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Santa Elena Nohcacab, Yucatán

The imposing fortress church of Santa Elena, located in the Puuc hills of Yucatán between Uxmal and the bustling city of Ticul, has long been a distinctive regional landmark.

Once dubbed the "MonteCassino of Yucatan"*, the church and its precincts occupy a commanding site atop an imposing mound of pre-Columbian origin in the center of the village. To approach the church one must climb a long flight of steps ­ a pathway used since ancient times for religious processions ­ as witnessed by John Stephens during his famous visit in 1843, and still followed today.

Although the sanctuary, with its high stone archway, formerly served as the primitive Indian chapel erected here in the 16th century (as a visita of Ticul,) the rest of the church dates from the 1700s. The massive nave walls accomodate several deep niches, used as colateral chapels, and enclose a narrow passageway, or camino rondo, that runs along inside the upper walls on both sides.

After long years of neglect, the church is finally undergoing much needed restoration. The roof is being repaired, the walls stabilized and selectively strengthened, and the retablos cleaned and restored.

Santa Elena is a treasure house of late colonial Yucatecan folk art. In addition to the fine late Baroque altarpieces, now under restoration, an ornamental stucco wall retablo and several examples of rustic colonial furniture that survive in the sacristy, the church is home to an interesting collection of wooden diptychs or processional "box" retablos. These are cupboard-like portable altars, some with doors, housing crucifixes and local santos. All are decorated in colorful folkloric style and although none are dated, they were most likely fabricated in the early 1800s.

While not unknown in Yucatán, such portable retablos are rarely seen, and the Santa Elena collection is unique in the region.

Retablo 1.

The most elaborate of the group, this box retablo retains both its doors and is surmounted by a curving pediment. The rather squat statue of Christ inside is realistically carved with bloody wounds and scarred legs, and wears an embroidered skirt in rustic Yucatecan style. The retablo is vividly painted in a simple palette of blue, green and earth colors, applied in broad strokes.

Angels with feathered headresses appear sentinel-like on the doors, holding candles while a full inventory of Instruments of the Passion, contained in heavy baroque frames, adorn the interior.

Behind the crucifix, on the lower part of the back panel is an interesting depiction of Souls in Purgatory (Las Animas), clearly painted by another hand, with finely drawn figures of The Virgin and a Franciscan friar reaching out to those in torment.


Retablo 2.

Smaller than Retablo 1 and missing its doors, this retablo also houses a crucifix, executed in a somewhat more primitive style than the former.


Also ornamented with the Instruments of the Passion, this charming retablo has a fresher, lighter touch, distinguished by its swirling red and green floral background. The sun, moon and stars add a folkloric accent.


Retablo 3.

The tiny box retablo of San Pascualito is the smallest of the three, barely containing the figure of the saint ­ a favorite local santo who is customarily dressed in Yucatecan "campesino" style.

In contrast to the simple box form, note the elaborate red and gold niche-like inner frame with its scalloped arch and spiral columns.


Text: ©1998 by Richard D. Perry.

*My special thanks to Miguel Bretos, David Timmer, Susan V.Webster and Scott Wormwood for generously sharing their information, pictures and insights.

For more information on Santa Elena and the treasures of colonial Yucatán, consult our guidebook, Maya Missions.