Religious Architecture in the Yucatán

It is a hot, sweltering day in Mani, a town that resides deep in the heart of the Yucatán. Crowds of indigenous Maya are entranced by the curious sounds of bells ringing as they proceed to their local Catholic church. Instead of proceeding inside the church that is under construction they remain in the courtyard. Although, it seems uncomfortable to the conquering Spaniards, the thousands of natives who are literally packed into the confines of the courtyard prefer outside worship to one that is enclosed. They have worshiped at this very spot for countless generations and many of their descendants will continue this tradition. How did many of these natives eventually come to embrace a foreign faith, strongly associated with their conquerors, and why do they prefer religious services that were conducted outside? Why does the strict catholic clergy allow variations in worship?
Throughout the sixteenth century cultural integration occurred between the Catholic Spanish and the native peoples of Mexico. The Spanish arrived in Mexico with a set and focused agenda – God, glory, and gold – justifying their conquest through the promotion of their Catholic faith. Languages, arts, and architecture began cultivating a new life from the imposed unity and blending of cultures between these groups. In this case it can be argued syncretism held a major influence towards the depiction of intercultural expressions. The term syncretism indicates the fusion of two or more autonomous beliefs and traditions. Religious architectural innovations in Mexico thrived in the first century of the conquest, specifically in the Yucatán region. These are shown primarily through the structures built by the natives and through the supervision of the Spanish friars, generally Franciscans. The designs of the structures consist of atrios, posas, walls, and frescoes which each carry dense symbolism and meaning. The meticulous care and effort put towards these designs feature the act of syncretism, born out of necessity.
The Spanish attempted to convert these groups but encountered resistance. One member of the Catholic clergy, “lamented the sullen unwillingness or incapacity of Yucatán Maya to learn the basic doctrines of Christianity.” [1] It was when they decided to allow forms of the indigenous faith to be mixed with that of the Spanish Catholicism, did they notice an increase and following amongst the masses. As such, the “mission structures were products of this intercultural cooperation and exploration.” [2]
Atrios, known as atriums, are the open courtyards physically linked to the churches in order to allow larger crowds to gather. In the absence of a roof structure, the atrios were utilized to conduct religious services as an open church. Occasionally, they both included and replaced the bases of the muls (temples), which previously served as ritual sites for the natives. Bishop De Landa, who resided in the city of Mani, elaborated on the demolition of a mul, “we cleared it, and there built us a proper monastery all of stone, and a fine church which we called after the mother of God. [3] Another exemplary depiction that can be seen today is of the Franciscan monastery at Izamal.
These atrios were ideal for the initial conversion of the native peoples in massive groups, while a legitimate church was under construction. They created flexibility for either substantial or meager numbers of the faithful to participate in mass and were inexpensive to build. Apart from the clergy, it was common practice that the participants in the atrios were the Maya. Society was separated by the Spanish and clergy, who viewed themselves as superior, and the native population who were considered subordinate by the conquerors. Therefore, lied a deep understanding that these open churches were exclusively for the Maya’s use. Before the conquest, many places of worship resided in spacious areas outside. Consequently, the friars took it upon themselves to create and use atrios as a method to ease the conversion towards Catholicism.
The walls that encompassed consecrated ground enabled religious services to be tranquilly conducted and served a variety of purposes. As a precedent, they were utilized to enclose the structure both physically and symbolically. Physically, to keep animals out and ensure protection from the elements, and symbolically to emphasize the vast importance of the church. Interestingly, the walls of the church grounds had a multi-dimensional purpose to include acting as a means of defense. Since they “were commonly walled, the whole monastery has been regarded as a stronghold, with its church its last thick-walled defense.” [4] While rare, potential attacks by disgruntled natives and outsiders prompted a need to build a fortress-like wall around the church by its occupants. The Spanish relished in their conquest by demonstrating their permanence and in doing so marked a separate reason for building its walls.
The construction of these walls was made to intimidate and amaze natives by their size and demonstrate the importance of the church. However, it is important to note that the walls were not a strong, formidable defense, but utilized solely for emergencies. Another purpose for the walls were the bells affixed to them if they were not attached to the church. These bells galvanized conversions by enticing and intriguing the natives, who had never heard a similar sound. One bishop, “complained that music was converting more Indians than preaching.” [5] Together, the walls and the bells they carried reflected a combination of the locals’ relations, temperaments, and fascinations.
Posas (corner chapels), are where clergy would temporarily halt during religious processions. Traditionally there would be four posas positioned in the four corners of the atrio. Catholics would use these posas as a structure to pray in and protect the eucharist during outdoor processions. Friars also would assemble their parish accordingly near these minor chapels to communicate to smaller groups of people more effectively throughout the atrio. These included times by which the friars improved relationships in the congregation, fostering a sense of community, and imparting religious teachings. Syncretism played a vital role in the decorum of the posas as each carries its own features, functions, and decoration based on the intermingling of the cultures within the area it resides. The masonry of these structures was typically achieved by natives.
Frescoes, known as murals or paintings, were a visual representation of the religious community emplaced in a church. Often even the dyes that the native painters used in these religious buildings were of, “pigments made, in some cases, from local plants and insects, extended centuries-old traditions.” [6] The vivid paintings were not just limited to the interior of churches but also could be found on the exterior, “the idea of covering the outside of a building with painted patterning may as well be Indian; several Spaniards recorded their admiration for preconquest examples of similar surface decoration.” [7] Different visuals included those created by the natives expressing the cultural changes they were experiencing. By maintaining artistic integrity, the natives were able to maintain their cultural identity in a clandestine fashion. These frescoes contained colorful dyes depicting vibrant images throughout the region’s churches.
How are cross societal interactions between Spain and the Maya depicted in churches throughout Mexico’s Yucatán? Religious architecture such as the atrios, walls, posas, and frescoes of its churches reflect the religious cultural mixing between the Maya and Spanish. These four major areas and designs demonstrate the blending of the native and Spanish cultures in a religious aspect. The atrios provided a method by which friars could convert natives in masses, as well as conduct services for large groups. “The major architectural innovation of the new world was the addition of an open chapel, or Indian chapel as it was then known.” [8] Additionally, it served as a reminder of the social classes and structures between the conquerors and the conquered. The walls, both internal and external – provided physical protection and served as a symbolic demonstration of both the church and Spanish presence. Posas were imperative to conducting smaller religious ceremonies and teachings allowing a merger of the community. Lastly, frescoes and other paintings allowed for natives to exercise artistic freedom mixing old and new perspectives alike. Even today, the Yucatán region gallantly displays the architectural innovations and vital role syncretism continues to play following the Spanish conquest of the Maya.