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The lost retablos of Mérida cathedral

During the infamous noche triste of September 24, 1915, an anticlerical mob inflamed by misplaced revolutionary zeal burst into Mérida cathedral and set about destroying its priceless contents. These included the gilded 18th century main altarpiece, which, along with several other side altars, was ripped from its supports in the cathedral apse, stripped of its gold leaf, crudely dismembered, then carried out into the street and burned.

Only a few decorative fragments survived the destruction, notably a pair of beautifully crafted relief panels from one retablo illustrating scenes from the Nativity of Christ. Both panels, carved from mahogany and painted in exquisite estofado style, have been recently restored.

One of these panels, showing the Adoration of the Shepherds, is currently displayed in the Mérida City Museum, located just beside the Cathedral. The second relief, shown above and now in the collection of the museum at Dzibilchaltún, illustrates the Adoration of the Magi, rendered as an affecting folk tableau. The Holy Family is shown facing the richly costumed Three Kings. The figures are simply but sympathically portrayed against a minimal but conventional classical background. Note the folkloric touch of the heads of the ox and ass, poking out between columns reminiscent of the cathedral portals.

Despite the well known stylistic lag between Yucatan and metropolitan Mexico, such details, together with the general form of these reliefs, indicate a date in the 1600s. This suggests that the Nativity retablo was among the earliest in the Cathedral, predating the lavish main altarpiece which was added in the mid-1700s.

  • text and pictures ©2002 Richard D. Perry.
  • For full details of the colonial arts and architecture of Mérida, consult MAYA MISSIONS our updated guide to colonial Yucatan.
  • see also our other pages on the city of Mérida