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

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By Allen J. Christenson

This research matters the level to which the sacred structure and enormous sculpture of Santiago Atitlán, a Tz'utujil-Maya-speaking group in Western Guatemala, displays the worldview of traditionalist contributors of its society. The important altarpiece of the town's sixteenth-century Roman Catholic church is my basic concentration. initially developed at an unknown date in the course of the early colonial period (1524-1700), the altarpiece underwent wide 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 less than the course 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 substitute 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 totally new compositions in line with conventional Maya non secular ideals and rituals popular to their modern experience.

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It is also likely that modern Tz’utujils are influenced to some degree by the original meaning of these practices. Recent advances in the decipherment of ancient Maya iconography and hieroglyphic inscriptions (Taube 1992, 1994; Freidel et al. 1993; Stone 1995; Schele and Mathews 1998) provide a unique opportunity to understand pre-Columbian cosmology in a way which was once impossible. How recognition of these ancient concepts and motifs in the art of the Tz’utujils informs the cultural heritage of the highland Maya people has only begun to be addressed by art historians and anthropologists.

5. (a) View of Chiya’, the pre-Columbian capital of the Tz’utujils, as seen from across the bay. Many traditionalists believe that ancient kings continue to watch over their community and report seeing strange lights above the ruins late at night during times of crisis. (b) One of the unexcavated mounds at Chiya’. Having received their individual investitures from Nacxit, the people gathered together and began their migration westward toward the Guatemalan highlands, likely following a route along the Usumacinta River (Carmack 1981, 45; Orellana 1984, 38; Hill 1992, 18).

During the annual rites honoring the god Tohil at Q’umarkaj (ca. D. 1470), the Tz’utujils participated in an attempted coup against K’iq’ab’. Although the king survived, the incident severely weakened the K’iche’s and inaugurated a prolonged series of disastrous wars. The ensuing conflict involved nearly all the highland Maya in a tangled web of rapidly shifting alliances and betrayals until the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1524 (Chonay and Goetz 1953, 188–189). A serious revolt broke out at Chiya’ on September 2, 1521, in which the heads of the preeminent Ahtziquinahay lineage, Tepepul Ahtziquinajay and Qitzihay, were expelled from their city by members of a secondary Tz’utujil lineage (Recinos 1953, 117–118).

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