Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Religion. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 26 June 2022

Guatemalan Churches: The Maya Legacy in Organic Façadesfree

Guatemalan Churches: The Maya Legacy in Organic Façadesfree

  • Carol DamianCarol DamianFlorida International University, School of Art and Art History


Located in the center of Maya civilization and tradition, Guatemala features some of the world’s most spectacular archaeological sites, with extensive pre-Hispanic remains. The Maya of pre-Contact times believed in a pantheistic religion with many gods, and despite violent Spanish subjugation beginning in 1524, many of those traditions still survive. Coerced conversion had mixed results, as the Maya in certain territories often did not replace or abolish their beliefs in favor of Christianity, but rather added this new faith as another layer. This allowed Mayans to participate in their own rituals while maintaining Christian identity, blending religious cultures in a syncretic situation that saw art, music, festivals, and other events as unique and genuine dialogue. Today, contemporary Mayans in Guatemala maintain their linguistic dialects, along with traditional clothing and ceremonies of ancient rituals.

The tenacity of the Maya people in upholding their longstanding customs and beliefs is reflected in the architectural embellishments that adorn Guatemala’s many churches. From small parishes to cities, a profusion of organic details is evident on the façades of even newly built Catholic churches. These flourishes exhibit relationships to Mayan glyphs and produce a unique visual vocabulary based on the ancient beliefs that connected man’s relation to nature as inherent to daily life. Disguised within these Christian landmarks, the adornments uncover the Guatemalan people’s enduring commitment to Mayan beliefs, despite waves of forced evangelization throughout their territories.


  • Religion and Art


Ancient Mesoamerica is defined as the area that includes portions of pre-Conquest Mexico and Central America. The Maya are recognized as the people who occupied what is today known as the Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, British Honduras, parts of the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas, and the western portion of Honduras and El Salvador. With one exception—western El Salvador—it is a single unbroken geographic area, still home to these remarkable people. The Captaincy-General of Guatemala—once known as the Kingdom of Guatemala—included the territory inhabited by the ancient Maya, as well as several other Indian tribal groups. The name “Guatemala” is said to derive from that of the Indian chieftain Juitemal.1 Today, as many as two million Mayan people living in Guatemala comprise the largest single block of American Indians north of Perú, speaking a variety of languages and dialects and sharing a ritual core. Many of them resisted the Spanish encroachment to maintain their cultural integrity, and still do today. Others were Christianized but still preserved traditional beliefs beneath the religion’s veneer. With extraordinary geographic diversity, Mayan lands occupy highlands and lowlands with varied animal and plant species, offering agricultural survival and a basis for rituals within a pantheistic society. While the date of their origin is unknown, the Maya rose from village cultures to the awe-inspiring accomplishments of 7th-century Maya civilization over 2,000 years. Comprised of vaulted masonry architecture, naturalistic wall and pottery painting, relief style sculptural decoration, Long Count calendar, and hieroglyphic writing, the Maya have come to represent the highest level of cultural achievements in the Americas.


Archaeologists divide the centuries before the Spanish Conquest into a Classic Period (250 ce–900 ce) and a Postclassic Period (from the 10th century to the early 19th century). During these periods of extraordinary architectural and ritualistic development, the Maya became dispersed. Groups of Mexican origin ruled the Maya Yucatán; and confederations of the K’iche’ (also spelled Quiché, meaning “many trees”), the Kaqchikel, and the Tz’utujil, and Poqomama dominated millions of commoners, farmers, artisans, and hunters in the highlands of Guatemala. Each of these groups also worshipped many gods who embodied material and natural forces.2

The Mayas had a cosmological vision as the center of life, with a symbolic vocabulary of glyphs and images found in architecture, sculpture, murals, and pottery that certainly informed the decoration of the churches built in their communities after the Conquest. Guatemala is still known as a center of Maya civilization, with extensive pre-Hispanic remains that range from the Eastern Highlands to Lake Atitlán, and the Western Highlands to the Petén of the Northern border with Mexico. These regions feature some of the world’s most spectacular archaeological sites.

Beginning in 1524, the Tzotzil Mayans of southern Mexico, the neighboring Guatemalan kingdom of the K’iche’ Mayas, and other strongholds came under Spanish violence. However, in the Yucatan, Highlands, and Petén regions, conquest did not occur for another 175 years, and it was not completed. The Maya still survive, maintaining their linguistic dialects and traditional clothing and ceremonies.3

It is not surprising that the instinct for survival of the Maya people over hundreds of years would result in architectural embellishments that reflect their own beliefs, disguised within symbols of Christianity and created during waves of forced evangelization throughout their territories.

Let it be known that our coming is beneficial because we bring tidings of the true God and Christian Religion . . . so that you might become Christians peacefully, of your own free will; but should you refuse the peace we offer, then the death and destruction that will follow will be entirely of your own account.4

Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado and his explorers conquered Guatemala in 1524, establishing a capital at Iximché where pre-Conquest ruins can still be seen outside the nearby village of Tecpán. It was a populated area of several distinct confederacies; ethnically, politically, and linguistically heterogeneous, the area was a mosaic of warring villages that made conquest difficult.5 They moved inland from the coastal areas, which bore airborne and insect-laden diseases into the highland lakes and mountains. The small Spanish military expeditions found the terrain difficult and hard to control, so the missionaries became critical in subduing the native population. Acting in an atmosphere of independence—which often bordered on impunity—the incipient parishes they founded bore little resemblance to official royal intentions.

Despite violence and subjugation, coerced conversion had mixed results. The Maya in certain territories often did not replace or abolish their beliefs for those of Christianity, but rather added it as another layer. This allowed Mayans to participate in their rituals while maintaining Christian identity, blending religious cultures in a syncretic situation that saw art, music, festivals and other events as unique and genuine dialogues. Far from the dictates of Spain, even the priests and missionaries realized it was better to allow certain “transitional” behavior to accomplish their goals.

In the Northwest, the K’iche’ had established supremacy, and this area would become a stronghold of Maya tradition beneath the veneer of Christianity—evident in many of its churches. The region’s first stable capital was established on the slope of the extinct volcano Agua in 1527, and named for Santiago. With Franciscan friars accompanying Spanish troops into the territory, the Guatemalan capital had established Christianity within seven years. By 1539, the first cathedral was constructed, only to be wiped out, with the town, by a landslide. The capital was then moved a few miles away, the present-day Antigua, but retained its name, Santiago.6 Guatemala had a bishop who brought Dominicans, followed by Mercedarians, and the powerful Jesuits in 1582.

