Pigments developed by early Maya made some of the Americas’ great Baroque paintings possible, and have allowed their colors to endure for centuries.
Before synthetic pigments, some colors were a luxury.
In 17th-century Europe, painters seeking an ultramarine blue pigment had to tap the semi-precious lapis lazuli stone mined far away in Afghanistan. It cost more than its weight in gold and only the top artists had access to it.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, colonial Baroque works created by artists like José Juárez, Baltasar de Echave Ibia and Cristóbal de Villalpando were full of this beautiful blue. The source of their pigments was a mystery until the middle of the 20th century when archaeologists discovered the Maya had invented this resilient and brilliant blue.
Archaeologists studying pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican ruins were surprised by the discovery of blue murals in the Yucatán and Riviera Maya from as early as 300 AD, perhaps the most famous being the murals at the temple of Chichén Itzá, created around 450 AD.
The color had a special ceremonial significance for the Maya. They covered sacrificial victims and the altars on which they were offered in a brilliant blue paint, writes Diego de Landa, the bishop who wrote about his travels in colonial Mexico during the 16th Century.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the source of Maya blue’s resilience through the centuries was discovered: a rare clay called attapulgite, which was mixed with the dye from the añil plant.
“During colonization native materials like Maya blue and cochineal were exploited along with every other resource of the land and its people in the New World. These colors, which supposedly represented the wealth of the Mayan empire, would stand as a symbol of all that would be plundered,” writes Devon Van Houten Maldonado at the BBC.
Baltasar de Echave Ibia painted such elaborate blues that he became known as “El Echave de los azules” (“the Echave of the blues”). Working in Mexico City between the 17th and 18th Centuries, he had access to seemingly limitless amounts of blue.
Baroque canvases and murals in the Americas, from Mexico to Peru, have remained bright through the centuries, thanks to Maya ingenuity.