One day in the early 1600s, the astounded villagers of Tabí witnessed an apparition of the Virgin rising from the green waters of the town cenote, formerly sacred to an ancient Mayan water goddess.
Soon afterwards, the Virgin miraculously reappeared, this time carrying to safety a horseman whose mount had lost its footing at the brink threatening to plunge him into the depths.
A painted figure of the miracle-working Virgin of the Assumption became the focus of a popular cult here, attracting followers from across the region.
During the 19th century Caste War, the inhabitants fled to Sotuta, taking the image with them. Enraged Maya rebels besieged Sotuta, demanding the return of the Virgin in exchange for the lives of the townspeople.
The Virgin was duly returned to Tabí but disappeared for good during the Mexican Revolution. Some claim the image was removed to Mérida and sold, while folklore has it that she was spirited away by the Maya and is still worshipped in some hidden jungle shrine!
Although the Virgin has gone, a cycle of elaborate 18th century murals covers the walls of the empty camarín behind the main altar, where the statue of the Virgin of Tabí formerly rested.
Large narrative panels line the upper walls of the chamber illustrating key events in the life of the Virgin. These are vigorously drawn with sharply observed perspective and much anecdotal detail, richly framed by bands of rocaille flourishes with floral strapwork, and accompanied by rows of charming, lifesize, musical angels.
On our last visit to Yucatán (Jan 1998) we followed a new blacktop road from Sotuta to the historic pilgrimage church of Tabí, located deep in the Maya heartland of central Yucatán.
Arriving after noon, we found that the church was closed. We dispatched a small Maya girl to roust the sacristan from his post-prandial nap and waited beside the algae-covered waters of the deep village cenote for his arrival.
After almost an hour, the sacristan arrived somewhat grumpily, shooing away the crowd of village children who had gathered to observe the gringos. As he explained while ushering us into the massive church, he suspected some of the boys of stealing his precious watch, given him by the cura..
Once inside the church, the sacristan recovered his good humor, pointing out the architectural high points of the interior, including its splendid dome with carved decoration, and the stone vault - replaced about 30 years ago after its collapse during the Caste War, and already showing evidence of leaks.
The sacristan also explained in detail the iconography of the superb main retablo with exquisitely carved wooden panels illustrating scenes from the life of Christ.
This faded baroque masterpiece from the early 1700s is similar to but, in our opinion, superior to the main altarpiece at the spectacular nearby church of Yaxcabá. An authentic but neglected colonial treasure!
Tabí, the main retablo
Text and illustrations ©1998 by Richard D. Perry, with special acknowledgment of the excellent Américas article with pictures by Judith Hancock de Sandoval (V.23 #4 April 1980 ,) and the authoritative Iglesias de Yucatán (1992) by Dr. Miguel Bretos.
For more on Tabí and its neighbors consult our guidebook Maya Missions