Pre-Conquest Maya Traditions

With scant primary sources available to scholars and archaeologists, knowledge about the pre-Conquest Maya is difficult to obtain. Although glyph-like writing system existed, with pictographs that described histories, science, songs, and prophesies drawn on scrolls, the Spaniards destroyed thousands of these books as evidence of paganism. Only a handful of Maya texts survived, and scholars have deciphered the glyphs and can read what is left, along with the inscriptions on architectural monuments and stone stelae.7 The Maya left a rich legacy of artistic and cultural accomplishments, which have only been appreciated in the last two centuries. Maya culture has continuity from the first centuries of the Christian Era to the present day; a correlation of data comprised of colonial writings, the observations of survivors, and the information archaeology yields give a real true picture of Maya life. Admittedly, there are dangers in this approach: Maya culture was never static. For a discussion of churches and their decoration, a flexible approach is necessary, since there are no specifics from region to region, or century to century. Still, an overview based on extant Maya traditions and symbolism is the best source of interpretation.

It was the Popul Vuh, or Council Book, written by anonymous K’iche’ scribes in the town of Santa Cruz decades after the Conquest, that recorded the Maya creation story using the Roman alphabet. Still considered the most important source on Mayan culture, the book was secretly passed down generation after generation until 1702, when one of its guardians gave it to a Spanish Dominican priest, Francisco Ximénez, who copied it and translated it into Spanish.8 The stories in the Popul Vuh serve as the source for much of the imagery found in the decorations of Christian churches in the Maya highlands, with their majority indigenous populations and fervent beliefs that were hidden as Christian, newly interpreted. The Popul Vuh relates the story of the many gods residing in the sky/earth in their “prior world,” before the arrival of the Spanish, and how they created human beings. Significant to the many episodes in the book, numerous natural features are described: corn, gardens, trees, calabash, monkeys, snakes, moons; and colors: red, yellow, and blue, among them.

Although the Popul Vuh was not illustrated, over the years the images described within have been translated into glyphs significant to Maya ritual understanding, which are also present in architecture, painting, ceramics, and sculpture. They represent an animistic belief system where the creatures of the world live in harmony and are described in pictographic symbols combining elements of human, animal, and other fantastic beings. They appear again on churches built by the indigenous people after the “conversion,” weaving in and out on the surface of their façades. Their presence holds double meanings—one for the Christians who identify them according to Catholic dogma; and one for the Maya, who interpret their relationship to the stories in the Popul Vuh, the symbolic vocabulary of the glyphs, and the persistence of their own rituals from the past. Church façades in Guatemala display an organic, living homage to nature—from the sky to the earth and all its creatures.

Mayan spirituality, with its origins in pre-Hispanic religious practices, featured a cosmology that venerated natural phenomena. Their soaring temples were built to mimic mountains and were usually oriented in alignment with the cardinal directions. As great astronomers, the Maya used the sky for the organization of a complex calendar, a practice still found in parts of Guatemala and particularly in the Western highlands, where Mayan religious practices persist. Known as costumbre, these rituals often take place in archaeological sites, caves, and volcanic summits. Offerings of candles, flowers, and liquor are part of the ceremonies. It is not unusual to consider these practices significant to Catholicism as well, as they occur within the churches as part of the altar, on the façades, and in the plazas and processionals. There are also local cults of folk saints, sponsored by the church cofradias (brotherhoods) who are responsible for the organization of the festivals and care for the statues honored in the church. Despite church efforts to limit the power of the native cofradias and their syncretic rituals in the early years of Conquest, these cults continue to thrive in many locations.9

The implantation of Iberian culture in the Americas with relatively little resistance was a “spiritual” as well as social and political conquest. After an early period of physical merging—called mestizaje in Spanish—between the local people and the Spanish in most locations, the native population was thought to be thoroughly suppressed, or apparently so. Priests, monks, and friars were charged with the conversion of the natives and offered guidance in the building of churches and chapels and their decoration. The missionaries approached the conversion of the native communities through their traditional leaders, ensuring they played an active role in the establishment of a new cult without destroying the old.10 While secular authorities were trying to exploit the riches of the natives, the religious leaders were more tolerant and often sympathetic. In outlying areas, they became more relaxed to appeal to native traditions and attempted to conduct their conversion efforts with less violence and suffering. In isolated locations, and areas with strong social and spiritual belief systems, a syncretic situation emerged that did more than blend the two cultures; it created a new way of representation that was one of survival.11

Because of the isolation of many Guatemalan communities, syncretic rituals survived for years. Incidences of idolatry were reported throughout the Americas, in the documentation of the Idolatry Campaigns and local church records and reports.12 In the early 19th century, Stephens and Catherwood heard of a remarkable stone that lay on top of the altar in the church of Tecpan, Guatemala. It may have represented Chay Abaj, and it was reported that the cup of the sacrament stood upon it to cover it up because it was very sacred.13

With the freedom accorded to the majority Mayan-descent artists and builders to construct the new Christian towns (few European artists or architects traveled with the missionaries), the churches demonstrate a unique sense of creativity that has become distinctive of the regions dominated by Maya, not Spanish faithful. Notably built by “lower classes” of humble origin, their artistic skills were often marginalized by the Iberian cultures that supposedly supplanted them. Today, they have been relegated to a category of minor arts, Popular Art or Folk Arts and Crafts, and their art dismissed as “decorative.”14 Despite such criticism, indigenous groups in Guatemala continue artistic production to serve their purposes and traditional beliefs. Churches are ideal examples of Maya ingenuity, ranging from simple structures to elaborately decorated and unique highland examples, to monumental Baroque designs of European origin, yet still display a penchant for organic ornamentation, especially on the façades.

Early Churches

The early churches of Guatemala were constructed according to a colonial plan that placed them in the center of a plaza, surrounded by markets and houses. In larger towns and cities, government and administrative buildings are also on the plaza, which is the center of life. The Spanish colonial regime recognized the importance of physical appearance around which the towns and villages clustered. The churches functioned as houses of worship, symbolized the worldly power of the Crown, and needed to be impressive. “They construct their churches with their own hands, promote their decency with their money, and love them as works made and sustained by themselves.”15

Churches came to symbolize allegiance and submission to the Spanish state, determined by the Laws of the Indies. However, they also functioned as the center of traditional Mayan life, with its own religious practices not forgotten behind the Catholic façades. Early structures were simple, based on a rectangular plan with a plain nave. Frequent earthquakes made rebuilding necessary, so simplicity was important. There was little variety in the early church plans. Most had minimal exterior or interior decoration. Only the churches described as “Baroque” featured surface decoration inside and out, to compensate for the simplicity of the squat horizontal plans. Such decorations include a profusion of details, polychromatic effects, and exuberant reliefs, much of which was determined by centuries-old Mayan symbolism and a ritual visual vocabulary that focused on colors, nature, and cosmology. The more monumental churches found in populated areas described as “Earthquake Baroque” may appear as European, but close examination of their decorative details reveals complex designs.

