Friday, December 7, 2012

Lost Missions of Yucatan - Dzibilchaltún

Dzibilchaltún, site view with Maya temples (Eric Mohl)
"Where There is Writing on Flat Stones"

Probably the best known of the abandoned early missions of Yucatan is that at Dzibilchaltún, located only a half-hour drive north of downtown Mérida, the state capital.

Set amid an ancient Maya temple complex, criss-crossed by sacbeob, or ceremonial causeways, the partly restored 16th century open chapel stands along the main axis of the site, atop the platform of a former Maya temple.

Dzibilchaltun, the open chapel
Built of cut stone taken from the surrounding ruins, this is a classic "open" chapel with a grand arched opening. A stone altar and two sculpture niches are set in the back wall and a masonry sacristy or storage room is attached.
Sections recycled from the old corbelled Maya arches proved ideal for the barrel vault and close inspection reveals pieces of ancient carving embedded in the walls.
Its small, slightly raised atrium was originally walled, with three stone gateways. 

Original open chapel reconstruction with thatched ramada

The main element missing from the restoration is the pole and thatch ramada that originally fronted the chapel. Excavation of its foundation revealed that this open-sided nave was not rectangular, but rounded at the end like a traditional Maya house. 
ramada section
Two slots designed to secure the original roof poles of the ramada are still visible, cut into the front of the chapel. The wooden side posts of the nave were replaced with partial stone walls in the 17th century, now missing.

But before a permanent stone church could be finished, the mission was abandoned to the bush. Visited only by basking iguanas, it fell into ruin alongside the silent Maya temples of more ancient times.

As recently as fifty years ago, traces of colonial murals still covered the now bare rear wall of the chapel—one vividly depicting a militant archangel mounted on a rearing horse, brandishing a sword.

text & photograph © 2012 Richard D. Perry.  
based on " The Open Chapel of Dzibilchaltún" by W J Folan (M.A.R.I. Tulane 1970)
graphics © Gordon & Ann Ketterer

Background: recycled Maya stonework at Akil © Christian Heck

In editing this series, we should like to acknowledge our debt to the pioneering work of the eminent 
Yucatan archeologist and historian Anthony P. Andrews


For more on the history and art of the Yucatan missions, consult our published guides. 

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