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Drawing From the Past
Maya Antiquity Through the Eyes of Frederick Catherwood

Plate 15, Portion of La Casa de Las Monjas, Uxmal

Plate 15, Portion of La Casa de Las Monjas, Uxmal

Plate 15, Portion of La Casa de Las Monjas, Uxmal
(on stone, by A. Picken)

This structure was named by the early Spanish explorers “La Casa de Las Monjas” or “The Nunnery.” While scholars still debate the original function of the building, most are now convinced that it did not serve as a convent. The most imposing icons on this façade are the stacks of masks running up the wall (far right) representing the god Chac, the ancient god of rain important to the people of Uxmal.

When Catherwood first viewed this site during his 1839 expedition, he was clearly impressed. The carvings in this drawing contain an exceptional amount of detail. Carved figures leap from the rest of the picture, especially in contrast to the lack of detail in objects and people closer to the viewer. In fact, Catherwood's depiction of the site seems to emphasize this structure and place it above the world of the present day, including the present-day Maya (none of whom are drawn to engage the viewer more than the site itself does).

As we can see from a photograph of the Nunnery taken by archeologist and photographer Joseph Désiré Charnay in 1863 (24 years later), Catherwood enhanced the detail of the carvings by drawing them much more clearly than they would have appeared to him. In Charnay’s photographs of the Nunnery one can see that the building is not as pristine and free of decay as Catherwood’s romanticism would suggest. [Spanish version].

KARI STRICKLAND

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