Exploring Colonial Mexico©
In recent years a variety of church murals dating from Spanish colonial times has been uncovered across Yucatán, a region not previously recognized for its wealth of colonial painting.
Often hidden for centuries beneath layers of paint or whitewash, or obscured by later altarpieces, these richly colored wall paintings date variously from the mid-1500s through the early 1800s. Although some are in better condition than others, their themes cover a wide range of religious subjects.
A selection of recently exposed
murals is described here and can be found at the following locations:
Izamal; Cholul; Teabo and Motul.
Two groups of murals have recently been discovered at the great 16th century monastery of Izamal.
The earliest group, somewhat indistinct and probably dating from the mid-1500s, graces the walls of the convento entrance. Although their full significance and iconography remain to be fully explained, the frescoes revolve around a faded Assumption of the Virgin above the center archway. The Virgin is flanked by groups of Franciscan friars and what appear to be pilgrims or peasants in a rustic landscape along the north wall.
On the south wall a dynamic group of red figures (devils?) vigorously beat a fallen victim with large clubs possibly part of a Day of Judgment or Harrowing of Hell scene.
The second sequence consists of two large murals flanking the church doorway beneath the fronting arcade.
These are more static and date from the 1700s.
They include a dramatic portrait of Saint Barbara, and an enigmatic fresco linking the Franciscans to the shrine of the Virgin of Izamal.
A dramatic cycle of polychrome murals, uncovered a decade ago under a whitewash cap, once again adorns the nave and sanctuary arches of this modest country church near Conkal, northwest of Mérida.
Dating from the late 1700s, the cycle centers on a complex but only partial scene of the Coronation of the Virgin which spans the broad space above the sanctuary arch. The Virgin is surrounded by a multitude of apostles, friars, angels and other religious figures. A magisterial St. Peter appears beneath the archway, surmounted by what seems to be the Garden of Eden, with a voluptuous figure of Eve set amidst a riot of tropical vegetation.
A procession of saints and martyrs decorates the nave arches, with angels bearing the Instruments of the Passion. The elegant draftsmanship and rich coloring of these figures is especially impressive.
Well known for its exquisite 17th century side retablo, this rambling mission not far from Maní, is also home to a colorful group of religious frescoes, probably dating from the 1650s.
Located in the spacious sacristy and recently restored with more enthusiasm than finesse, the principal murals depict luminaries of the Catholic church, focussing on the Four Evangelists and the Four Fathers.
The portrait of St. Jerome with his lion, painted in vivid reds, blues, green and earth colors, is especially striking.
Large vases with sprays of colorful flowers are interspersed between the main frescoes, while praying angels adorn the central archway and grotesque friezes line the high sacristy walls at the ceiling.
The Motul "calendar wheel"
One of the most unusual colonial murals yet encountered in Yucatán has been recently uncovered in the upper cloister at Motul, one of the early Franciscan monasteries in the province.
Thought to date from the late 1700s, this unusual fresco in red, blue and ocher features a clock-like calendar wheel set within a square frame of grotesque floral decoration.
A head with a feather tiara caps the circle at the top, while hands and feet protrude from the sides and bottom. Personified winds in the conventional pictorial style of early maps blow in from the four corners of the frame.
Spokes or arrows in red and blue penetrate the circle from these points, dividing it into eight pie-like sections, each of which is further marked into three additional sections on the outer circle - a total of 24 in all. The months of the year are then inscribed around this outer circle, each month occupying two divisions.
At the center of the circle is a white star with a star-spangled, comet-like tail.
It seems likely that this fresco was designed as a visual map of seasonal events and changes during the year, with the head, hands and feet indicating the solstices and equinoxes, and the four winds marking the divisions between spring, summer, autumn and winter.
Superficially resembling a sundial or compass, this interior mural would seem to have no timekeeping function nor any clear astronomical or astrological predictive value.
Although a few rare pictorial representations of calendar wheels are known from early colonial documents, this is the only known mural of the subject. Any additional information, comments or interpretations would be welcomed.
During recent alterations (Jan 1999) to the cloister at Motul, more mural fragments came to light beneath layers of whitewash. Apparently non-religious in theme, these polychrome frescoes portray hunting and genre scenes, and seem to be late 17th or 18th century in origin. It is to be hoped that further systematic research can be carried out to uncover and conserve these irreplaceable colonial murals.
Text and illustrations ©1998 , 1999 by Richard D. Perry, additional pictures and information courtesy of Sam Edgerton and Susan V. Webster.
For full details on the churches of Yucatan and their colonial murals see our updated guidebook Maya Missions.
map of Yucatan