Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community: The Altarpiece by Allen J. Christenson

By Allen J. Christenson

This learn matters the level to which the sacred structure and huge sculpture of Santiago Atitlán, a Tz'utujil-Maya-speaking neighborhood in Western Guatemala, displays the worldview of traditionalist participants of its society. The critical altarpiece of the town's sixteenth-century Roman Catholic church is my basic concentration. initially developed at an unknown date through the early colonial period (1524-1700), the altarpiece underwent broad reconstruction after it collapsed in the course of a sequence of critical earthquakes within the 20th century. The reconstruction attempt happened from 1976 to 1981 below the path of the town's parish priest, Stanley Francisco Rother. To aid craftsmanship in the neighborhood, Father Rother commissioned a neighborhood Tz'utujil sculptor, Diego Chávez Petzey, and his more youthful brother, Nicolás Chávez Sojuel, to reerect the monument and to carve alternative panels for these sections that have been too broken for reuse. instead of strictly following the unique association of the altarpiece, the Chávez brothers changed many broken panels with completely new compositions in response to conventional Maya spiritual ideals and rituals typical to their modern experience.

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Extra info for Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community: The Altarpiece of Santiago Atitlán

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Archaeologists, looters, and centuries of neglect have taken their toll on the remnants of what was once the ancient Tz’utujil capital of Chiya’, located across a narrow bay to the west of Santiago Atitlán (see Fig. 6). As a result, little of pre-Columbian Tz’utujil art and architecture survives beyond a few unexcavated mounds, small ceramic fragments, and roughly carved bas-relief designs on boulders scattered about the surrounding mountains (Fig. 2). These remnants are decidedly crude by Mesoamerican standards.

He found that, for the most part, his collaborators were less interested in the technical aspect of translating individual words or phrases than in clarifying meaning through associated myths: “He was never content with merely settling on a Quiché reading of a particular passage and then offering a simple Spanish translation; instead, he was given to frequent interpretive asides, some of which took the form of entire stories” (1985, 15–16). In working with the Tz’utujil, Mendelson found that spontaneous information was “much more alive and consistent than elicited information” (1957, 5).

Indigenous patterns. The process of Atiteco mythmaking is therefore one of accumulation, adding newer elements to older traditions rather than replacing them by substitution. Andrés Xiloj Peruch, a K’iche’Maya daykeeper who collaborated with Dennis Tedlock in his translation of the Popol Vuh, suggested that “you cannot erase time” (D. Tedlock 1985, 13). Thus Francisco Sojuel, as the greatest of remembered culture heroes in Santiago Atitlán, is associated in tradition with otherwise anachronistic historic events.

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