:

The Palenque Beau Relief: A Maya Beauty Vanishes.




Difficult Working Conditions

Temple of the Inscriptions in 1985 Maudslay photo from Meosweb

Temple of the Inscriptions in 1895
Maudslay photo from Meosweb

Stephens complains that artists of former expeditions failed to reproduce the detailed glyphs in Casas 1 and 3, and omitted drawings of Casa 2 altogether.  He believes these artists were “incapable of the labour, and the steady, determined perseverance required for drawing such complicated, unintelligible, and anomalous characters.”  Catherwood used a camera lucida to project a light image of the glyphs and sculptures onto paper, and then drew the images to accurate scale and detail.  He divided his paper into squares for copying glyphs to give accurate placement, reducing these large images and hand correcting the later engravings himself.

One must admire these two men, working under terrible conditions with limited equipment, yet providing such a thorough account of the Palenque structures they saw.  They needed to scrape off green moss, dig out roots, clean away layers of dissolved limestone, use candles to light dark inner chambers, build scaffolds to access high places, and endure a plethora of climate and insect assaults.  They paid the price of multiple mosquito bites, for both men contracted malaria and suffered repeated episodes of illness.

They left us a few astute conclusions.  Stephens proved more insightful than later Mayanists by writing, “The hieroglyphics doubtless tell its history” and “The hieroglyphics are the same as were found at Copan and Quirigua . . . there is room for belief that the whole of this country was once occupied by the same race, speaking the same language . . .”

Itzamna Painted on Vase Performing Ritual

Itzamna Painted on Vase Performing Ritual

“Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished, entirely unknown . . . wherever we moved we saw the evidences of their taste, their skill in arts, their wealth and power.”  John Lloyd Stephens





Excerpts from The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque

These excerpts from the Archeological Field Journal of Francesca Nokom Gutierrez, a fictional archeologist in my books, describe the history of archeological exploration at Palenque. I’ll be doing several posts taken from her journal in the first 3 books in my “Mists of Palenque” series.


Click here: 13 Rabbit Scribe

Rabbit scribe


Palenque’s Early Explorers

Palace at Palenque

Palace at Palenque

Excerpts from The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque

Early explorers: Del Rio, Armendariz, Dupaix, Waldeck, Walker-Caddy


In the 1780s, a couple of Spanish expeditions came to Palenque and made crude drawings of structures and art.  The King of Spain was interested in the geography and history of his overseas colonies, and dispatched Artillery Captain Antonio del Rio from Guatemala to bring away samples.  Del Rio removed stucco hieroglyphs, parts of figures and small panels that now reside in Madrid’s Museo de America.

Bas relief sketch by Armendariz, 1787

Bas relief sketch by Armendariz, 1787

Numerous drawings by artist Ignacio Armendariz from this expedition were the first reasonably accurate reproductions of Palenque’s huge array of art.

Another Spanish expedition in the early 1800s produced 27 drawings of panels and tablets, floor plans, and sketches of buildings, a bridge and aqueduct.  Guillermo Dupaix, Dragoon Captain stationed in Mexico, and artist Jose Luciano Castaneda took a 50-mile trek from Ciudad Real (now San Cristobal de las Casas) to Palenque that required eight days on a trail winding through mountains that were “scarcely passable by any other animal than a bird.”  Unfortunately, the work of these two Spanish artists got confounded and appeared in a book by Alexander von Humboldt in 1810 labeled as “Mexican reliefs found in Oaxaca,” a city nowhere near

Castaneda drawing of Temple of Inscriptions

Castaneda drawing of Temple of Inscriptions


The flamboyant artist, traveler and antiquarian, self-styled “count” Jean-Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck adapted Armendariz-Castaneda’s art with his own embellishments of musculature and costumes that gave a distinctly Roman look.  Waldeck, like some other early explorers, believed the people who built these cities came from the “old world,” perhaps Rome, India or Egypt.  This art appeared in an 1822 publication of the del Rio report, with many images copied into Lord Kingsborough’s sumptuous volume the Antiquities of Mexico in 1829.  Waldeck resided at Palenque in 1832, building a pole-and-thatch house near the Temple of the Cross and recruiting a local Maya girl as his housekeeper.  The structure called Temple of the Count is named for him.  He made numerous drawings of reliefs and glyphs, some were careful reproductions but many were fanciful with evocative views of buildings and romantic landscapes used later for paintings and lithographs.

