Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Altarpieces of Yucatán: Calkini update

“Power of the Sun,” the English translation of "Calkiní,” conjures up an image of massed sun worshippers crowding into the dazzling precincts of an ancient ceremonial center. 
   Although the multitudes of pilgrims are long gone and the Maya temples here have long been razed, the grand monastery of San Luis Calkiní has inherited the spiritual mana of the site. 

Founded in 1549 by the Franciscan pioneer, Fray Luis de Villalpando, the centerpiece of the original mission was its simple but stunning open-air chapel, erected in the 1560s. 
   Placed squarely atop the main Maya temple platform, with an attached pole and thatch ramada, it dominated the vast plaza and was clearly intended by the friars to dramatize the Catholic ceremonial for the assembled native converts, just as the ancient shrine had served the Maya gods before. 
In the 1600s the friars built a substantial stone church with a polygonal apse extending west from the open chapel (see plan), and in the early 18th century, a second, longer church was erected on the site of the original ramada and the open chapel converted into the sanctuary we see today. 
   Even though this new, south facing parish church was also built on a grand scale, its new nave failed to reach the height of the old open chapel, whose original arch can still be traced in the exterior wall of the fortress-like sanctuary block above the roofline. 
The broad church front is anchored by plain tower bases, although only a single south tower was added. Fluted Doric pilasters and quarter columns frame the projecting center pavilion of the facade, which culminates in a striking shell canopy over the choir window and a decorative balustrade above.  
   Although the configuration of the Calkini facade is unique in Yucatán, it bears a resemblance to the church of San Cristóbal in Mérida, with which it is broadly contemporary.  And traces of red and blue paint indicate that at one time it was brilliantly colored like the ancient Mayan temples that preceded it.
The Main Altarpiece 
This splendid retablo mayor is the outstanding interior feature at Calkiní. Created in the late 1700s it is of exceptional size—rising some thirty-five feet above the main altar—a masterful assemblage of sculpture and colorful ornament. The altarpiece, together with its reliefs and statuary was recently cleaned and restored under the direction of INAH Campeche.
   Framed in an intermediate style that combines classical, Corinthian inspired columns with late Baroque elements like broken pediments and spiral colonnettes, the altarpiece is bordered by a wavy outline with floral ornament that strike an almost Asian note especially in the upper tiers.
© Charlotte Eckland
Blue-green sculpture niches are set between columns, with gold accents glowing against the warm cream background. Floral motifs fill every space: garlands adorn the side niches and even the sober crucifix at the apex is surrounded with flowers.   
   The figure of San Luis Obispo (St. Louis of Toulouse), the patron  saint, occupies the center niche, with St. Francis to his right and the Virgin in the niche above. 
Although damaged, the reliefs of the Four Evangelists on the base panels (predella) are especially appealing; each saint holds his gospel and is accompanied by his traditional symbol—St. John to an eagle, St. Matthew to an angel, St. Mark to a lion and St. Luke to a bull. 
   Following its restoration the freshness and charm of this fine regional retablo are once again evident, further augmenting the high reputation and unique regional quality of the Yucatán altarpieces.
Elsewhere in the church the symbols of the Evangelists reappear on the base of the decorative sculpted pulpit.

El Señor de La Misericordia
Finally we should mention the famous Cristo de La Misericordia of Calkini, usually placed high above the main altar. This exquisite crucifix is one of the most beautifully realized and detailed of its kind anywhere in Mexico.
   Although some authorities have dated it in the 1560s, more or less contemporary with the Cristo de Las Ampollas in Merida cathedral which it superficially resembles, it looks a little later, maybe 17th century and possibly even a Spanish import. 
text and images © Richard D. Perry, except where noted.

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