One of more distinctive colonial churches in Yucatan is the fortress church of Santa Elena Nohcacab, an imposing regional landmark located in the Puuc hills between Uxmal and the bustling city of Ticul.
Santa Elena in 1984 (l) and in 2008 (r)
Once dubbed the "Montecassino of Yucatan", the church and its precincts occupy a commanding site atop an imposing outcropping in the center of the village. To approach the church one must climb a long flight of steps—a pathway used since ancient times for religious processions as witnessed by John Lloyd Stephens during his famous visit in 1843, and still followed today.
Although the sanctuary, with its high stone archway, formerly served as the primitive Indian chapel erected here in the 16th century as a visita of Ticul, the rest of the church dates from the 1700s.
The massive nave walls accomodate several deep niches and enclose a narrow passageway, or camino de rondo, that runs inside the upper walls on both sides.
After long years of neglect, the church has undergone much needed conservation: the roof repaired, the walls stabilized and selectively strengthened, and the retablos cleaned and restored. The mummified remains of several children found beneath the nave floor during the repairs are now on display inside the church, a morbid tourist attraction.
Santa Elena is a gallery of late colonial Yucatecan altarpieces, most of which have been restored in recent years.
The main altarpiece is in provincial late baroque style, painted bright red with its narrow estípite pilasters edged in gold.
Several smaller side retablos also painted red and gold with spiral columns and estípite pilasters, occupy the lateral niches along the nave.
A painted, folkloric Calvary cross with the Instruments of Christ’s Passion occupies the center niche, above a scarred crucifix.
Another curiosity is the arcaded stucco wall retablo of the Five Wounds, framed by undulating relief vines.
The Box Retablos
Santa Elena is also home to an unusual collection of wooden diptychs or processional "box" retablos. These cupboard-like portable altars, some with doors, housing crucifixes and local santos, are decorated in colorful folkloric style and most likely fabricated in the late colonial times.
This vibrant box retablo, the most elaborate of the group, retains both its doors and is surmounted by a curving pediment. The rather squat statue of Christ inside is realistically carved with bloody wounds and scarred legs, and wears an embroidered skirt in rustic Yucatecan style.
The retablo is vividly painted in a simple palette of blue, green and earth colors, applied in broad strokes. Angels with feathered head dresses appear sentinel-like on the doors, holding candles, while Instruments of the Passion adorn the interior.
A depiction of Souls in Purgatory (Las Animas) on the lower part of the back panel is clearly painted by a skilled hand, with finely drawn figures of The Virgin and a Franciscan friar reaching out to those in torment below.
This charming box retablo, now missing its doors, also housing a primitive, scarred cristo, has a fresher, lighter touch, distinguished by its swirling red and green floral background. The sun, moon and stars add a folkloric accent.
A third box retablo, containing a plain green wooden cross, also displays vivid red and green foliage against a yellow background.
The tiny processional retablo of San Pascualito—the only one dated (1772)—is the smallest of the group, barely containing the figure of the saint, a local favorite who is dressed in Yucatecan "campesino" style.
text © 2016 Richard D. Perry. color images by the author
see our other recent Yucatan pages: Akil; Chemax;Oxkutzcab;
for more on colonial Yucatán see our guidebook: