Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 7, 2017
Amara Solari Maya Ideologies of the Sacred: The Transfiguration of Space in Colonial Yucatan Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013. 244 pp.; 19 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780292744943)

When the Spanish mendicant orders built the first monastery complexes of the Yucatan Peninsula on top of extant pre-Columbian towns, temples, and ceremonial centers, one of their aims was to take possession of indigenous sacred space, appropriate its inherent sacredness, and reuse it to establish the Catholic faith in the New World. In Maya Ideologies of the Sacred: The Transfiguration of Space in Colonial Yucatan, Amara Solari examines the city of Itzmal in Yucatan as an example in order to illustrate how this project was heavily influenced, even challenged, by deep-rooted Maya traditions and conceptions of space. The indigenous community at Itzmal envisioned the earth as a living entity created from a deity’s body and imbued with a spatial biography of its own, defined by human action. In addition to this, the city of Itzmal had been a pilgrimage site for miraculous healing since the Classic Period (250–650 AD), according to Solari’s reading of Bernardo de Lizana’s (1630) and Diego de Landa’s (1561) accounts (28, 39). These ideologies, combined with European beliefs and practices related to miraculous healing, allowed indigenous communities to reinforce old beliefs and preserve Itzmal’s pre-Columbian role as a sacred site until the mid-seventeenth century.

Maya Ideologies of the Sacred offers an insightful analysis of Maya spatial practices as expressed in native visual and textual sources. It contributes to the study of space as a category for historical analysis by examining how it is produced culturally and which ideologies inform this production. In this sense Solari’s work is related to Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991) and Edward Soja’s Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso, 1989). It also provides the field of sixteenth-century ecclesiastical architecture with new ways to study the relationship between indigenous communities and religious spaces, both pre-Columbian and Catholic. In line with recent scholarship on the field of ecclesiastical architecture in New Spain, Solari explores how the mendicant orders adapted Catholic religious architecture to create spaces indigenous communities could relate to and thus “galvanized the fusing of indigenous and Catholic sacrality” (129). The book’s interpretive framework—described in the first chapter—connects Solari’s research with that of Samuel Y. Edgerton, Theaters of Conversion: Religious Architecture and Indian Artists in Colonial Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001) (click here for review); Jaime Lara, City, Temple, Stage: Eschatological Architecture and Liturgical Theatrics in New Spain (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005) (click here for review); and Jeanette Favrot Peterson, The Paradise Garden Murals of Malinalco: Utopia and Empire in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993).

Maya Ideologies of the Sacred is innovative due to Solari’s use of a wide range of sources. In addition to analyzing Itzmal’s extant pre-Columbian and colonial architecture, Solari closely examines Spanish chronicles and urban plans, colonial texts by Maya scribes such as the books of the Chilam Balam (Chumayel, Tizimín, Maní, and others), native-made maps, accounts of Maya rituals, and cycles of mural painting. She underscores the relationship between these sources, their intertextuality, as this makes it possible to discern indigenous voices and determine how they affected the creation of colonial Itzmal.

Chapter 2 tells the story of how Itzmal became a major pilgrimage site in honor of the god Itzamnaaj in the Classic Period and how its pre-Columbian religious significance shaped Catholic ritual practices in the sixteenth century. Utilizing the city’s extant architectural remains and colonial accounts by Landa and Lizana, Solari discusses how Maya pilgrims and locals used Itzmal’s ceremonial center for various site-specific rituals—especially quadrilateral circuits around its rectangular plaza. To them, Itzmal was a “liminoid sacred space” (56) where it was possible to establish contact with the supernatural, and this did not end in the Classic Period but became part of its spatial biography. The city’s liminality “divorced the site from defined historical moments, such as the original construction of its monumental structure. . . . The fact that it existed outside of lived time made it capable of being continually written and reinscribed, ideally situating it as a site ripe for future transfiguration” (56). Therefore, when the Franciscans built a city on this site, they established a series of connections between pre-Columbian and Catholic rituals.

In the next three chapters Solari examines questions pivotal to Maya spatial ideology and furnishes a means for understanding which historical events defined the biography of cities, buildings, and landscape and how.

In chapter 3, Solari discusses how the Maya envisioned landscape when it was first created by the gods and then in the sixteenth century after the profound societal and cultural disruption of the Spanish invasion. Her sources are the Chumayel Chilam Balam and two schematic maps of the Yucatan Peninsula: the “Bird-map of Yucatan” and the Yucatecan Coat of Arms. Solari proposes that the Yucatec Maya viewed the earth as an animate entity created from the body of the deity Oxlahun-ti-ku after the destruction of the previous world. His body provided not only the foundation for a new era but also the landscape itself and all of its elements. The “Bird-map of Yucatan” reinforces this argument. It belongs to a complex section of the Chumayel Chilam Balam that narrates the Spanish colonization of Tiho (Mérida), describes its political divisions, and merges these historical-political discussions with an imaginary dialogue between father and son about the life and death of Christ—the beginning of the Christian era. The map itself shows a bird-shaped rendering of northwest Yucatan where each one of the seven cities included represents a specific part of the winged creature. According to Solari’s interpretation, the bird could be a reference to Oxlahun-ti-ku, as he is sometimes referred to as “Archangel” in the Chumayel, the “Christian God” in the Tizimín, and the “Trinity” in Códice Pérez (68). It is also a means to stress that to the Yucatec Maya the landscape is animate and has a spatial biography that links the community with its history. This connection between geopolitics and theology, Solari argues, was a key influence on Franciscan use of Maya sacred space.

