This hilltop Tzeltal village overlooks the Pan-American Highway, south of San Cristóbal some 5 kms past Teopisca. Best known for its traditional hand-made and wood-fired folk pottery which is displayed along the highway, Amatenango attracts many tourists, who are often besieged by pottery sellers—local Maya girls dressed in vivid red and yellow huipils and blue skirts.
A typical 17th century pueblo-de-indios church in plan, San Francisco Amatenango was largely rebuilt in the 18th century following a particularly severe earthquake.
The fabric of the church is an amalgam of adobe, brick and rubblestone. Attractive tiles of various hues and textures overlay the beamed roof with its overhanging eaves.
The brilliant white church front with its stepped doorway and red wooden doors faces the central plaza and is constructed of finely cut stone—rare indeed for a country church.
The colonial retablo facade has been altered in modern times, losing some of its integrity in the process. The sharply silhouetted upper tier was added during the facelift, and much of the surface relief erased, giving the facade its present pristine look. However, vestiges of the old stucco ornament—mostly arabesques and scalloped decoration—have survived inside the sculpture niches. A grid of ribbon pilasters and simple cornices crisscrosses the lower tiers of the facade, cleanly framing the rounded shapes of the niches, bell openings and choir window.
As a foil to this neat geometrical pattern, the stocky stone figure of St. Francis, Amatenango's patron saint, gazes down from the central niche. The top tier rises well above the nave, drawing attention to the somewhat out-of-scale bell openings of the espadaña and domed belfries. The espadaña is appropriately capped with pottery urns.
A traditional wooden plank ceiling covers the dim nave, leading to an octagonal mudéjar vault over the sanctuary. Below this vault stands a baroque altarpiece, painted in Venetian red and greenish-blue hues.
Unusually elegant for a country church in Chiapas, the retablo features a scalloped outline and gilded rocaille work in Guatemalan style. Plateresque and spiral columns decorated with grapevines frame a group of naive canvases, including a crowded Nativity and several episodes from the life of St. Francis, whose festival is celebrated here in early October. A statue of the saint appears again in the center niche.
text © 1993 & 2021 Richard D. Perry
photography by the author, Niccolo Brooker, and from online sources