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
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].