The stern statue of Diego de Landa, first bishop of Yucatán and infamous for his destruction of priceless Maya documents and artifacts, looks up from an adjacent plaza to his beloved monastery.
Dedicated to the Virgin of Izamal, the beloved patron saint of Yucatán, the rambling monastery is built atop a pyramid in the heart of this ancient Mayan city, only one of four great temple-pyramids sacred to Itzamná, Lord of the Sky and principal deity of the Itzá Maya.
Girt by a vast arcaded atrium, the great 16th century monastery includes the massive church, several chapels and two spacious cloisters, in the older of which early religious murals have recently been uncovered.
Decorative note: The monastery precincts, as well as other local buildings, are frequently repainted in the distinctive, mustardy "Izamal yellow", the color we have used for this page.
The Virgin of Izamal
Behind the church sanctuary, which is covered by a Gothic star vault, lies the inner sanctum of the Virgin of Izamal, where her sumptuously clothed and bejeweled image is on display.
Brought from Guatemala by order of Bishop Landa in 1558, the carved wooden image of the Virgin immediately acquired a devoted following throughout Yucatán. Widely believed to have alleviated the frequent plagues that raged across the peninsula in colonial times, the Virgin and her cult burgeoned, with outpourings of money and rich offerings from the thankful citizens. Her shrine became the most popular pilgrimage site in southeastern Mexico, only declining after the 16th century image was destroyed by fire in 1829.
Declared the official patroness of Yucatán in the1970s, and benefiting from a recent papal visit, the Virgin has enjoyed a popular revival in recent years.
This stylized portrait of theVirgin of Izamal, painted in the ornate popular fashion of the18th century, hangs in the Pinacoteca Juan Gamboa Guzmán, Mérida, Yucatán.
Text and drawings ©1988,1998 by Richard D. Perry
For more on Izamal and northern Yucatan see our guide book, MAYA MISSIONS