Generally, the newly constructed churches, whether simple village buildings or more elaborately Baroque, followed the prescribed dictates of the Catholic Church in their exterior and interior organization. The decisions of the Council of Trent (1545–1563) recommended church façades be used for instructional purposes, with the placement of saints done according to the bishop’s judgment. The images were to tell a sacred story, with the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child located over the main entrance in most places. The saints chosen for the façades were those favored by the community. The indigenous people regarded the images of the saints as being similar to their gods, requiring reverence, dressing, and ornaments for particular occasions and special feast days. It became clear to Spanish officials, frustrated by the persistence of idolatry, that the Indians treated the images of the saints just as they did former idols.16 The saints on the façades of their churches were not substitutes for their idols, but a continuation of their worship in a new form pleasing to the priests.

The images of the saints were part of the “splendor” of the Baroque that surrounded them with decorative embellishments and architectural details.17 Close examination of the ornate details on the façades reveals complex designs for local expressions of reverence beyond that for reserved for the Catholic saints. After the shock from the collision of two civilizations had subsided, the native artists could express themselves in art. Since the success of the work of the Roman Catholic Church depended to a great extent on the participation of the Indians, the priest or missionary could or would not protest too strongly against the transformation brought about by native hands. In fact, he may have taken it as a sign of success if the Christian iconography took on native characteristics without serious divergence from Catholic dogma. Perhaps the priests interpreted the new syncretic iconography as proof that the new religion had succeeded; and the persistence of Maya ritual—such as the burning of copal and murmured chants on the outside steps of churches—was accepted, if not ignored. In colonial times, where strong Maya artistic cultures existed in Pre-Hispanic times, colonial art was at its most striking and original, and the native imagination and gift of expression proved to be stubborn and powerful.18

Maya Influence in Early Churches

In both the grander, European Baroque-style churches and the simpler highland churches, the Maya artist’s contribution in the decorative details cannot be denied. The elements of their visual symbolism appear in various manifestations, from the uniquely colorful to the more subdued relief, and especially in façades where ornate organic patterning dominates, as is seen in Figure 1, the Church of San Andres Xecul in Totonicapán. Inspired by natural elements, plants, vines, flowers, animals, and birds—all sacred in Maya beliefs—the Mayan artist had the unique ability to transform three-dimensional designs into flat organic shapes, perfect for church relief designs. Called planimetric and found in many cultures, the flattening results in new decorative patterns for a specific type of linearity that outlines the original form’s contours.19 Thus, the natural world reappears in a new dimension of bold relief and lush designs that reflect Mayan ritual symbolism for a different purpose, while always respecting their ancient worldview. The exuberant decoration of Guatemalan churches demonstrates how organic elements are reinterpreted from both the meaning and aesthetics of the glyphs.

Figure 1. San Andrés Xecul, Totonicapán, Guatemala, façade.

Source: Photo © Daniel Hernández-Salazar, Guatemala, 2020

The Maya used a script or symbolic language of glyphs to record their worldview, and the glyphs were created in the same visual system of planimetricism that appears on churches. Thus, the organic decoration on the façades is a continuation of Maya artistic, aesthetic, and ritual practices dating back to the 3rd century bce in Guatemala. The glyph system has been substantially translated and includes words, numbers, calendar days, and symbols of gods and nature. Some represent syllables for a spoken or phonetic language (syllabograms) and others are logograms (to express meaning).20 In studying the appearance of the glyphs, it is easy to note that the soft edges and curving lines give an organic quality to their geometric formation—especially nature and water signs, as exemplified in the drawings of the two glyphs in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Maya Caban earth symbol glyph and Mayan water glyph.

Source: Drawing © Michelle Gonzalez, Miami, 2019

Accustomed to creating glyphs to symbolize sacred environments and worldly phenomenon, the Maya artists who decorated the churches imbue their decorations with a sacred context, readable on numerous levels, as they pay homage to the vocabulary of the past and its universal meaning.

For the ancient Maya, the world, the heavens, and the mysterious underground called Xibalbá were part of one unified structure that operated according to the laws of astrology, cyclical time, and ancestor worship. With the towering Ceiba tree considered as their sacred world-tree, heaven and earth are united through its branches and foliage; the trunk was earth, and the nine levels of Xibalbá were the roots. The cruciform shape of the Tree of Life was similar to that of the Christian cross, making it ideal for the missionaries to use as a critical element in their teachings. In essence, the Maya could worship both at the same time. Tree foliage is a significant element in church decoration, relating Catholicism to the Maya cosmovision and worldview as well as man’s close integration with nature. The façade of the Church of Zacualpa in Figure 3 is an outstanding example of the use of organic decoration. The detail in Figure 4 shows flowers of particular significance as the symbols of the Aztec God of Flowers, Xochipilli, present in numerous statues throughout Mexico and well-known to the Maya.

Figure 3. Zacapulas Church, Zacapulas, El Quiché, Guatemala, façade.

Source: Photo © Daniel Hernández-Salazar, Guatemala, 2020

Figure 4. Zacapulas Church, Zacapulas, El Quiché, Guatemala, detail of façade.

Source: Photo © Daniel Hernández-Salazar, Guatemala, 2020

The colors of nature also defined a symbolic vocabulary. The most spectacular of Guatemalan churches are vividly painted with colors significant to tradition. Evident in Figure 5, a detail of the Church of San Andrés Xecul introduced in Figure 1, these colors serve not just as decoration, but to enliven the façades as continually growing, communicating, and remembering.

Figure 5. San Andrés Xecul, Totonicapán, Guatemala, detail of façade.

Source: Photo © Daniel Hernández-Salazar, Guatemala, 2020

The Maya considered color as an expression of their beliefs and religion. The colors encountered in Contact-period rituals belong to the past and are found on ceramics and beads, candles, and on architectural decoration in the newly built churches. Colors appear in association with a worldview, or cosmovision described by the cardinal directions. Red, white, black, and yellow relate to the directions, and the four branches of the Maya tree of life. Red represents the sun rising in the sacred east; white represents north, for the North Star and the heavens; black is west for the dying sun; yellow is south and the sun itself. Red, white, black, and yellow are also the four colors of traditional maize kernels. Ancient beliefs say that humanity was created out of yellow and white maize. A fifth color, blue green, marks the center and is associated with religious sacrifice. Maya Blue, its most famous and enduring color, was made from a mix of indigo and clay minerals in a unique piece of chemistry, hard to duplicate today. Although the emphasis may vary slightly from region to region within linguistic groups, colors remain significantly assigned to the cardinal directions and other phenomena, such as time and space.21

The Maya built their ancient temples to incorporate sculpture and colorful decorations, setting the scene of great stage fronts for the rituals vital to the sustenance of society. The framework of ritual was illustrated through the symbolic information carried within their decoration and defined in terms of the Maya cosmos, history, and authority. Like public art, façades and their symbolism communicated information about the church’s interior and its meaning to a newly converted society. Symbols could mark them as instruments of power and identity, and color was an integral part of the message. Maya artists created two-dimensional images that refer to three-dimensional experiences—without the formal properties of art understood by the Western world—and color and shadows created by natural lighting determined shape and form.22 Color symbolism describing the world is expressed with great enthusiasm by the Maya and informs the decorations of the churches as a continuation of their belief system under the domination of the Christian church and varies in complexity from region to region.

