The Altarpiece of Santiago Atitlan: The ‘Flowering Earth Mountain’

The monumental altarpiece at Santiago Atitlan is carved in wood that was specially selected and thoughtfully carved by two brothers who are Tz’utujil Maya. To look at the worldview of the Tz’utujil Maya is to peer through transparent layers of concepts much as one looks through layers of color in a watercolor painting. It is the belief of Diego Chavez Petzey that underneath a Roman Catholic overlay traditional Maya thought remains as vital a part of Tz’utujil thinking as it was centuries ago (Chistenson 2001:6). To express this Diego merges images reflecting traditional Tz’utujil Maya with those of the Roman Catholic Church in his monumental sculpture.

As with the evolution of culture in general the Tz’utujil Maya’s world-view did not develop in a vacuum. The ideologies that both Diego Chavez and his younger brother Nicolas, who assisted him, strove to depict in their art are reflective of the physical environment the Tz’utujil Maya of Santiago Atitlan have interacted with for generations. It also contains elements gleaned from other regional cultures as well as the Spanish conquistadors. Through it all, however, ancient Maya ideologies are the core of what is depicted. The forms may be Roman Catholic but the heart of message conveyed is Maya.

In order to understand this significant piece of Tz’utujil art, I will first discuss the geography and history of the region and how that contributed to the Tz’utujil Maya’s continuity of belief with their ancient forefathers. The second section will contain a description and short history of the altarpiece of the altarpiece, and a brief discussion of the how Diego executed his commission given by Father Francisco Rother, followed by Diego Chavez Petzey’s sentiments regarding his work on the altarpiece. Then I will discuss how this central altarpiece expresses Maya cosmology.


Figure 1 (Tarn 1997:31)


“…it is not the consciousness of men that determines their social existence, but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness” (Marx 1970:21).

Santiago Atitlan is a settlement of approximately 10,000 people called Atitecos. They live on the shore of the second-largest lake in Guatemala, Lake Atitlan (Tarn 1997:1-2, Orellana 1984:113). When John Lloyd Stephens saw the clear blue water in the ninety-two square mile lake he gave the site high acclaim rating the visage as “the most magnificent spectacle we ever saw (Carlsen 1997:30). Santiago Atitlan is at 5,125’ above sea level and lies at the base of three volcanoes at the edge of Lake Atitlan which fills a “volcanic collapse basin” (Carlsen 1997:29). The volcanoes in this area are young geologically and active (Orellana 1984:5). However, of the three surrounding Lake Atitlan, local Maya oral tradition provides a record for only the volcano known as Atitlan as erupting several times since 1469.

This site which rests between the highland mountains to the north and the lake and coastal piedmont to the south provided physical characteristics which allowed the ancient Maya to ward off attackers. At the time of their surrender to the Spanish conquistadors in April of 1524 the Tz’utujil Maya declared that until that time ‘their land had never been broken into or entered by force of arms” (Carlsen 1997:83, Christenson 2001:38, Orellana 1984:113). Indeed, the isolated pockets formed by this geology created a region that had physical barriers hard to penetrate and easy to defend. This isolation also created was fertile ground for the “consciousness of men” to be highly individualistic (Marx 1970:21). Even today the region has a unique religious melding of “undigested bits of Roman Catholicism and queer survivals of paganism” (Tarn 1997:2).

This is not to say other Maya regions do not blend the two ideologies, but the outcome of the melding differs.

For example, there are significant continuities in the ancient Maya’s concept of time and use of calendrics observable in Maya society today (Tedlock 1982:53. And, the oral traditions of the Tz’utujil Maya who reside in Santiago Atitlan region contain many of the concepts observed in the Popol Vuh, a Quiche Maya text recorded by the nobility of that group shortly after the conquest (Carlsen 1997:49-50). However, the manner in which these ideas are integrated into the Tz’utujil ideology is unique.

The Atitecos believe that Lake Atitlan is the most significant body of water being the “true master, the first of all things; the sea comes second” (Christenson 2001:74-75). For them, the reference in the Popol Vuh of a large expanse of water, ‘the first waters of creation,’ is to Lake Atitlan and the rising of three mountains from the sea a reference to the volcanic mountains surrounding their lake. The ‘center of the world’ is at Atitlan and it is on Lake Atitlan that the giant turtle carapace (which is often depicted in imagery throughout the Maya area) floated and cracked allowing the Maize God to emerge from the underworld. So for the Atitecos, it is here that the ‘World Tree’ which Eliade refers to as the ‘axis mundi’ of all things exists (1987:36-37).