Waldeck drawing of Palace Tower

Waldeck drawing of Palace Tower

Waldeck drawing of elephant head on Palace wall

Waldeck drawing of elephant head on Palace wall












I can forgive Waldeck for many of his absurdities, such as including elephant heads and Hindu designs in renditions of Maya art.  But I cannot forgive him for partially destroying one of Palenque’s loveliest stucco sculptures, the “Beau-relief” that once adorned the Temple of the Jaguar.  It depicts a graceful figure with flowing headdress and geometric-patterned skirt, seated on layered cushions upon a double-headed jaguar throne.  The figure’s arms and legs hold elegant, ballet-like poses.  Waldeck did draw the figure first, as did Armendariz half-a-century earlier.  Why he destroyed it is a mystery.


The Beau Relief drawn by Jean-Frederic Waldeck

The Beau Relief drawn by
Jean-Frederic Waldeck


These drawings were reproduced in a number of books and magazines, and caught the attention of two men in the United States who really “put Palenque on the map;” John Lloyd Stephens, American popular travel writer and Frederick Catherwood, English architect and illustrator.  Intrigued by the fantastic images and cities depicted, they determined to travel in search of Maya ruins and publish a book with illustrations about these wondrous things.  They went first to Belize to visit Copan (now in Honduras), and then planned visits to Uxmal, Palenque and other sites.

Belize was under British control then, and some international competition got sparked.  Patrick Walker, aide to the superintendent of British Honduras, and Lt. John Caddy of the Royal Artillery heard about Stephens and Catherwood’s plans to visit Palenque.  Irked that the American expedition might reach Palenque before the British, Walker and Caddy quickly put together their own expedition.  The Britons planned to reach Palenque first by going due west along the Belize River and across the Peten in Guatemala.  They endured a grueling journey through swamps and jungles, arriving two months ahead of the American team.

Walker and Caddy made some quite accurate drawings of figures, panels and buildings and produced a report that remained unpublished for over 125 years.  Their primary goal seemed to be winning the race

Caddy drawing of interior House A, Palace

Caddy drawing of interior House A, Palace

with the American team, and Walker’s greatest interest was hunting game along the way.  Caddy’s report did make prophetic observations; saying that the massive buildings, elegant bas reliefs, and beautiful ornaments prove that in ancient times the city was inhabited by “a race both populous and civilized.”  He also concluded that many more buildings once stood at the site that extended for several leagues.  One entry remarked on a Spanish manuscript from around 1796, in which the local priest claimed that he “discovered the true origin” of these ancient people because of their “perfect knowledge of the Mythology of the Chaldeans.”




Excerpt taken from The Visionary Mayan Queen: Yohl Ik’nal of Palenque.

These excerpts taken from the Archeological Field Journal of Francesca Nokom Gutierrez, a fictional archeologist in my books, describe the history of archeological exploration at Palenque.  I’ll be doing several posts taken from her journal in the first 3 books in my “Mists of Palenque” series.


                                                           Click here: 13 Rabbit Scribe   Rabbit scribe


The Red Bones Speak

Skull of The Mayan Red Queen

Skull of The Mayan Red Queen

Revelations of the Mayan Red Queen’s skeleton about who she was.

It took ten years after the discovery of the Mayan Red Queen’s skeleton in 1994 for archeologists to make progress on her identity. They had narrowed the candidates to four royal women, all connected to K’inich Janaab Pakal, but who she was eluded them. Since the Red Queen’s tomb was found in a small pyramid adjacent to Pakal’s magnificent Pyramid of the Inscriptions holding his burial chamber, it was clear that she must be closely connected with this famous ruler. There were no inscriptions on the sarcophagus or walls of the crypt to indicate the identity of the interred woman.  The candidates were:

  • Yohl Ik’nal, his grandmother – Heart of North Wind

  • Sak K’uk, his mother – Resplendent White Quetzel

  • Tz’aakb’u Ahau, his wife – Accumulator of Lords

  • K’inuuw Mat, his daughter-in-law – Sun-Possessed Cormorant

Early on, Pakal’s grandmother was eliminated because she died more than seventy years before the Red Queen’s tomb was built, and archeologists determined it was not a secondary burial. Both his mother and wife died within the time frame, and possibly the daughter-in-law, although her date of death is not known. The bones were permeated with red mercuric oxide called cinnabar, used as a preservative by ancient Mayas. The bright red color also symbolized sacred energies of blood, called itz. It was the color of the east, the rising sun, the renewal of life eternal. Cinnabar made the bone cells very difficult to examine microscopically, and the bone matrix had deteriorated over time.

Strontium isotopes analysis.  Between 1999 and 2003, a project under the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) extracted samples of bone and teeth from both Pakal and the Red Queen. Studies of strontium isotopes were done by Dr. Vera Tiesler and Dr. Andrea Cucina, of the Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan (UADY) during those years. Strontium isotopes are found in

Strontium isotopes in various geological strata

Strontium isotopes in various geological strata

bedrock, and vary with the age and type of rock. Isotopes move from rock into soil and groundwater, into plants and through the food chain. In humans, strontium isotopes in skeletal bones reflect diet during the later years of life; those in tooth enamel indicate diet during childhood. Geologically different regions will have different isotope ratios. When the isotope ratios of Pakal’s bones and teeth were examined, these showed he was born and resided in later life in the Palenque region. The Red Queen’s tooth enamel had isotope ratios of a different geographic region located in the western part of Veracruz, making it likely that she came from Tortuguero or Pomona. Epigraphic evidence also indicates she was from a different city than Palenque. The strontium isotopes studies made it unlikely that the Red Queen was Pakal’s mother, who was born and lived her life in Palenque.

DNA Double Helix

DNA Double Helix

DNA analysis.  More definitive evidence that the Red Queen was not Pakal’s grandmother or mother came from DNA studies completed several years later. Dr. Carney Matheson at Lakehead University in Canada studied several bone samples from Pakal, the Red Queen, and three other individuals from Palenque. His group specialized in studying biomolecules and the processes of their degradation, especially focusing on ancient biological remains that were challenging to recover using conventional methods. In June 2012, INAH released a statement with the DNA analysis results that “confirmed that there was no relationship between the Red Queen and Pakal.” They did not have common DNA, so she was not a blood relative. Most Mayanists now believe his wife, Tz’aakb’u Ahau, was the Red Queen. There is still a slight chance it might be his daughter-in-law, or another unrelated woman. If future excavations discover the tomb of one of Pakal’s sons, DNA studies on those bones would confirm the red skeleton’s identity as Pakal’s wife. Of interest, the Red Queen’s bones were returned to

DNA Analysis in Lab

DNA Analysis in Lab

Palenque in 2012, after residing in Mexico City since their discovery in 1994. Placed in several carefully sealed boxes, her bones are kept in the archeological zone in a structure where humidity and temperature can be controlled. Her burial chamber in Temple XIII has too much humidity and temperature fluctuation to safely house the bones and prevent further deterioration. Her empty sarcophagus can be viewed in its chamber, still coated with cinnabar.


Temple XIII - small pyramid to right of Temple of Inscriptions

Temple XIII – small pyramid to right of Temple of Inscriptions


Read the story of The Mayan Red Queen in well-researched historical fiction. Compelling depiction of her life with Pakal at Palenque (Lakam Ha) during its height as a creative and political vortex.

DD_Red Queen Final

Who Was The Mayan Red Queen? Part 1 – The Candidates

Red Queen's Skeleton in Sarcophagus

Red Queen’s Skeleton in Sarcophagus

Part 1 – The Candidates For the Mayan Red Queen.


“The Red Queen” was the nickname given by archeologists to the red cinnabar-permeated skeleton of a tall woman, covered with jade and shells, found inside a sarcophagus whose inner walls were also coated red. They knew she was someone important, probably royalty related to famous Maya king K’inich Janaab Pakal, since Temple XIII which contained her sarcophagus was adjacent to his burial pyramid in Palenque. After an expert Mexican physical anthropologist determined the skeleton was female, speculation ran rampant over who she was. Discovering her identity would be difficult, however, because the crypt and sarcophagus did not have any inscriptions. This was surprising, since Pakal’s crypt walls, sarcophagus walls and lid were literally covered with Maya hieroglyphs, symbols and portraits of ancestors. The process of deduction led to identifying four candidates in Pakal’s family. From Pakal’s burial, tablets and panels we know the names of his mother and grandmother. From panels in the Palace and Temple of the Inscriptions we can identify the names of his wife and daughter-in-law. He apparently did not have any sisters or daughters, although he did have four sons.