Highland Churches

As in most countries of Latin America, the Spanish churches of the colonial period followed Baroque architectural designs favored in Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries. The churches came to represent a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan Catholic building style, especially in the cities where important religious orders were located. In Guatemala, there are numerous churches built in the Baroque style with elaborate façades, decorated portals, bell towers, and arched niches for the statues of saints. However, due to frequently reoccurring geological forces like earthquakes and landslides, the Baroque is altered for protection. Featuring heavy and thick walls and tower bases, with low interior ceiling height, this style came to be known as Earthquake Baroque.

For this brief article on art history, churches of colonial simplicity and Earthquake Baroque design representative of regions of the country will serve as examples. From the Western Highlands to the Eastern Highlands and Lake Atitlan, and the Peten, each church is chosen for its exuberant and organic decoration and associations with Maya traditions, built by Mayans for Mayan people.

Western Highlands Quiché

Quiché is the homeland of the K’iche’ people in the Western Highlands of the Cuchumatanes mountains, surrounded by valleys and peaks serrating the horizons. It is the location of the mysterious ruins of K’umarcaaj, the last capital city of the K’iche’, and Chichicastenango, one of Guatemala’s most popular and magical cities. Once called Chaviar, Chichi (as it is known today) was a famous trading town for the Kaqchiquel people long before the Spanish Conquest. In the 15th century, the group clashed with the powerful K’iche’, based in the north at K’umarcaaj, and was forced to move to the more defensible town of Iximché. When Pedro de Alvarado and his Spanish explorers conquered Guatemala in 1524, the K’iche’ fought them and lost in K’umarcaaj. Many of its residents fled to Chichicastenango, the name given by the Spaniards’ Mexican allies to the nearby town. From the 16th to the 21st centuries, the area has preserved its ancient ruins and local legends. Its citizens (mashenos) help it to retain an air of mystery, and they are famous for their adherence to pre-Christian beliefs and ceremonies, including cofradia processions in observance of local saints that remember and celebrate Mayan traditions, today enjoyed by the community and tourists.23

Certain convergences between Catholicism and pre-Hispanic K’iche’ religion are evident in festivals, music, processions, and church decoration. Where Christianity was uncoerced, the past persisted. The culture became a unique blend: a continuation of local beliefs with Christianity accepted as a new element. As evident in the church decoration—which gives a peculiar local flavor to Catholic observances and architecture in the region—the people did not abandon their beliefs. The K’iche’ reinforced certain elements that could easily be transposed, especially as related to flora and fauna which figure so predominantly in their beliefs. Secondary figures of the K’iche’ pantheon paired off with Catholic saints for the resultant syncretism evident in the decorations, clothing, and festivals.

The Church of Santo Tomás, on the eastern side of Chichi’s main plaza, dates from 1540 and is known for rituals that are more distinctly Mayan than Catholic. Although it has a sparsely decorated exterior featuring only an arched portal and columns, its twenty front steps are representative of the steps leading up to Mayan pyramids—one step for each day of the Mayan calendar.24 They are laden with copal resin incense, and the platform on top of the steps—extremely important in Maya ritual—holds the quemador, or the “burning place,” atop a strange box-like structure covered by a flat slab of rock in front of the door. In Figure 6, a member of the church’s cofradia burns copal on the platform. Smoldering ashes can be found there at all times.25

Figure 6. Member of local cofradia burns incense in front of Santo Tomás Church, Chichicastenango, El Quiche, Guatemala.

Source: Photo © Daniel Hernández-Salazar, Guatemala, 2020

Prayer readers, called chuchkajues (mothers–fathers), swing incensarios while chanting Maya words marking the days of the ancient Maya calendar. This practice also honors the ancestors, many of whom are buried inside the church just as Maya kings were buried beneath pyramids.26 Inside, the floor of the church is strewn with offerings of maize, flowers, and bottles of liquor wrapped in corn husks. On low platforms, candles are arranged in specific patterns with symbolic meaning. The oldest known version of the Popul Vuh was discovered in the sacristy attached to the church.27


The town of San Andrés Xéxul, Totonicapán, Xela, is an outstanding example of syncretism in Latin American Christianity. The Church of San Andrés Xécul, introduced earlier in Figures 1 and 5 and built later than some of the earlier colonial churches, in 1900, is constructed in a more ornate Baroque style of architecture. It was restored in 2008 to maintain its colorful exuberance. Starting at the top dome with its bright blue, green, and red stripes, it expresses the respect for color as it relates to the Maya cosmos and other symbolic elements. The outside walls of San Andrés contain 200 painted sculptures of humans, angels, monkeys, fruit, corn, and birds of different colors, all fighting for their own space. Although sculpturally crude, the figures have a popular charm and innocence befitting a community church far from the dictates of European artistic skills and Spanish domination. They are imaginatively organized on the façade and in multiple horizontal registers, reminiscent of Maya architectural arrangements depicted in murals and lintels and referring to agricultural terracing and hierarchic power displays. Vines sprouting flower buds and seeds climb over the walls, and many of the figures hold ferns, leaves, and other plants that have strong connections to Pre-Hispanic times, when humans interacted with nature daily. There are angels and jaguars on the ledges and flanking twisted white columns peppered with dots (dots are used in Maya calendrics) in the upper register. Each figure and object is important to the Mayan people who live in the city, as the agricultural images symbolize this region’s main source of economy. The designs on the outside of San Andrés Xécul are also similar to the huipils (embroidered blouses with fantastic patterns and vibrant colors) worn by indigenous women in Guatemala. Inside the church, there are chandeliers made from glass, stone, coins, rosary beads, candles, and sculptures of the saints and Christ, on a floor continuously strewn with offerings of flowers and corn to become nature’s carpet.


