Martine Fettweis-Viénot

1984 Laureate, Cultural Heritage
Belgium, Born 1947

Project Goal

Create the first complete catalogue of Mayan wall paintings

Location: Guatemala

Capturing the Past

"Central America," says Martine Fettweis-Viénot, "is somewhere I have dreamed about since I was a child. The Indians there were a noble people who lived in harmony with nature, and they fascinated me."

The Belgian archaeologist and art historian made her first trip to the land of the Mayas in 1970, as a young graduate, and became enamoured of the colourful wall paintings she found there, which dated from the 7th to the 15th century. When she realised that a large majority of them had never been adequately studied and catalogued, she knew she had discovered her vocation.

The Mayans lived in the extreme north-western part of Central America, in Guatemala, the Mexican state of Chiapas, Belize and the northern Yucatán peninsula. They had one of the most developed Indian civilisations prior to the Spanish conquest, with remarkable achievements in mathematics, astronomy, agriculture and the arts. The Mayans, their society and their lifestyle, are the subject of intense archaeological study and scientific debate.

Illustrated Storybook

An abundance of information on Mayan society is to be found in paintings on the walls of palaces and temples — a kind of illustrated storybook — as well as in almanacs, religious manuscripts, and other texts, such as those devoted to mythological tales. And yet a large number of the surviving murals had not been studied — and some not even seen — by the many archaeologists who specialise in this era. The few copies that had been made long ago were inaccurate or incomplete. Before Fettweis-Viénot, no one had undertaken the vast job of scrupulously copying and cataloguing them.

Fettweis-Viénot began copying Mayan murals in 1975, having already obtained two BA degrees (one in art history), an MA in archaeology in 1973, and a Ph.D in the same subject eight years later. She decided to cover the whole area once occupied by the Mayas, which she divided into three culturally and environmentally different zones, to make expeditions to each known site, to visit private collections of Mayan art in Europe and the Americas, and to carry out complementary desk research.

When she won her Rolex Award in 1984, Fettweis-Viénot expected the project to last another five years — never imagining that in the mid-1990s she would still be planning further field trips to “capture” more murals.

The Cataloguing Process
Fettweis-Viénot’s cataloguing work continues to the present, as do her field trips. An expedition can last up to five months and involves a number of skills, in addition to an ability to draw accurately and fend for oneself in the wild. Most of the sites of Mayan murals are off the beaten track and some are really remote. Four-wheel-drive vehicles, motorcycles, motor-powered canoes and, once, a helicopter have all been used to reach the sites.

The first task on arrival is to inspect the stonework so as to locate the decorated walls, vaults and ceilings and to gauge the condition of the paintings. Many paintings suffer from the effects of weather, bat droppings, looting or vandalism. Once the murals are located, Fettweis-Viénot treats them the following way:

The paintings are traced onto a waterproof cellophane sheet, using coloured marker pens. It sounds simple but can be physically exhausting, and may entail working in cramped positions for hours on end, pestered by heat and mosquitoes.

Photography is next. Fettweis-Viénot has developed a series of techniques that help to maximise the information that can be gleaned from the paintings. She photographs each in colour, using when necessary infrared film to help identify details on sun-faded decoration.

She also analyses the colours so that she can compare them with those used in other parts of Central America and, finally, takes samples to determine what kind of pigments, gums and plasters were used — so as to be able later to reproduce the colours as accurately as possibly. Not surprisingly, the best-preserved surfaces give the best colour guidance.

Once back in her studio, she prepares her drawings for publication, sometimes making photographic reductions that clearly identify those segments that, in the original, were erased, missing or damaged.

Hundreds of Paintings

When she started her project in the 1970s, Fettweis-Viénot had found only 17 paintings that had been more or less properly documented. Today she has a database covering 236 paintings from 95 sites in Central America, 54 of which she has personally explored.

She now foresees publication of a catalogue running to several volumes, each of which, thanks to computerization, can easily be amended and updated as and when new material comes available.

Through analysis of the content and structure of the paintings, Fettweis-Viénot also seeks confirmation of her theory that the paintings should not be seen purely as art. She believes they had a more practical function as well. "Mayan imagery," she maintains, "operates like a system of writing in which each detail has its own significance. These figurative scenes express symbols, metaphors and language sounds. This constitutes a true form of writing, which applies especially to paintings produced in the Mayan post-classical period, starting in the 10th century."

To help in her research, Fettweis-Viénot has developed a coding system that breaks a painting down into the smallest possible components, which are classified separately, then brought together in an attempt to elucidate the principles on which they are organized.

While the Belgian at first financed her research trips by a succession of jobs — from babysitting and secretarial work to selling property and designing advertisements — her Rolex Award brought financial independence that allowed her to carry on and complete her copying and cataloguing.

Helpful in the Americas

“While devoting just as much time to my research," she says, "my field of action gradually extended due to the publicity I received, and I began to obtain recognition outside the closed circle of specialists." The Award proved particularly helpful in the Americas, where it brought her credibility that would have taken a long time to gain otherwise.

Her knowledge and experience have made her sought-after for seminars and conferences, such as meetings concerned with deciphering ancient Mexican manuscripts. A major exhibition in Brussels in 1993, resulting from her research in Yucatán, showed photographs, maps and a selection of Mayan wall paintings over eight centuries. Currently, Fettweis-Viénot is engaged in a study of Mayan representational art: an iconography of death, war and human sacrifice. Her other future plans include, of course, the publication of her catalogue.

"For me, the Rolex Award was a stroke of a magic wand which offered reward for many years of struggle and effort. It brought recognition and substantial financial support and extended my research to wider horizons," she says.

Other 1984 Laureates