The candidates for The Red Queen were Pakal’s grandmother, mother, wife and daughter-in-law.

Yohl Ik'nal Portrayed on Pakal's Sarcophagus

Yohl Ik’nal Portrayed on Pakal’s Sarcophagus

Yohl Ik’nal was the grandmother of Pakal. Her birth date is not known, but the glyphs recorded that she ascended to the throne of Palenque in 583 CE. She was the first Mayan woman to rule in her own accord, and most probably inherited rulership from her father, Kan Bahlam I. She ruled successfully for 21 years, fending off attacks from Kalakmul and bringing prosperity and new constructions to her city. Although there is disagreement among Mayanists about dynastic succession, the interpretation I’m following holds that Yohl Ik’nal was the mother of Aj Ne Ohl Mat, a son who ruled from 605-612 CE, and Sak K’uk, a daughter who ruled from 612-615 CE.



Sak K'uk depicted on Palenque Palace Tablet

Sak K’uk depicted on Palenque Palace Tablet

Sak K’uk was the mother of Pakal. She was born around 578 CE, and became the second Mayan woman to rule in her own right. She took over during a chaotic

period in Palenque, when the city suffered a devastating defeat by Kalakmul near the end of her brother’s reign. After he was killed, the city was without leadership and in spiritual crisis, because their sacred portal to the Gods and Ancestors (the Sak Nuk Nah–White Skin House) had been destroyed. Sak K’uk managed to assume the throne and hold it until her son, Pakal, was 12 years old and acceded. It’s highly likely that she continued to provide leadership for several more years.



Tz'aakb'u Ahau Portrayed on Palenque Palace Tablet

Tz’aakb’u Ahau Portrayed on Palenque Palace Tablet

Tz’aakb’u Ahau was the wife of Pakal. Her birth date is unknown; they married in 626 CE. Born in a neighboring town, very little is recorded about her. She bore Pakal four sons, two of whom became rulers. She is depicted on the Dumbarton Oaks tablet sitting with Pakal on either side of their second son to rule, K’inich Kan Joy Chitam, and again on the Palace Tablet tendering him the symbols of divine ancestry. Her death in 673 CE is recorded in the Tablets of the Temple of the Inscriptions. An image that many consider to be her appears on the inner piers of that Temple, cradling the lineage deity Unen K’awiil (of the Palenque Triad Deities).



K'inuuw Mat Name Glyph

K’inuuw Mat Name Glyph

K’inuuw Mat was the daughter-in-law of Pakal. She married Pakal’s youngest son, Tiwol Chan Mat (647-680 CE.) Although two of Pakal’s older sons ruled, neither of them left heirs. Succession passed on after the last brother died to the nephew of the previous kings. We know almost nothing about K’inuuw Mat, except that she was not from Palenque. Her son K’inich Ahkal Mo’ Nab III continued Pakal’s dynasty by acceding to the throne in 721 CE.



The lives of these Mayan queens are told in compelling historical fiction in The Mists of Palenque series. www.mistsofpalenque.com


The Palenque Beau Relief: A Maya Beauty Vanishes

Palace at Palenque Jean-Frederic Waldeck

Palace at Palenque
Jean-Frederic Waldeck

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

The Beau Relief Jean-Frederic Waldeck

The Beau Relief
Jean-Frederic Waldeck

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

The Beau Relief Ignacio Armendariz

The Beau Relief
Ignacio Armendariz

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.

Temple of the Jaguar Ruins in Palenque Jungle

Temple of the Jaguar
Ruins in Palenque Jungle

Temple of the Jaguar Drawing shows Beau Relief panel in rear chamber

Temple of the Jaguar
Drawing shows Beau Relief panel in rear chamber

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.


  1. Stephens, John Lloyd (1841) Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. Two volumes, Harper and Brothers, New York.
  2. Stephens, John Lloyd (1843) Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. Two volumes, Harper and Brothers, New York.
  3. Humboldt, Alexander de (1810) Vues des cordilléres en monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique. Chez F. Schoell, Paris.
  4. Del Río, Antonio, and Paul Felix Cabrera (1822) Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City… Henry Berthoud, London.
  5. Kingsborough, Lord (1829-1848) Antiquities of Mexico… Nine Volumes, London.
  6. Stuart, David and George Stuart (2008) Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.


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