Quetzaltenango (Xela) in the Western Highlands, once called Mam, was seized by the K’iche’ Maya of K’umarcaaj when they began their great expansion in the 14th century and were finally conquered by Pedro de Alvarado as Guatemala came under Spanish rule. The beautifully decorated Cathedral of Quetzaltenango (Catédral del Espiritu Santo) was founded by the conquistadors in 1531 and dedicated to the Holy Spirit after a visit by Bishop Francisco Marroquín in 1532. Called the White Church because of its lack of color and emphasis on carved relief decoration on the façade, it is Baroque in its organization, with a massive arched portal surrounded by a series of decorated arches and flanked by twisted Solomonic columns. Figure 7 shows its three-story façade containing niches of varying sizes, all with spiraling columns and elaborate designs. The immediate association of the profusion of organic details with Maya glyphs on stelae and architecture is evident in vertical piers of repetitive patterns that resemble Maya water signs and otherworldly phenomena. Nature glyphs often repeat scrolls, dots, and bands in interchangeable and flattened form. In Maya thought certain points and substances in the natural world may have supernatural forces that were manifested symbolically in art. These nature glyphs represent categories of phenomena significant to Maya ritual beliefs and creation stories. The presence of angelic or winged beings—which also form part of the Maya sacred cosmos in a more human form—and other sacred figures in niches, surrounded by ornately carved arches with beaded and banded swirls, contribute to the horror vacui (fear of space) effect of the façade. Thus, the interpretation and transformation of Mayan nature symbols for Baroque results give a living organic feeling to what is a massive, thick-walled building. A center of community festivities marking the Catholic and the Mayan calendars, the Cathedral is also home to two of the region’s most revered images: The Divine Just Judge and the Virgin of the Rosary, enthroned inside and surrounded by flowers and offerings daily.

Figure 7. Cathedral of Espíritu Santo, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, façade.

Source: Photo © Daniel Hernández-Salazar, Guatemala, 2020

The first Catholic Church founded in Central America, La Iglesia de La Ermita de la Concepción (the Church of the Hermitage of the Conception), is in Salcajá in northern Quetzaltenango. Built in 1524 for Spanish conquistadors, it is also known as “La Conquistadora” or Church of San Jacinto (named for the man who restored it after it was damaged by an earthquake in 1902). It is a small church of simple design and a relatively unadorned exterior. Figure 8 shows the decoration on the lintel above the entrance, influenced by Maya, Nahuatl (Aztec), Moorish and medieval culture for an eclectic mix of motifs brought from Spain and combined with native symbology. Known for its arabesque patterns, ataurique—from the Arabic word al-Tariq, meaning vegetable, signifies Mudejar (Moorish) influence important in Iberia and found on architectural decorations, tiles, and pottery.28 These arabesques embellish many other churches in the Americas, where the influence of Spain is present in the architectural plans and ornamental details. At La Ermita, interlacing and abstract designs flanked by Maya and Aztec nature glyphs combine with Christian images and symbols for a unique syncretic appearance. The indigenous penchant for a style that gives a flattened appearance with deep and beveled carving, and a tendency to divide the designs into discrete areas both horizontal and vertical, is evident in much of the church decoration throughout Guatemala and references Maya stelae and Codex designs. La Ermita is an excellent example of a combination of church architectural plans. The exterior has thick walls, few windows, and fortress-like earthquake protection for the objects inside, as well as for the Faithful who gather there. The bell towers are unusually massive and frame the main entrance in a rustic manner. The church also contains the oldest altarpiece in Central America, with a relic of the first image in the Americas of the Immaculate Conception, called “The Conqueror,” brought by Pedro de Alvarado. Before the Spanish Conquest, the area had importance for the different indigenous people who inhabited the town, so the church remained a center of life, replacing the central plaza of the native inhabitants where their rituals and gatherings were held. As is typical of conquest architectural planning, significant Christian and administrative buildings were often built upon the most important areas for the local people, making a statement about hierarchy and power as one replaced another.

Figure 8. La Concepcíon Church, Salcajá, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, façade.

Source: Photo © Daniel Hernández-Salazar, Guatemala, 2020

Another beautiful Baroque façade, decorated with complex reliefs that include Maya symbols and figures integrated into fantastic patterns and designs, is on the Church of Zunil, Quetzaltenango. The façade is like a wedding cake of white on yellow with vines and swirls surrounding a careful arrangement of niches with saints—making it a creative combination of Mayan and European designs. Twisted columns are enhanced with flowering vines that repeat themselves on the arches surrounding the niches at every level. The lintels divide different levels, and vertical divisions are marked by bead ornaments, recalling Mayan calendric and glyph notations. The spirit of horror vacui persists aesthetically throughout. Inside the church, the popular figure of Maximón is a life-sized mannequin representing a Maya god sitting on a wooden throne (syncretically associated with San Simón and Judas Iscariot) and enjoys active worship, gifts, and offerings on a daily basis.29 He is moved to a different house every year, a tradition that still occurs in many locations in the highlands where he is revered.


On the shores of Lake Atitlán, the Church of Santiago Apostal in the Tzu’tujil town of Santiago was constructed by Franciscans in 1541.30 It is one of Guatemala’s earliest and most historic churches and has endured at least two major earthquakes and reconstructions. Situated on a wide, open plaza, the church was built upon the ruins of an ancient pre-Hispanic temple, and its stairs are said to be part of its entrance. The city, called Chuitinamit in Maya times, was the capital of the Tz’utujil people, who still maintain many of their traditions in and around the church. A time-honored home of the Maya, the city is known for its vibrant colors and unbroken lineage of ancient ways and is a pilgrimage site for Maya and Catholic visitors. It is also famous as another location for the many devotions to the Mayan syncretic deity, Maximón, who appears as a life-sized but broken-legged effigy in a hat, dark suit, and glasses, surrounded by candles, flowers, and the scent of burning incense. As is traditional where he is revered, Maximón is cared for by his brotherhood, cofradia, who looks after him as he receives visitors who also give him offerings. In Santiago, Maximón ceremonially moves every year on May 8, to one of the cofradia’s ancestral ritual houses. The original name of the house is Tz’Kin Jay, meaning House of the Birds. Birds still adorn the women’s colorful huipils and men’s skaf (traditional tops and pants) and can be seen in the decorations of ceramics and church façades. The columned entrance exterior is unadorned, but within are several statues of saints with special meaning to the local people, in addition to Maximón. These wooden statues are dressed every year by the women of the town in colorful clothing similar to the dress of indigenous townsfolk and surrounded by offerings of corn and flowers. Flowers symbolize life and resurrection, and corn, the staple food of the people, is also incorporated into the festival decorations. Corn is symbolic of agricultural rebirth—the corn kernels are planted, and corn grows again—an allusion to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that of the hero twins of the Popul Vuh, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who descend into the underworld and emerge on earth again. Corn stalks and the color yellow are integral parts of the church’s decoration and transform it into an everlasting organic addition that represents more than just colorful details appealing to the faithful of the parish. Yellow is the color of maize and the Resurrection.


