Now almost a suburb of Mérida, in ancient times Umán was known as Dzibikal, “Painted Building,” an important Maya town and ceremonial center.
San Francisco Umán was one of the later Franciscan foundations, established in 1576 and only becoming a residential mission in 1583. The appearance of the church and mission at Umán has changed little since the 1980s when these photographs were taken.The early 16th century mission was distinguished by its imposing open chapel which still stands, on an elevated platform beside the church to the north east—probably the site of a former Maya temple.
Although stripped of its once vast pole-and-thatch ramada out front, the now blocked archway of the original chapel remains visible, its founding date of 1576 inscribed above the entrance and its high dome and tall belfry still pointing skywards.
The church, by contrast, is much later, designed in the 1790s and probably completed in the early 1800s by Juan de Torres, the urbane architect of San Cristóbal in Mérida. The broad nave, wide transepts and prominent dome above the crossing are typical of late colonial church design throughout Mexico.
Dwarfing the adjacent open chapel, the impressive dome of the church rests on a high drum ringed by 16 stained glass windows and surmounted by a cupola bristling with pinnacles,
The fortress-like exterior, with its sheer walls and narrow buttresses, has been repointed in typically Yucatecan style with white limestone cobbles glistening like gems in a dark matrix.
The facade however, is atypical. Although incomplete, lacking towers or even a belfry, it is dominated by an eclectic porch. A simple, rounded doorway is enclosed by a cluster of receding, pointed arches of Gothic inspiration framed in turn by classical Doric pilasters.
The lofty interior is clean and uncluttered, focusing attention on the giant modern crucifix raised above the main altar. Except for the crossing, the church is rib-vaulted throughout—another neo-Gothic element.
Nothing now remains, however, of the reputedly magnificent baroque altarpieces that once graced Umán, although a colorful colonial era pulpit stands out with its bold reliefs of the Four Evangelists and the Tetramorph.
text © 2016 Richard D. Perry. images by the author and Niccolò Brooker
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