The Colorful Retablos of Yucatán
T E C O H: "Place of the Puma"
Located just a few kilometers from the ancient walled city of Mayapan, the gigantic fortress church of Asunción Tecoh is set atop a vast pyramid, and approached via a broad stone stairway that once led up to the Mayan temple.
Starting with the tiny Franciscan chapel established here in the mid-1550s, whose open chapel with its misshapen dome was converted into the present sanctuary, the mission grew rapidly, terminating with the construction of the grand church in the 17th century.
The austere facade is capped by multi-tiered twin towers in the mold of Mérida Cathedral. In addition to the high parapets surmounting the nave, the massive walls enclose narrow passageways, or caminos de rondo, with slit-like openings on both sides that overlook the nave interior and the surrounding churchyard far below.
The Main Retablo
The main treasure of the church is its late baroque main retablo, that fills the east end. This tall, richly ornamented red and gold masterpiece is probably the most sumptuous and costly in Yucatan. Four tiers of elaborately layered cornices and gilded estípite pilasters frame a series of four large paintings - unusual for Yucatan where retablos generally feature reliefs or statuary rather than paintings.
The panels depict St. John the Baptist and three Archangels. While being restored, these four paintings were discovered to be works by Miguel Cabrera, Mexico's best known baroque painter, dating from the late 1760s. The painting of the Archangel Raphael bears his signature.
The altarpiece has recently undergone thorough and much needed renovation part of an ambitious program of altarpiece conservation all across Yucatan. This program involves restoration work on more than 60 endangered art works, including major retablos at Tabi, Yaxcabá and Sotuta.
Now restored and reassembled, this magnificent altarpiece resumes its place as the jewel in the crown of Tecoh, and one of finest surviving retablos in Yucatan.
The retablo before restoration The retablo undergoing restoration
The retablo as restored
Two Side Retablos
Of five side retablos also restored at Tecoh, two are especially fine. Both altarpieces are dedicated to the Virgin Mary in her different aspects.
The matching pair is designed, like the main retablo, in the ornate estípite style of the late Mexican baroque, and are both imaginative and fluid in their design and decoration, in our opinion equaling the finest work of the Mexican Churrigueresque, as it is popularly known.
Together with the elegant main retablo, the presence of such sophisticated styles and superb craftsmanship in Yucatan helps to further dispel the notion of colonial Yucatecan art as provincial and inferior to that of the metropolis.
- Check out our other pages on the Colorful Retablos of Yucatan
- See also our page on the Mérida retablo
- For more on the churches of Yucatán and their colonial treasures, consult the new edition of our guidebook, Maya Missions