The new capital of Antigua was founded in 1543 after an earthquake destroyed the original capital of Santiago in the Petén Lakes region of Guatemala. Antigua was a center for Spanish administration, which spared no expense building palaces, town buildings, residences, and other important architecture, despite the constant threat of earthquakes. By the 17th century, there were more than fifty places of worship, a university, monasteries, and a vibrant cultural ambiance. A century later, the earthquake of 1773 reduced it to ruins and forced a massive reconstruction project, which saved most of the buildings.31 Antigua is known for its religious buildings, most suffering from earthquake damage, with architectural details related to the Maya facility for organic decoration. As befitting a city of administrative and religious significance, its churches are more grandiose than the churches of the highlands and other remote areas served by the missionaries, rather than parish priests. The Spanish Orders (Mercedarians, Jesuits, Franciscan, Dominicans) preferred the European style of the 16th and 17th centuries that featured massive doorways and impressive façades, with numerous niches filled with statues of saints and exuberant decorations. Altered to become the distinctive Guatemalan construction of “Earthquake Baroque,” with its heavy walls, low ceiling height, and few windows built to withstand the constant tremors in the area, they still exhibit the characteristics of the European style: massive size, undulating or layered façades with coupled columns flanking niches with statues, and decorative elements on the column capitals, lintels, and arches. There is always a theatrical play of light and shade in Baroque churches, reflecting the need for dramatic impression that was part of the message of the Counter-Reformation brought by the priests from Spain.32

The Cathedral of San José, one of the earliest and largest in Central America, was first built around 1541 but suffered several earthquakes throughout its history. It was demolished in 1669, then rebuilt and consecrated in 1680, only to be damaged again in the earthquake of 1773. Today, the Cathedral’s two towers remain intact, and the rest of it has been restored with a monumental Earthquake Baroque façade of undulating surfaces and recessed niches, containing patterned architraves that surround the statue of the Virgin Mary with San José above her as the main features of the portal. Organic designs embellish every surface. Complimented by yellow on white colors, the Cathedral is a true beauty and popular destination in Antigua.

The original and first Cathedral in Antigua, the Cathedral of Santiago Apostál, was founded in 1545, renovated and enlarged in 1663, and completed in 1689, with a façade built in 1675 by eminent architects Joseph de Porres and Diego de Porres.33 It was destroyed by the earthquake of 1773 and partially rebuilt.34 Today, its ruins can be seen behind the present structure dedicated to St. Joseph (the Cathedral of San José). The Cathedral of Santiago Apostál was once a monumental building with seven entrances and a plaza central to the life of the city and the site of many processions and other events. Today, the Cathedral and its smaller side chapel still boast elements of the colossal Baroque order, with repeated arches and columns surrounding a recessed portal. The resplendent façade is painted in yellow and white with a profusion of ataurique stucco details. It has a beautiful central door with the statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception in the niche above the main portal arches. The entire entrance is inscribed with filigree designs in exquisite patterns and curving forms, reminiscent of Mudejar motifs—with their fine calligraphic effects enhanced by the Maya penchant for organic decoration and rounded shapes, as in the glyphs.

The Church of San Francisco was associated with a hospital for the poor founded by Franciscans. An impressive building, the ruins of the adjoining monastery still stand as a reminder of the devastation of earthquake territory. A splendid example of regional Earthquake Baroque, the church was built in a prime location by the Franciscans, who came with the conquistadors and could take their choice. Begun in 1544, the monastery was one of the leading institutions in the community, and with constant rebuilding it soon became an immense complex surrounded by high walls. The church once had two towers and its façade is of the retablo type (named after the complex organization of niches, statues, and ornate details found in the elaborate altars in Spanish Baroque churches). There is architectural variety in the pediments, recessed portico, and grooved decorations.35 It features pairs of twisting Solomonic columns on two levels. A statue of the Virgin and Child stands within the arched entrance, surrounded by four smaller niches for statues of Franciscan saints, many of which remain. The bottom pairs of niches on either side of the central portal contain only the remnants of ornate details that would have enlivened the façade in its early days.

The Convent Church of Santa Cruz (La Ermita de Santa Cruz) was built in 1664, destroyed by the earthquake of 1773, rebuilt, and then finally destroyed and abandoned after the earthquake of 1942. It was again restored in 1976 and, despite constant refurbishment, its ruins demonstrate great refinement in its decoration.36 Set in a forest, what must have been a monumental portal of three stories with engaged pillars and arches is offset by a square niche on the second story and rectangular niches topped with Classic style pendentives. The entire surface is decorated in stucco patterns that embellish it with a variety of designs, scrolls, and figurative friezes. Renaissance motifs include playful infant atlantes, rampant angels, and heraldic lions guarding the stucco Calvary group in the center. There is a wealth of invention in the energetic patterns that compete for space and attention, giving a dynamic organic impression.

The Church of El Carmen, also in ruins, was founded by the Brotherhood of the Holy Scapulary in 1689, destroyed in 1717, and rebuilt in 1728. There is a multiplication of double columns—a regular feature of the Baroque—and exuberantly decorated upper shafts surrounded by vines and garlands in marked contrast to the meshed patterns on the columns. A frieze of motifs on the upper lintel has interlacing designs, reminiscent of both Maya and Mudejar aesthetics. A statue of the Virgin Mary stands at the peak of the upper pediment, with its complex decoration dominating the appearance of the façade.37

One of the last and most beautiful churches to be completed after its original construction began in 1548 was La Merced. Destroyed then rebuilt, with attention given to thick walls to withstand the quakes, it was finally completed by the Mercedarian Order in 1760 and was able to survive the monumental 1773 earthquake and others due to its thick walls and heavy tower bases.38 The Mercedarians were the first to establish a men’s convent in Guatemala and became one of the country’s most powerful orders. The yellow paint of the façade, seen in Figure 9, with its vertical arched niches and decorative elements of shallow stucco design, features lush white filigree ornamentation. A statue of the Virgin of Mercy in the detail of the central section in Figure 10 is surrounded by a spreading bouquet of vines and flowers emerging from vases. There are flowers and fantasy motifs, baby angels, spiraling garlands, and twisting organic motifs that celebrate Maya beliefs and Iberian decorative ataurique stucco motifs. The patterns of repeating circles and linear elements enclosing flower gardens and vases surround the arched niches, with the statues of saints and founders of the Mercedarian order included in the design. These patterns resemble the Mudejar designs of Spain, brought by the priests and missionaries in small portable objects, books, and drawings.

Figure 9. La Merced Church, Antigua, Guatemala, façade.

Source: Photo © Daniel Hernández-Salazar, Guatemala, 2020

Figure 10. La Merced Church, Antigua, Guatemala, detail of façade.

Source: Photo © Author

Today, the city of Antigua, a World Heritage site, is a haunting place to visit and imagine its important history. The vestiges of the colonial period are still evident, even in their ruined state, with architectural details displaying the same decorative organic elements prevalent throughout Guatemala.


This small selection of the hundreds of churches built in Guatemala from the colonial period to the present provides material evidence of Maya creativity, as it was expressed in their organic façades. An exuberant decorative vocabulary transforms an ancient language of glyphs and legends into a Christian story, with Catholic saints superseding a pantheon of gods and goddesses but never replacing them entirely. The Spanish priests and administrators found it a challenge to erase hundreds of years of belief, much of which they did not understand or recognize beneath the distraction of the beautiful designs that adorned their new churches. The dominance of curvilinear and interlacing designs results in a living façade, paying homage to the ritual aesthetics and beliefs of a pantheistic society who believed in the harmonic interaction between man and nature. Always seeking to please the gods, the Maya made offerings, recited prayers, and created a unique visual language of signs and symbols to tell their stories and preserve them for eternity.

Review of the Literature

This article has been written from an art historical perspective, using Maya religion and its symbols and glyphs as its major resource, along with the records of Conquest and colonial religious history. There is considerable information about the Maya, their history, and the translation of the glyphs in the works of Mary Ellen Miller, Linda Schele, Elizabeth Benson, and others. An understanding of the Popul Vuh is essential to deciphering the symbols and their meaning for the rituals of the people, and the pantheon of gods and goddesses that direct their lives. Bartolome de las Casas writes of the mistreatment of the Indians in the Americas in his important works, and a number of scholars have described how Indians in Guatemala were often in isolated locations where they were able to continue their ancient traditions of “idolatry” in unique ways. This allowed them to create a syncretic form of imagery that could be seen as Christian by the priests and Mayan by the people. For the history of the Conquest and early colonial architecture, the work of Ernesto Chinchilla Aguilar, Pal Kelemen, Sidney Markman provide basic descriptions. See Orellano, Mario Monteforte, Ruth Bunzel, and Michael Duffey for recent case studies describing incidents of idol worship on or near the churches. For present-day images and descriptions of the churches and their ceremonies, numerous tourist guidebooks provide interesting information. Michael Shapiro, Guatemala: A Journey Through the Land of the Maya, is particularly recommended. Guatemala tourism also has websites for many of the locations discussed.

Primary Sources

  • Alvarado, Pedro de, Sedley J. Mackie, and Cortes Society. An Account of the Conquest of Guatemala in 1524. New York: Cortes Society, 1969.
  • Angulo Iniguez, Diego. Historia del arte hispanoamericano. Vols. II and III. Barcelona: Salvat Editores, 1950–1965.
  • Casas, Bartolome de las. Historia de las Indias. Vol. 11. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1981.
  • Casas, Bartolomé de las. A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies Or, a faithful NARRATIVE OF THE Horrid and Unexampled Massacres, Butcheries, and all manner of Cruelties, that Hell and Malice could invent, committed by the Popish Spanish Party on the inhabitants of West-India, TOGETHER With the Devastations of several Kingdoms in America by Fire and Sword, for the space of Forty and Two Years, from the time of its first Discovery by them. Ebook #20321. London, 1689; Project Gutenberg, 2007.
  • Castillo, Bernal Díaz del, and José Antonio Barbón Rodríguez. Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España: (Manuscrito de “Guatemala”). México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2005.

Further Readings

  • Aguilar, Ernesto Chinchilla. Historia del Arte en Guatemala: Arquitectura, Pintura y Escultura. Guatemala: Departamento Editorial “Jose de Pineda Ibarra,” 1965.
  • Annis, Verle L. The Architecture of Antigua Guatemala 1543–1773. Guatemala: University of San Carlos, 1968.
  • Benson, Elizabeth P. The Maya World. Rev. ed. New York: Thomas Crowell, 1977.
  • Borhegyi, Stephan. “Culto a la Imagen del Senor de Esquipulas en Centro America y Nuevo Mexico.” Antropologia y Historia de Guatemala XI, no. 1 (1959): 44–49.
  • Bottineau, Yves. Iberian-American Baroque. New York: TBS, 1971.
  • Centro Cultural de la Villa de Madrid. El País del Quetzal: Guatemala maya e hispana. Madrid: Sociedad Estatal para la Acción Cultural Exterior, 1992.
  • Clammer, Paul, and Ray Barlett. The Lonely Planet: Guatemala. Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet Publications, 2019.
  • Coe, Michael D., and Stephen D. Houston. The Maya, Ancient Peoples and Places. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2015.
  • Gage, Tomas. Nueva relacion que contiene los viajes de Tomas Gage en la Nueva Espana. Guatemala: Tipografia Nacional, 1946.
  • Gage, Tomas. Thomas Gage’s Travels in the New World. Edited with an Introduction by J. Eric S. Thompson. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
  • Gibson, Charles. Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952.
  • Jickling, David. “Los vecinos de Santiago de Guatemala en 1604s.” Mesoamerica 3, no. 3 (1982): 145–231.
  • Kelemen, Pál. Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala: A Historical Geography of the Cuchumatan Highlands, 1500–1821. 3rd ed. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.
  • Markman, Sidney D.Santa Cruz, Antiqua, Guatemala, and the Spanish Colonial Architecture of Central America.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 15, no. 1, Spanish Empire Issue (March 1956): 12–19.
  • Markman, Sidney D. The Architecture of Antigua Guatemala. Philadelphia: American Philosophic Society, 1966.
  • Monteforte, Mario. Las Formas y Los Dias: El Barroco en Guatemala. Guatemala: Turner, 1992.
  • Muñoz, Jorge Luján, ed. Historia general de Guatemala. 6 vols. Guatemala: Asociación de Amigos del Pais, Fundación para la Cultura y el Desarrollo, 1993–1999.
  • Schele, Linda. Maya Glyphs: The Verbs. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982.
  • Schultze, Leonhard Sigmund. La vida y las creencias de los indigenas quiches de Guatemala. Trans. Antonio Goubaud Cerrera and Herbert D. Sapper. Guatemala: Ministerio de Educación Pública, 1946.
  • Shapiro, Michael. Guatemala: A Journey Through the Land of the Maya. Monte Rico, CA: Purple Moon Publications, 2008.
  • Solá, Miguel. Historia del Arte Hispanoamericano. 2nd ed. Barcelona: Editorial Labor, 1958.
  • Stone, Andrea, and Marc Zender. Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011.
  • Thompson, J. Eric S. Maya History and Religion. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.
  • Toledo, Mario Monteforte. Las formas y los días: El Barroco en Guatemala. Guatemala: Turner Libros, 1992.
  • Westheimer, Paul, and Pal Kelemen. Arte American precolombino y arte colonial. Bilbao: Ediciones Moreton, 1967.
  • Wiley, Gordon. “Archaeological Synthesis of the Guatemalan Highlands.” In Handbook of Middle American Indians, II: 3–58. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965.


  • 1. Pál Kelemen, Baroque and Rococo in Latin America, 2nd ed., Vol. 1 (New York: Dover Publications, 1967), 122–123.

  • 2. See Mary Ellen Miller and Karl A. Taube, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion (London: Thames & Hudson, 1997).

  • 3. See W. George Lovell, “Surviving Conquest: The Maya of Guatemala in Historical Perspective,” Latin American Research Review 23, no. 2 (1988): 25–57.

