Monday, July 16, 2018

Churches of the Yucatan Frontier: Sabán

San Pedro Sabán today

The next stop in our series on the frontier churches of Yucatán is at San Pedro Sabán. Until recently Sabán was one of the many "lost towns" of Quintana Róo, a monument to the shifting history* of the colonial frontier.
    In the early days of the Caste War, Sabán was overrun and sacked by Maya rebels, then left to molder in the bush. The 18th century church of San Pedro and the many fine colonial houses around the plaza fell into ruins, soon overgrown by the advancing monte. Although still a ghost town as late as the 1960s, Sabán has now been resettled.
San Pedro Saban in 1984 before restoration work
The Church
During its brief flowering in late colonial times, the grand church—a former visita of Ichmul—was the pride of the community. 

   Founded under the ambitious expansion of the church into the frontier under Bishop Luis de Piña y Mazo in the 1780s, the new parish church at Sabán was built by the Jesuit priest Juan Manuel Rosado—who also had a hand in the church buildings at nearby Chikindzonot and Ichmul.
   These new churches shared a distinctive architectural style. Inspired in part by Mérida Cathedral, they were built on a grand scale in an ostentatious manner quite alien to the plain Franciscan missions of old. 

   Soaring facades were crowned with multi-tiered bell towers. Ornate baroque entries, balustraded balconies, and pierced parapets blossomed, their surfaces animated by abundant stone sculpture and decorative carved stucco.
Pascual Estrella
In our previous post on Chikindzonot, we drew attention to the exceptional quality of its stone carving, executed by the indigenous Mayan Pascual Estrella—one of the few artisans whose names have come down to us. 
   Estrella also worked on other area churches, notably at Ichmul and here at Sabán, where the imaginative variety and skill of the stone carving, and especially the reliefs, adds to the extraordinary legacy of this native sculptor.
Although simple in plan and form, the church at Sabán is noted for its imposing scale and ornamented facade—a classic example of Yucatecan frontier architecture. The entry door is framed by a pair of complex estípite columns, lavishly carved with scrolls and foliated motifs.
Above the portal, a curving, corbeled balcony beneath the choir window rests on a stone angel with outstretched arms, who in turn stands upon a demon's head—possibly inspired by the Casa de Montejo in Mérida.
A large, square relief of St. Peter, the patron of the church, occupies the upper facade. Seated with knees splayed, the saint gazes up quizzically at a cockerel strutting along the balustrade, his crossed keys on the floor below.
Overhead, slender, elongated towers sit atop the main facade on either side, pierced by ogival openings and crowned by high cupolas fringed with tiaras. 
   Like El Santuario in Ichmul, the raised parapet atop the facade is liberally spangled with star-shaped openings and terminates in a bow-shaped crest—a reference together with the tower tiaras to the Virgin Mary. 
Virgin of La Candelaria relief (restored)
As at Ichmul, and Chikindzonot too, the apex of the parapet houses a densely sculpted relief depicting a stylized Virgin of La Candelaria with candelabra, here carved in the form of a medallion in a foliated, circular frame.
   Today, although some parts of the sanctuary and former choir area are covered with metal roofing, much of the nave stands open to the sky, a reminder of Sabán's violent past.
*After the final defeat of the Maya in 1547, Spanish settlers spread virtually un opposed across the Yucatan peninsula. Close behind them, Franciscan friars fanned out across the countryside, and in their zeal to evangelize the vast native population, they founded missions in every corner of the colony. 
   But the devastating diseases and profound dislocation that followed the conquest caused rapid depopulation along its southern and eastern fringes. With the flight of the Maya from the harsh Spanish rule, the effective limits of the colony shrank to the northwest corner of the peninsula, between Campeche and Valladolid.  And in the 17th century, frequent incursions of British, French, and Dutch pirates from the Caribbean into the hinterland posed a constant threat to the already precarious Spanish hold on the fringes of the colony, and many outlying settlements withered. 
   The borderlands slumbered in neglect until the mid 18th century, when a period of prosperity stimulated a feverish search for more land in the southern and eastern parts of the peninsula. Whites and ladinos poured into the mushrooming towns of the frontier region, seizing Indian communal lands and forcing the Maya into peonage on the new sugar plantations. During the 18th-century boom, the few Franciscan frontier missions in the area were revived and enlarged by the episcopal clergy. Most of their effort went into the building of elaborate new parish churches in border towns like Peto, Ichmul, Chikindzonot, Tihosuco, Chemax and Saban. 
   However, these changes fanned Maya resentment of the intruders into a smoldering hatred that eventually exploded into the Caste War of 1847, when most frontier settlements were laid waste, the churches burned out and abandoned to the bush.  
   Although the region has been resettled, many of the church buildings remain battered and roofless to this day, stern reminders of the devastation that attended the clash of cultures, and melancholy monuments to the brief flowering of 18th century elegance along this remote colonial frontier.
Text © 2018 Richard D. Perry. 
Photography by the author and courtesy of Jürgen Putz.

Please visit our other pages on the frontier churches of Yucatán: Chemax; Chikindzonot; Ichmul; Sacalaca; Saban; Peto/Petulillo; Huaymax/X-querol;


  1. Question about "1780s, the new parish church at Sabán was built by the Jesuit priest Juan Manuel Rosado." Were not all the Jesuits expelled from México by the 1780's?

  2. Correct. Rosado was Jesuit educated not actually a Jesuit priest:
    " In 1784 Bishop Luis de Piña y Mazo noted that the presbyter Juan Manuel Rosado, whom the prelate considered one of his "worthy ecclesiastics," built at the head of Ichmul "a temple that will be according to their models-the emphasis is our -one of the best temples in my diocese Rosado, of Creole origin, was born in 1741. Educated in the Jesuit schools and trained as a priest in the Conciliar Seminary, he was a man of wide culture and a firm vocation as a builder. According to Piña and Mazo, during his healing in Ichmul "he brought from the foundations a beautiful church in Sabán."