In chapter 4, Solari does a structural and linguistic examination of the Chilam Balam of Chumayel section entitled the Hunac Ceel Epic or Itzá Invasion Episode to underscore the role this historical event had in shaping the geography of the Yucatan Peninsula. A newly converted Maya author provides an idiosyncratic interpretation of pre-Columbian and colonial Yucatec history in which he acknowledges that the Christian god created the world but the Itzá invasion of the northern Yucatan peninsula in the thirteenth century gave each one of its towns a name and, therefore, an identity. Solari suggests that this highly organized, almost ritual invasion narrative—it starts on the east of the Yucatan Peninsula and moves in a deliberate counterclockwise east-west path—mirrors the origin of the cosmos and “intentionally transforms the historical Itzá invasion into a myth of cosmogenesis” (87). She proposes that this mythical tale of invasion and naming was recited and performed for Maya audiences in the colonial period, reminding them of their ancestors’ prominent role in shaping the space they lived in and allowing them to reenact this foundational moment.

In the colonial period native-made maps functioned as sites for establishing community identity and shaping the local politics of territory. As indigenous communities lost their land to the Spaniards, representing it “allowed for a reappraisal and metaphorical reconquering or re-creation of it by indigenous artists” (100). In chapter 5, Solari examines maps from the communities of Maní, Acanceh, and Sotuta, together with a map from the province of Tabasco painted for the Relaciones geográficas (Geographic reports). Solari suggests a connection between these maps’ circular format and other circular myths of cosmogenesis such as the Itzá Invasion Episode and the “Bird-Map of Yucatan.” This format—also found in rituals, schematic plans, and textual narratives—functions not only as an abstracted view of the land but also as “a metonym for the act of creation itself” (101). The map from the Maní Land Treaty by Gaspar Antonio Chi, for example, was made in August of 1557 when Spanish authorities requested Maya leaders to set their provincial boundaries. For this, all the lineage heads walked the perimeter of the Maní territory in a circular, counterclockwise course and fixed the frontiers one by one, thus reenacting the peninsula’s foundation ritual. The Maní Land Treaty Map renders this territory as an idealized geometric shape, a circle that places the city of Maní in the center while its borders shape and enclose an ordered cosmos. Since all the extant colonial Maya maps share this compositional format, Solari argues that it derives from pre-Columbian literary types and that indigenous artists used it as a means to express traditional spatial ideologies and refer to this area’s biography

Chapters 3 to 5 use colonial textual and visual sources to determine how the Maya conceptualized landscape and how historical events defined a place’s biography. This provides the foundation for chapter 6, where Solari examines the integration of Catholic and Maya rituals at Itzmal’s monastery of San Antonio de Padua, a space rich with religious significance. Sixteenth-century monastery complexes, with their large atriums, posa chapels, and open-air chapels, were spaces envisioned as stages for processions, religious plays, and other rituals. As Lara and Edgerton have demonstrated, theatrical productions constituted an essential element of evangelization because the performative aspect of the rituals planned by the Franciscans appealed to the native population. Worship in pre-Columbian times had also incorporated theatrical elements such as costumes, music, and the staging of elaborate performances. Itzmal’s monumental atrium—built on top of the Ppap Hol Chac pyramid and at the center of a former pilgrimage site—constituted an excellent site for redirecting worship of indigenous gods toward Catholicism. Solari suggests that one of the processions introduced by the Franciscans at Itzmal was the Ritual of the Five Wounds, a circuit performed at Central Mexican monasteries like Huejotzingo, according to Susan Webster (Susan Verdi Webster, “Art, Ritual, and Confraternities in Sixteenth-Century New Spain: Penitential Imagery at the Monastery of San Miguel Huejotzingo,” Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas 70 (1997): 5–43). The mendicants adapted the processional format into a quadrilateral, counterclockwise circumambulation reminiscent of the Hunac Ceel Epic, the “Bird-Map of Yucatan,” and colonial Maya cartography. Solari proposes this adaptation was intentional: “The Franciscan Order augmented this ritual as a means to replicate indigenous understandings of the sacred by creating a ceremonial procession that mirrored native ideologies of place-making and cosmogenesis” (144).

Moreover, the convent of San Antonio de Padua continued to be a pilgrimage site for miraculous healing but in honor of the Virgin of Itzmal instead of Itzamnaaj. Solari argues that in the Classic Period Itzmal had been a sacred city dedicated to Itzamatul, “an ancient deified ruler” who was a living incarnation of Itzanmaaj and had the power to “heal the fatally ill, cure the crippled, and even resurrect the recently dead simply by touching the afflicted with his miraculous hand. After his death, the city remained a place of peregrination” (36). In the colonial period Landa established the cult to the Virgin of Itzmal to appropriate the place’s sacredness (153).

Maya Ideologies of the Sacred provides a nuanced understanding of Maya conceptions of space and their role in shaping early colonial indigenous identity. The book successfully demonstrates that even though Franciscan conversion strategies transfigured Itzmal in the sixteenth century, their actions constituted only one event from the city’s long and complex spatial biography. Itzmal’s pre-Columbian sacrality and the historical events that had taken place on it, in turn, framed and greatly influenced each subsequent stage. Solari’s skillful use of diverse sources—visual, textual, and architectural—in Spanish and Yucatec Maya makes Maya Ideologies of the Sacred a compelling interdisciplinary study that contributes to the fields of art history, colonial Latin American history, Maya studies, anthropology, architecture, and spatial theory. Because of its focus on indigenous practices and cultural production, the book opens new research avenues for the study of the Maya and their interactions with space and the built environment.

Ana Pulido-Rull
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville