Sunday, January 24, 2016

Yucatan then and now: San Antonio Chemax

This is the first in a new series of posts featuring the colonial arts and architecture of Yucatan, a long time interest of your author.
I have scanned numerous slides taken in the 1980s which I plan to compare and contrast with those taken in the 2000s as well more recent photography by my worthy collaborator Niccolò Brooker.
    I begin with the little visited but imposing 18th century frontier  church of Chemax.
Chemax front in 1984
As the easternmost outpost of colonial Yucatán, Chemax attracted pioneering settlers of independent spirit, and in the 1700s the church became the headquarters of the episcopal clergy for a vast frontier region that reached to the coast of present Quintana Roo. 
   Like other frontier churches, San Antonio Chemax was conceived on a grand scale. Completed in 1760, it possesses what is one of the most elegant late baroque facades in Yucatan. Its soaring towers were a beacon of civilization, visible for miles across the then trackless wilderness to the south and east. 
   Chemax flourished until the onslaught of the Caste War in 1847. Because of its exposed position, the town was overrun by Maya rebels virtually without a fight. Although its interior was stripped to the walls, the basic fabric of the church was spared, including a carved pulpit pedestal.
Chemax porch in 1984
Today the church is in good shape.  Its handsome proportions are successfully integrated with an ambitious program of late baroque ornamentation. Slender estípite columns flank the arched doorway of the porch.
Chemax in 2007
An undulating stone balcony* underpins the choir window, which is capped by a foliated relief canopy with the royal arms and the date 1760—all carved in stucco. 
Chemax, the pulpit stand (1984)
It is possible that this balcony, together with the carved stone pulpit—unique in Yucatan—may be attributed to the eminent Maya sculptor Pascual Estrella, whose related work can be seen in many frontier churches of the period.
Chemax front in 2007
Stepped star parapets surmount the facade. At the crest, the episcopal miter is supported by open, scrolled brackets that also accent each stage of the triple-tiered bell towers, which are pierced with slender, cusped bell niches at every level. 
   In the late afternoon sun, the restored west front of Chemax is a luminous study in sculpted golden stonework—as dazzling today as it must have appeared two hundred and fifty years ago! 

text © 2016 by Richard D. Perry.  
Photography © 1984 & 2007 by the author and Rosalind Perry
for complete details on the colonial churches of Yucatán
consult our classic guidebook

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