The Atiteco’s myth regarding this tree is that this deity was laden with potential life and the branches held all of these potentialities as fruit on its branches (Carlsen 1997:52). Even elements such as lightening and time are included in this bounty. Laden with such abundance the tree gave way and the ‘fruit’ fell smashing and scattering its seeds. Now, the tree exists as a stump at the center of the world and is the original ‘Father/Mother,’ the alpha and omega of life. The focus of Atiteco religious belief is based on the ancient traditional view that centers on this tree and it “in one way or anther [is] oriented back to the…original tree.” It is based on evidence such as this that Richard Wilson concludes that “it is misguided to overlook the way in which indigenous identities are chained to images of tradition” (1993:135).

Isolation and lack of the type of resources desired by the conquistadors provide the physical and social climate that aided the highland Maya in being particularly “successful in preserving their cultural identity despite the imposition of Roman Catholicism during the colonial period” with the pre-Columbian past recorded in the “cultural lives of the people of Santiago Atitlan in ways other than conventional written sources (Christenson 2001: 18). At the time of the conquest, Guatemala contained few resources to lure the Spanish and so after the initial conquest the region received little attention (Warren 1978:8-9). So, even with the imposed Roman Catholic religion, the highland Maya preserved much of their cultural identity (Christenson 2001:18). Cultural geographer Felix McBryde observed that Lake Atitlan has the “the highest degree of…geographic diversity anywhere in Guatemala, even in the world” with physical barriers that create isolated pockets of habitation (Carlsen 1997:29). He states that “many of the villages may be separated from their neighbors by two miles or less, and yet being isolated…they may have distinct economies, dress, and even vocabularies.”


Figure 2 (Tarn 1997:117)
Although isolated, these people were highly literate. The early written history of

the highland Maya of Guatemala was preserved in hieroglyphic script in bark paper or deerskin covered books called codices in times prior to the 1500s (Christenson 2001:17). These sophisticated texts contained stories of the origin of the Maya people and their religious beliefs. Fray Bartolome de las Casas recorded his impression of the texts he viewed stating that “these great books are of such astuteness and subtle technique that we could say our writing does not offer much of an advantage” (Christenson 2001:17). However, unlike the few codices remaining from other regions, no examples of these highland texts are known to have survived the conquest and subsequent attempts of suppression of the Maya native culture and religion belief. The codices were considered “dangerous hindrances to conversion” and were sought out and burned. Destruction of temples and painted and carved images also was part of the program. (Christenson 2001:18).

After and initial ‘cleansing’ of religious practices, the presence of the Spanish was minimal. This first contact made by Roman Catholic priests with the Tz’utujil Maya in Guatemala was by itinerant priests with the primary goal of baptism and destroying items related to “idolatry” or “paganism,” including the codices (Orellana 1984:195-196). Most Maya continued to practice their indigenous religion after the priests left their villages. In 1542 this pattern changed when two Dominicans started to give regular religious instruction to the Tz’utujil Maya. With the ‘congregation’ of the Tz’utujil religious proselytizing was intensified (Carlsen 1997:91). Twenty-three years after initial contact with the Spanish the Tz’utujil were forcefully ‘congregated’ to provide a more accessible population for labor and religious conversion (Carlsen 1997:84-90). However, the main priority was for financial gain through the exploitation of environmental resources and man power that would “maximize enrichment.” The rugged terrain of Lake Atitlan and decline of the Maya population did not meet these criteria so interest quickly waned and Spanish attention withdrew from Atitlan.

Throughout the post-Columbian period the Spaniards displayed a preference for dealing with their own countrymen and allowed the Maya to self-administer religious affairs (Carlsen 1997:93). Adriaan van Oss notes that:

“by approaching the conversion of Indian communities through their traditional leaders, missionaries insured that the persons who played an active role in the establishment of the new cult…would in many cases be exactly the same individuals who before the conversion had occupied comparable positions in the spiritual life of the community, with obvious implications for the kind of Christian observance which took root.”

By 1638 the region had been neglected for such a long period of time that the church was in need of serious repair and was eventually abandoned until 1964 (Carlsen 1997:92-92).

Traditional beliefs of the Maya appear to have been forced underground by Spanish contact and not lost. Traditional beliefs were kept alive by secretly transcribing ancient texts and secreting them away (Christenson 2001:18). All of this left a religious tradition that retained the core of traditional Maya beliefs and today reflects a “cultural resilience with transformative capacity, most aspects could be traced to the pre-Columbian past” (Carlsen 1997:5, McBride 1942:265). The altarpiece of the church at Santiago Atitlan is exemplary of the continuity of ancient Maya ideology. At its essence can be seen Maya cosmology shrouded in a thin Roman Catholic veneer.

It is with an understanding of this background that the visual imagery of the altarpiece at Santiago Atitlan can be understood.

Figure 3 (Christenson 2001:5)