Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community: The Altarpiece by Allen J. Christenson PDF


By Allen J. Christenson

This learn matters the level to which the sacred structure and enormous sculpture of Santiago Atitlán, a Tz'utujil-Maya-speaking neighborhood in Western Guatemala, displays the worldview of traditionalist contributors of its society. The critical altarpiece of the town's sixteenth-century Roman Catholic church is my basic concentration. initially developed at an unknown date in the course of the early colonial period (1524-1700), the altarpiece underwent huge reconstruction after it collapsed in the course of a sequence of serious earthquakes within the 20th century. The reconstruction attempt came about from 1976 to 1981 below the course of the town's parish priest, Stanley Francisco Rother. To help craftsmanship in the neighborhood, Father Rother commissioned a neighborhood Tz'utujil sculptor, Diego Chávez Petzey, and his more youthful brother, Nicolás Chávez Sojuel, to reerect the monument and to carve substitute panels for these sections that have been too broken for reuse. instead of strictly following the unique association of the altarpiece, the Chávez brothers changed many broken panels with completely new compositions in accordance with conventional Maya non secular ideals and rituals typical to their modern experience.

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Both he and Nicolás had been persecuted for their perceived promotion of traditional Maya culture during the Guatemalan Civil War. Fortunately both survived; others were “disappeared” or murdered. Once while discussing the altarpiece Diego said, “You know, I have had friends who were killed for doing this kind of thing. ” In this study I have recorded the names of members of the Chávez family who worked with the altarpiece at their request and with their express consent. These are the only personal names that I cite, a practice which is adopted by many researchers who work in Santiago Atitlán because of the danger that future political instability in the area might threaten those perceived to foster Maya cultural identity (Mendelson 1956, 1957; Carlsen 1997).

Where colonial precedents did not exist for ideas that they wished to present, the Chávez brothers developed their own innovative designs so as to avoid imitating styles foreign to the experience of their society. The absence of pre-Columbian motifs in their work does not, therefore, preclude the existence of an authentically Maya worldview or mode of expression. In contrast to Kubler’s definition of indigenismo, the altarpiece at Santiago Atitlán does not represent a revival of anything, since this terminology implies the death of the referent civilization.

The altarpiece at Santiago Atitlán provides a summary of the mythic deeds of gods and ancestors from long ago as they are revealed in the contemporary experience of the Tz’utujils. In this way all history is seen as a procession of repetitive events with different characters and circumstances, but always the same message. The world of the present is perceived as a shadow of things sacred and familiar. Mendelson wrote that the people of Santiago Atitlán explain new crises in terms of old ones. Events associated with the creation of the world are repeated again and again in times of conflict through living priest-shamans who carry out ancient rituals established by the first ancestors (1965, 93–94).

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