The celebrated church of San Juan Chamula, the dominant structure in Chamula center and traditional focus of religious life there, was originally a Dominican building. Although remodeled over the centuries, it remains one of the few pueblo-de-indios churches to survive in a form close to its 16th century appearance.
The first mission was founded here during the Spanish Conquest. The village formed part of an encomienda granted to the famous chronicler and conquistador, Bernal Diaz del Castillo. In 1549, the Dominicans built a primitive chapel here, which was supplanted by a stone church towards the end of the 16th century. As it was visited by a priest from Santo Domingo, no convento was ever added.
Chamula is nestled in a highland valley northwest of San Cristobal and reached via a narrow road that winds up through wooded hills. Three green-painted tree crosses mark the village entrance, from where the visitor can view the ruined early church of San Sebastian, standing in the middle of the village cemetery.
Simpler in form but related to the main church of San Juan, this abandoned chapel is thought to occupy the site of the first mission at Chamula, destroyed by fire.
In addition to the large, open plaza, the imposing church of San Juan has its own walled forecourt, or atrium, with three arched entrances. Today, as in colonial times, this is the arena for the vivid religious processions and ceremonies that crowd the Chamulan ritual calendar. During these celebrations, the church banners and santos are paraded around the atrium, which reverberates with the explosions of gunpowder and the blare of brass bands.
In plan and construction, San Juan Chamula exemplifies the rural missions of Chiapas. Nave walls of coarse stone are braced by buttresses and pierced by slender windows with stepped frames. A pitched terracotta tile roof covers the church.
The west front is especially striking, with its broad arched doorway, balconied choir window and lofty espadaña towering above the village. The stepped portal dominates the facade, its great coffered doorframe recalling the classic Dominican Renaissance doorways of Coixtlahuaca and Tlaxiaco, in Oaxaca and currently painted blue and green.
Alternating rosette reliefs around the doorway and choir window are picked out in red, white and ocher, adding a colorful folk touch. Narrow sculpture niches, now empty of images, are set one above the other in pairs beside the doorway. The enormous choir window, painted like the doorway, breaks dramatically through the cornice above the doorway into the gable overhead. The prominence of this opening is puzzling, although the presence of a balcony in front suggests that it may have been used originally as a preaching pulpit, or even an elevated open chapel. A narrow caracol staircase built into the north side of the facade gives access to both the balcony and the interior choir loft.
The cornices of the gable curve steeply upwards to a spectacular espadaña with three bell openings—a modern addition. Pot pinnacles are set on the corners of the facade, as well as above the espadaña.
Most architectural features of the facade—cornices, scrolls, assorted openings and niches—are boldly accented in green against the whitewashed stucco, lending a festive feeling to this essentially vernacular building.
Those with interest in religious folk art, should respectfully explore the church interior. Santos sacred to the unique Maya-Catholic cult of the Chamulas line both sides of a nave liberally strewn with pine needles during fiestas. In a haze of copal incense that fills the church, groups of Maya dressed in hand-woven apparel kneel in front of saints and crosses draped with ribbons and mirrors.
Before the main altar are placed the images of John the Baptist (San Juan) and St. Michael (San Miguel), the patron saint of the musicians who often play in the church.
text © 1993 & 2021 Richard D. Perry
color images from online sources