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Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community

The Altarpiece of Santiago Atitlán

By Allen J. Christenson

Publication Year: 2001

A study of a major piece of modern Mayan religious art.

Published by: University of Texas Press

Series: The Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

List of Figures

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pp. ix-xii

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pp. xiii-xvi

This study concerns the extent to which the sacred architecture and monumental sculpture of Santiago Atitlán, a Tz’utujil– Maya-speaking community in Western Guatemala, reflects the worldview of traditionalist members of its society. The central altarpiece of the town’s sixteenth-century Roman Catholic church is my primary focus. Originally constructed at an unknown date during ...

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pp. xvii-xx

A work of this nature would be impossible without the participation of the Maya with whom I collaborated. It has been my great fortune to work closely with the artists who reconstructed the altarpiece, Diego Chávez Petzey and Nicolás Chávez Sojuel, both of whom were extraordinarily generous with their time and knowledge. I am proud to acknowledge them as my patient teachers ...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-21

The Maya are among the oldest of the world’s people, their first ancestors having appeared in Central America at least three thousand years ago. One of the hallmarks of ancient Maya culture is the importance it placed on leaving a record of its society through art and written records. The sophisticated Maya hieroglyphic script is predominantly phonetic, making it capable of recording any ...

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2. The Altarpiece in the Context of Tz'utujil History

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pp. 22-48

To understand the underlying meaning of the altarpiece’s complex imagery, it is essential to understand the history and culture of the people of Santiago Atitlán. Speaking of the symbolism that highland Maya women incorporate into their woven textiles, Elena Ixk’ot remarked that “understanding and appreciation must take place within the context of community or all meaning is ...

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3. The Sixteenth-Century Church and Its Altarpieces

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pp. 49-70

The foundations of the present church at Santiago Atitlán were laid in 1570 and the building was completed in 1582 (Figs. 3.1 and 3.2a). Within three years, five resident priests were living in the monastery under the leadership of Fray Pedro de Arboleda. The church is one of the oldest in Guatemala and is unusually well constructed ...

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4. The Central Altarpiece and Tz’utujil Cosmology

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pp. 71-101

This chapter outlines the place of the altarpiece in the overall symbolic scheme of the church, an arrangement that reflects ancient Maya creation myths, as well as Spanish Christian theology. Beginning with the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth century, the Tz’utujil Maya of Santiago Atitlán adopted European architectural and sculptural traditions as the principal means of ...

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5. The Iconic Motifs of the Central Altarpiece

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pp. 102-142

This chapter examines the major symbolic elements present on the main body of the central altarpiece at Santiago Atitlán as they relate to the cultural experience of the Tz’utujils. Although each of these motifs may be read as a discrete symbol with its own mythic associations, each is nevertheless consistent with the overall theme of the altarpiece as a sacred mountain....

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6. The Basal Narrative Panels of the Central Altarpiece

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pp. 143-211

The series of five narrative panels the Chávez brothers added at the base of the altarpiece—which were not part of the original decorative scheme—seek to codify the major rituals conducted at Santiago Atitlán as they relate to the human lifecycle from birth, on the left panel, to death, on the right panel (Figs. 1.4, 1.5 V–Z, and 3.5). In contrast to Tz’utujil myths, which are recited informally and ...

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7. Conclusion

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pp. 212-214

As reconstructed by the Chávez brothers, the central altarpiece in the church of Santiago Atitlán represents a translation of contemporary Tz’utujil theology into material form. This theology is based on a worldview in which all things, both animate and inanimate, require periodic renewal through ritual performance to reenact the origin of the cosmos. Atiteco rituals are eminently social...


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pp. 215-230


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pp. 231-240

E-ISBN-13: 9780292745087
E-ISBN-10: 0292745087
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292712379
Print-ISBN-10: 0292712375

Page Count: 260
Illustrations: 45 line drawings, 91 halftones, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2001

Series Title: The Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies