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

Plate 21, Las Monjas, Chichén-Itzá

Plate 21, Las Monjas, Chichén-Itzá

Plate 21, Las Monjas, Chichén-Itzá
(on stone, by G. Moore)

Today Chichén Itzá, where this structure stands, is the most heavily visited of all Maya archaeological sites. Thousands of visitors travel to see the restored ruins, now enhanced (as guide books often say) with a sound-and-light show and explanatory plaques in Spanish, English and Maya.

Catherwood’s view of Las Monjas, isolated in its scrubby desert setting, evokes a moment in time and a place far from 21st-century tourist experiences. His keen eye for architectural detail depicts a wondrous façade. Catherwood has defined the mask-like faces of Maya deities, scroll-work and even the plumes of a headdress on the figure seated above the doorway. Through shadow and sharp lines, he reveals how the Maya juxtaposed shallow relief carving with elements that extend fully from the surface of the building (seen especially at the edge of the right side of the building and over the main entry). The result is a marvelous architectural feat.

The moment Catherwood captures in this print is certainly of the mid-19th century—a point we sense from the dress of the Maya. Yet their lounging postures suggest no urgency. And the scene betrays nothing of Catherwood’s anxiety about the limited time he had to work at Chichén Itzá. In reality, time did matter, and Las Monjas was no solitary site. Nearby stand many more structures, which local Maya certainly knew (and Catherwood saw with Stephens). Nevertheless this idyllic perspective on Las Monjas invites us to imagine a magical place, in a time where no one hurries. While this was not the lived reality of Catherwood or the Maya, it is a fantasy that still stirs our imagination. [Spanish version].

DANA LEIBSOHN

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