Murals at Palenque's White House

The Sak Nuk Naah, or “White Skin House,” in Palenque, is built on an artificial terrace that is part of the Palace complex. The Palace represented both a residential place, as documented by the discovery of tools of everyday life, and a political and administrative center. According to Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube’s "Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya," the White House was built in 654 C.E., during the Late Classic, under the rule of Pakal I the Great from 615 to 683 C.E. (Martin and Grube, 162). The house is also named House E by archeologists. Although not different from traditional domestic buildings, it was the place where the ceremony of accession to the throne took place and, probably, where the Council House met. The main room opened in three large doorways to the Western side of the Towers Court and contained a stone functioning as a throne. The throne was decorated with a low-relief sculpted oval tablet representing Pakal I receiving the crown from his mother, Lady Sak K’uk’, successfully empowering him in spite of his non-royal descent.

The status of conservation of the structuire is poor; the wall paintings are almost vanished, and large patches of plaster are missing. The house was named “White Skin” because the stucco was uniformly white, a characteristic that is unusual in Maya art being red the traditional background color for architectural structures and low and high reliefs. Immediately under the roof line, a decorative motif continously repeats in a geometric pattern (see picture 2). On the walls, figures of different nature are arranged in vertical rows. Commonly interpreted as flowers, there are at least two still visible images that challenge this hypothesis: A well-defined figure of an animal (see picture 3), probably a bird, and a repeated decoration containing a single, well identifiable eye in the center (see pictures 4 and 5), possibly representing an insect. Although the arrangement of the figures in decorative frets allows speculating that they functioned as a delimitation of larger areas possibly decorated with scenes of warriors, gods, or rulers, there is evidence that the painting of isolated motifs was not unusual in Palenque.

When painting, the Maya obtained a smooth surface with a plaster of powdered limestone. It is debated if the drawings in Palenque were made on a dampened stucco (“fresco” technique) or the plaster was completely dried before tracing the images. The choice of the colors was probably an expression of the personality of the painter, but according to Diego De Landa’s "Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán" the use of color was correlated to the cardinal points. The color white, represented the North, black the West, yellow the South, and red the East (De Landa, 13). In Palenque, the color palette is particularly rich, including orange, purple, and green-blue that were obtained applying different colors on top of the others. The pigments derived from plants and minerals, with the rare “Maya blue” being a mixture of vegetable substances and white clay. Natural elements were added to the pigments for densification and stabilization with the purpose of improving the adherence to the support. The outlining of the images with a black line exalted the final result. Each time the decoration became obsolete, a new, thin layer of white stucco provided unlimited possibilities to new artistic expressions. The practice helped to preserve the oldest paintings. In fact, some of the images still visible on the facade of the White House emerge from the effacing effect of time on the subsequent layers of stucco that the Maya added for renewing the decoration.