Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Altarpieces of Yucatan: the lost retablo mayor of Mérida Cathedral

As a seasonal offering, and as a preview of our forthcoming series on the colonial altarpieces of Yucatán, we update our page on two delightful polychrome reliefs of Nativity scenes—all that survives of the lost altarpiece of Mérida cathedral.
Merida cathedral:  main entry
The Lost Retablo of Mérida Cathedral
During the infamous noche triste of September 24, 1915, an anticlerical mob inflamed by revolutionary zeal burst into Mérida cathedral and set about destroying its priceless contents.
   These included the gilded, 17th century main altarpiece, which was ripped from its supports in the cathedral apse, stripped of its gold leaf, crudely dismembered, then carried out into the street and burned, along with several other side altars.
   Happily, two painted relief panels in a charming, popular style survived the holocaust.  Both panels, beautifully crafted from local mahogany, have been recently restored and illustrate scenes from the Nativity of Christ.  
The Adoration of the Shepherds
One panel, depicting the Adoration of the Shepherds, is currently on display in the new Mérida City Museum. Although the infant Jesus and a cherub have sadly lost their heads, the other rustic figures are expressively portrayed.
The Adoration of the Magi
The second relief, now in the collection of the site museum at Dzibilchaltún, illustrates the scene of the Adoration of the Magi, or Three Kings, rendered as an affecting folk tableau.
   The Holy Family is shown facing the richly costumed Three Kings, whose hands, once holding their gifts, are now missing. The figures are simply but sympathetically depicted against a classical architectural background.
   Note the folkloric touch of the heads of the ox and ass poking out between pilasters reminiscent of the cathedral portals.

text and photography ©2012 Richard D. Perry  

Merida cathedral doorway courtesy of Jim Cook

Mérida cathedral
An authoritative new history of the cathedral was recently published 
by Miguel Bretos, the pre-eminent scholar of colonial Yucatán.

For complete details of the arts of colonial Yucatán and suggested travel itineraries  
consult our updated guidebook


  1. Richard, very much indeed for your mention of my book and for the--quite undeserved--pre-eminence. A quick comment about the Cathedral's altarpieces. Contrary to generalized, not all of the main retablo was lost. Only the section corresponding to the apse was destroyed along with those of chapel of the "Christ of the Blisters" and that of Saint Joseph, which linked the Cathedral to the Bishop's palace across the Pasaje de la Revolucion. The organ likewise was destroyed but all else survived including the two wings of the main retablo corresponding to the aisles. This much is evident from photographs taken after the profanation.
    In fact, the two surviving sections of the grand altarpiece--one on the side of the epistle, the other on the side of the Gospel--took Alvarado in stride. They were not enough to contain later plans by the Church to provide a new connection to the sacristy--understandable--and change the esthetics of the interior by removing any offending reminders of what must have a lovely baroque tableau. One is--I at least am--quite less inclined to forgive the latter.
    Enough of the dismembered side altarpieces has apparently survived to warrant a reassembly, though, a very worthwhile project in my opinion.
    All the best, Miguel Bretos

  2. Richard,
    Some perverse computer move canceled the opening and most important word: THANKS!

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