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Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community

Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community
The Altarpiece of Santiago Atitlán

A study of a major piece of modern Mayan religious art.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies, The Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies

December 2001
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260 pages | 6 x 9 | 45 line drawings, 91 halftones, 2 maps |

This book is a study of a major piece of modern Mayan religious art.


Book Award Honorable MentionAssociation of Latin American Art

  • List of Figures
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The Altarpiece in the Context of Tz'utujil History
  • 3. The Sixteenth-Century Church and Its Altarpieces
  • 4. The Central Altarpiece and Tz'utujil Cosmology
  • 5. Iconic Motifs of the Central Altarpiece
  • 6. Basal Narrative Panels of the Central Altarpiece
  • 7. Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Allen Christenson is Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature at Brigham Young University.


This study concerns the extent to which the sacred architecture and monumental sculpture of Santiago Atitlán, a Tz'utujil-Maya-speaking community in Western Guatemala, reflects the worldview of traditionalist members of its society. The central altarpiece of the town's sixteenth-century Roman Catholic church is my primary focus. Originally constructed at an unknown date during the early colonial era (1524-1700), the altarpiece underwent extensive reconstruction after it collapsed during a series of severe earthquakes in the twentieth century. The reconstruction effort took place from 1976 to 1981 under the direction of the town's parish priest, Stanley Francisco Rother. To support craftsmanship within the community, Father Rother commissioned a local Tz'utujil sculptor, Diego Chávez Petzey, and his younger brother, Nicolás Chávez Sojuel, to reerect the monument and to carve replacement panels for those sections that were too damaged for reuse. Rather than strictly following the original arrangement of the altarpiece, the Chávez brothers replaced many damaged panels with entirely new compositions based on traditional Maya religious beliefs and rituals familiar to their contemporary experience.

The relationship between the artists and Father Rother is best characterized as collaborative, a bilateral interaction in which both Catholic priest and Maya sculptors were active participants. Diego Chávez carried out the project with the intention of asserting the legitimacy of traditional Tz'utujil-Maya faith as an independent complement to Roman Catholicism. The result is a work in which Roman Catholic forms and images are reshaped to reveal uniquely Maya meaning, and Maya motifs and rituals are brought into harmony with Catholic orthodoxy. Consequently, the altarpiece presents an invaluable visual display of important Tz'utujil rituals and beliefs that are otherwise difficult to access by Western researchers.

I first saw the altarpiece in 1977, at the very time the Chávez brothers were reconstructing it and carving new panels along its base. Even in its unfinished state, the monument struck me with its masterful blending of Roman Catholic and traditional Maya motifs. I was intrigued by it, and still am. To see indigenous beliefs and rituals expressed sculpturally by living Maya artists is extremely rare. Never before or since, to my knowledge, has such a sculptural project been undertaken on so grand a scale.

The world of Santiago Atitlán has changed dramatically in the years since the Chávez brothers worked on the reconstruction of the altarpiece. Robert Carlsen (1996, 1997) and Nathaniel Tarn (Tarn and Prechtel 1997) have documented sweeping shifts in nearly all aspects of the society. Santiago Atitlán has little room to grow, being wedged into a small area bounded by Lake Atitlán and one of its bays on the north and west and by mountains to the east and south. Lacking sufficient arable land to support their growing population, the people of Santiago Atitlán, often called Atitecos, have tended to move from an agriculturally based economy toward mercantilism. Improved roads and increased boat traffic on the lake have brought an influx of tourists and non-Maya businesses into the community. This contact with outside influences has had a tremendous impact on the traditional life of the community. In the 1970s, approximately 75 percent of the men wore traditional native Maya costume (Tarn and Prechtel 1997:309). Today men rarely wear the traditional red shirt, favoring instead inexpensive American seconds, an indication that maintaining a distinctive Maya identity based on the past has declined somewhat in importance. In addition, the introduction of Protestantism and orthodox Roman Catholicism have steadily eroded older Atiteco religious practices to the point that traditionalists now constitute a minority of the overall population. The relatively peaceful town I first encountered in 1977 has given way to a bustling commercial center under nearly constant siege by the din of rumbling trucks and buses, blaring Protestant loudspeakers, and the American ditties that ice cream vendors play at ear-splitting volume.

