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Dramatic Renditions: Battle Murals and the Struggle for Elite Legitimacy in Epiclassic Mesoamerica

Finegold, Andrew

Martial and bellicose imagery, as it commonly occurred in Mesoamerican monumental art, was almost universally reductive and allusive. It can be divided into a few major categories that are notable for their stability over two millennia and across the distinct, yet interrelated cultures of the region: emblematic motifs, solitary or processional warrior figures, individual debased captive figures, and captor-captive pairs. Depictions of actual battles, however, were notably rare. The handful of surviving examples - murals from the sites of Bonampak, Cacaxtla, Chichén Itzá, and Mulchic - are among the masterpieces of Precolumbian painting. The unprecedented dramatic complexity and heightened narrativity of these battle scenes - qualities produced by the presence of pictorial elements including action, specificity, variation, integration, and naturalism - contribute to a marked difference in their implicit content compared with other, more iconic artworks referencing warfare and militarism. Although these paintings are found at geographically distant sites and are stylistically unrelated, their approximate contemporaneity suggests that the brief, unprecedented appearance of battle murals in Mesoamerica was directly related to the widespread socio-political upheavals associated with the decline of Teotihuacan and the Classic Maya collapse during the Epiclassic period (c. 650 - 1050 A.D.), the time at which they were created. Their direct showcasing of feats of bravery and military prowess - both those of the rulers themselves and of their numerous allies and supporters - indicates a significant shift in the way legitimized authority was conceived during this period. Additionally, the radically different conception of temporality underlying these images points to an erosion in the unique status claimed by rulers with regard to the marking, and perhaps even the production of time. The fact that such violent tableaus were no longer produced during the documentedly militaristic Postclassic period reaffirms that, rather than directly reflecting social realities, monumental art projects a constructed image of legitimized authority. Nevertheless, an analysis of the functional characteristics of these artworks and the reconstruction of their implicit messages provide evidence with regard to the bases upon which rulership was conceived to be established during the Epiclassic.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Pasztory, Esther
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 2, 2014