  • 4. W. George Lovell, Conquest and Survival in Colonial Guatemala: A Historical Geography of the Cuchumatan Highlands, 1500–1821, 3rd ed. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 61–62. The quotation comes from a document known as the Requerimiento, prepared by Spanish jurists to be proclaimed by the conquistadors before employing violent means to subdue indigenous peoples in the Americas. The Requerimiento, which required the latter to recognize the authority of the church, the pope, and the monarch, absolved conquistadors of guilt if the indigenous people refused to comply. Michael K. Duffey, “Guatemala Catholics and Mayas: The Future of Dialogue,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 34, no. 2 (April 2010): 87–92.

  • 5. Adriaan Van Oss, Catholic Colonialism: A Parish History of Guatemala, 1524–1821 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 9.

  • 6. Kelemen, Baroque and Rococo, 123.

  • 7. See Michael Coe, “Breaking the Maya Code,” in The Guatemala Reader, ed. Greg Grandin, Deborah T. Levenson, and Elizabeth Oglesby (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 19–23.

  • 8. See Dennis Tedlock, trans., Popul Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) for translation. See also Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and ritual in Maya Art (New York: George Braziller, 1986), 31.

  • 9. The most venerated of local saints is Maximón, a Mayan version of St. Simon, a Satanic figure, representation of Judas Iscariot or link to the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Alvarado. Revered as a Mayan demi-god, he is kept in the home of one of the members of the cofradia and taken out in procession during Holy Week. His devotees throughout Guatemala make offerings and ask favors of his statue, known as Rilaj Mam, meaning “Holy Grandfather” or “Holy Boy” in the local T’zurujil Mayan language. Maria Martin, A Mayan and Catholic Easter Tradition? Yes, in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, NBC Latino News. See Sandra L. Orellana, “Idols and Idolatry in Highland Guatemala,” Ethnohistory 28, no. 2 (Spring 1981), 157–177, for numerous accounts of Maya rituals in the 16th and 17th centuries by priests, travelers, and explorers, despite efforts at destruction.

  • 10. Van Oss, Catholic Colonialism, 21.

  • 11. The colonial paintings of Cuzco are another example, with Inca imagery hidden beneath that of Christianity. See Carol Damian, The Virgin of the Andes: Art and Ritual in Colonial Cuzco (Miami Beach, FL: Grassfield Press, 1994).

  • 12. The Annals of the Cakchiquels mention the major idols of the Cakchiquel group. Adrian Recinos and Delia Goetz, trans., Annals of the Cakchiquels: Title of the Lords of Totnicapan (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967), in Sandra L. Orellana, “Idols and Idolatry in Highland Guatemala,” Ethnohistory 28, no. 2 (Spring 1981), 158. Orellana cites numerous reports of idols found in churches in the Highlands, in some areas into modern times, are cited in Orellana, “Idols and Idolatry,” 165.

  • 13. John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (A. Hall, Virtue, 1854), 390.

  • 14. John Scott, Latin American Art: Ancient to Modern (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999), 141; see also Luis Lujan Munoz, “Las artes populares en Guatemala Colonial,” in El Pais del Quetzal (Madrid: Sociedad Estatal para la Accion Cultural Exterior, 2002), 163–174.

  • 15. Van Oss, Catholic Colonialism, 115.

  • 16. Sandra L. Orellana, “Idols and Idolatry in Highland Guatemala,” Ethnohistory 28, no. 2 (Spring 1981): 167.

  • 17. David Jickling and Elaine Elliott, Facades and Festivals of Antiqua: A Guild to Church Fronts and Celebrations (Antigua, Guatemala: Casa del Sol, 1989), ii.

  • 18. Kelemen, Baroque and Rococo, 20–21.

  • 19. Gauvin Alexander Bailey, The Art of Colonial Latin America (London: Phaidon, 2005), 88.

  • 20. See Schele and Miller for explanation of glyphs. See also David Montgomery, Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2002).

  • 21. Timothy W. Pugh and Leslie G. Cecil, “The Contact Period of Central Petén. Guatemala in Color,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 1, no. 62 (Spring/Fall 2012): 315–329.

  • 22. Schele and Miller, Blood of Kings, 35.

  • 23. Van Oss, Catholic Colonialism, 9.

  • 24. The Maya calendar or Tzolkin consisted of twenty periods each with thirteen days for a 260-day count. Each day had a number and a name, the numbers from one to thirteen and twenty day names. When the thirteen numbers were gone through, they began again, and the twenty day names continued. When the day names were gone through, they repeated, and the numbers continued up to thirteen. The cycles of thirteen and twenty repeated until they came back to the first number, first name again in 260 days. The priests who kept the calendars used the Tzolkin to determine days for sowing and harvest, military triumphs, religious ceremonies and divination. See Scott Michael Rank, ed., The Mayan Calendar, History on the Net.

  • 25. “Catholic priests have tried for centuries to have this sacrilege suppressed. The last attempt was made not many years ago, but the protest of the Indians was carried to the President of the Republic, and the priest was peremptorily rebuked and told ‘not to interfere with the customs of the Indians.’” For a description of the incense rituals, see Ruth Bunzel Chichicastenango: A Guatemalan Village (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1959), 4. Bunzel studied the city in the 1930s and found its isolation free from modern political changes and where the stones still bear traces of carved glyphs to be a dramatic juxtaposition of Spanish colonial and resplendent native tradition.

  • 26. See Andrew K. Scherer, Mortuary Landscapes of the Classic Maya: Rituals of Body and Soul (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015) for mortuary practices and burials of kings.

  • 27. Bunzel, Chichicastenango, 3.

  • 28. Bailey, Art of Colonial Latin America, 88.

  • 29. see note 9.

  • 30. Lee Ann Heinbaugh, A Deeper Look Into the History of Ancient Maya Tradition in Santiago, Lake Atitlan, Atitlan Living.

  • 31. Christopher Minster. The History of the City of Antigua, Guatemala. ThoughtCo.

  • 32. David Jickling and Elaine Elliott, Facades and Festivals of Antigua: A Guide to Church Fronts and Celebrations (Antigua, Guatemala: Casa del Sol, 1989), 1.

  • 33. Johann Estuardo Melchor Toledo, El arte religioso de La Antiqua Guatemala, 1773–1821: Cronica de la emigración de sus imagines (PhD thesis, Universidad nacional autónoma de México, 2011), 231.

  • 34. Centro Cultural de la Villa de Madrid, El País del Quetzal: Guatemala maya e hispana (Madrid: Sociedad Estatal para la Acción Cultural Exterior, 1992), 154.

  • 35. Kelemen, Baroque and Rococo, 133.

  • 36. Toledo, arte religioso, 251.

  • 37. Kelemen, Baroque and Rococo, 129.

  • 38. Toledo, arte religioso, 295.