The World Monuments fund recently placed the 16th century "Indian Chapels" of Yucatan on their global list of the "100 most endangered monuments." After centuries of neglect, these venerable buildings are today in even greater peril because of thoughtless alteration and innappropriate local reconstruction.
Originally built by Franciscan friars to serve as open air chapels in the "spiritual conquest" of the region, these humble stone and stucco structures were usually fronted by pole-and-thatch ramadas to shade the Mayan acolytes from the fierce tropical sun. In time, many of these ephemeral "naves" became permanent churches with stone facades, to which were often attached soaring wall belfries, or espadañas a distinctive feature of church architecture in Yucatan.
Dr. Miguel Bretos of
the Smithsonian Institution, a leading authority on the colonial
buildings of Yucatan, recently discussed the situation. Welcoming
the WMF designation as helping to draw local and international
attention to the problem, he also announced a $20,000 grant from
American Express to publicize the rescue effort and initiate a
Work should soon begin to restore the church at Tibolon, pictured above, a classic early chapel near Izamal that has fortunately escaped major alterations since colonial times.
The church fabric has now been stabilized and a new, overhanging roof added. Although this roof is of metal instead of the traditional thatch, it should ensure the protection and integrity of the underlying structure.
On a recent visit we were impressed once again by the soaring outline of the stone campanario, or wall belfry, attached to the 16th century open chapel at the rear of the church.
Visitors will also notice the still overgrown Maya pyramid, surmounted by rustic wooden crosses, that rises to the north of the church.
For more on the colonial buildings of Yucatan see our guidebook, Maya Missions