The devastating civil war in Guatemala, particularly the period in the 1980s known simply as la violencia ("the violence") has had the greatest impact on the social fabric of Santiago Atitlán. Atitecos suffered disproportionately among neighboring highland Maya communities during these years. The Committee of Campesino Unity (CUC) estimates that as many as 1,700 Atitecos were killed between 1980 and 1990, out of a population of approximately 20,000 (Carlsen 1997:18). Those perceived as promulgating traditional Maya culture and religion were targeted specifically as dangerous threats to social stability by some factions of the military. The violence culminated on December 2, 1990. The day before, the garrison commander and a group of his soldiers had terrorized the community, raping the daughter of a local store owner and committing numerous thefts and acts of vandalism. When several thousand unarmed Atiteco men and women, with their children, gathered the next day to complain about recent abuses, soldiers from the nearby garrison opened fire. Thirteen died instantly and scores of others lay wounded. The incident drew immediate international condemnation, forcing the Guatemalan government to take the unprecedented step of withdrawing its military presence from the community.

Despite the treaty of peace that officially ended the civil war in early 1997, politically motivated violence and repression continues to plague Santiago Atitlán. That same year a dispute between political factions resulted in the destruction of the mayor's offices, which included the town's library and archives. Continued political rancor has created an atmosphere of profound mistrust and even hopelessness among many Atitecos.

The Tz'utujil-Maya are not relics of a long-dead past. They are a modern people, well aware of the broader world around them. Yet, despite strong social and political pressure to abandon their "old ways," a significant number of traditionalists maintain what they can of the ritual cycles observed by their ancestors (Carlsen 1997:50). The religion of these traditionalists is a dynamic blend of Christian and ancient Maya beliefs--one which is constantly changing from year to year as new theological, political, and economic circumstances force them to adapt. Accordingly, the altarpiece represents not a static vision of an ancient and unchanging Maya belief system, but rather a snapshot of what a pair of Maya artists at a specific moment in time considered to be the most important aspects of their world. Although only a few decades have passed since the Chávez brothers gave the altarpiece its present form, their world has become a very different place from the one they knew prior to the violence of the war years. I have consciously avoided those recent social and political changes at Santiago Atitlán for the purposes of this book since my intention here is to convey as much as possible the attitudes and worldview held by the Chávez brothers at the time they worked on the altarpiece reconstruction.

This book does not present a unified view of traditional Tz'utujil-Maya theology, for such a thing does not exist. Researchers who have worked in Santiago Atitlán in the past have noted that religious beliefs and practices among the Maya vary from individual to individual. This is because there is no unity of opinion in matters of Tz'utujil faith. Certain core myths are widely known among nearly all segments of the community, but the particulars of these stories are learned primarily through oral tradition and thus are not codified in any single source. Because I draw heavily on extensive conversations I had with the Maya artists who carved the altarpiece, the organization of this book reflects my focus on their unique understanding of contemporary Atiteco beliefs and rituals. I have included a great deal of information concerning Tz'utujil ceremonialism and myth but only those elements of traditional life in Santiago Atitlán that refer directly to specific elements of the altarpiece as interpreted by the Chávez brothers. With regard to sources outside the Chávez family, I have made every attempt to identify where I obtained specific information.

I believe the real importance of this study lies not in my interpretations, but rather in the extraordinary degree to which the Maya artists involved were willing to discuss their work and their deeply felt convictions openly with an outsider. The moment was right for the kind of interaction we enjoyed. In this book I have tried not to stray too far from their voices.



“Allen J. Christenson offers us in this wonderful book a testimony to contemporary Maya artistic creativity in the shadow of civil war, natural disaster, and rampant modernization. Trained in art history and thoroughly acquainted with the historical and modern ethnography of the Maya area, Christenson chronicles in this beautifully illustrated work the reconstruction of the central altarpiece of the Maya Church of Tz'utujil-speaking Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. The much-loved colonial-era shrine collapsed after a series of destructive earthquakes in the twentieth century. Christenson's close friendship with the Chávez brothers, the native Maya artists who reconstructed the shrine in close consultation with village elders, enables him to provide detailed exegesis of how this complex work of art translates into material form the theology and cosmology of the traditional Tz'utujil Maya. With the author's guidance, we are taught to see this remarkable work of art as the Maya Christian cosmogram that it is. Although it has the triptych form of a conventional Catholic altarpiece, its iconography reveals a profoundly Maya narrative, replete with sacred mountains and life-giving caves, with the whole articulated by a central axis mundi motif in the form of a sacred tree or maize plant (ambiguity intended) that is reminiscent of well-known ancient Maya ideas. Through Christenson's focused analysis of the iconography of this shrine, we are able to see and understand almost firsthand how the modern Maya people of Santiago Atitlán have remembered the imagined universe of their ancestors and placed upon this sacred framework their received truths in time present.”
Gary H. Gossen, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Latin American Studies, University at Albany, SUNY


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