buried mirror: latest reflections

mesoamerica and the maya world

Category: architecture

A Maya suspension bridge?

maya suspension bridge

A fellow named James O’Kon claims that the Maya built the longest bridge span in the ancient world.

His theory is based on computer reconstructions derived from a 12-foot high and 35-foot diameter rock formation in the Usamacinta River near the site of Yaxchilan, which flourished between 500 and 700. A similar second structure was discovered in 1992.

O’Kon, who is former chairman of the forensic council of the American Society of Civil Engineers, enlisted the services of his Atlanta engineering firm to create a reconstruction of the bridge.

To my eye the bridge does not look consistent with known Maya architecture.

The full story is at the Georgia Tech Alumni website, which is also the source of the image shown above.


Photo Wednesday

downtown guatemala city at night

This image of the National Palace and downtown Guatemala City at night is from Oscar Mota’s photostream.


Maya symbology: jaguar

jaguar motif at lamanai maya site, belize

According to joiseyshowaa, from whose photoset this image of an architectural element at the Maya site of Lamanai in western Belize is is taken, the decorative pattern represents a jaguar. The Maya admired the jaguar, whose habitat is tropical jungles, for his fearsome appearance and roar, and his stealth and prowess as a hunter and fisher.

In Mesoamerica jaguars were associated with shamans, who were thought to change into the beasts during rituals. Shamans and priest sometimes carried jaguar hides, wore jaguar clothing, or adorned themselves with necklaces made of jaguar teeth.

Jaguar gods were associated with night (or, paradoxically, the sun), caves, the underworld, and hunting. Belief in the terrifying were-jaguar — the product of a jaguar-human union — goes back to the Olmecs, but the cult of the jaguar reached its peak with the Maya — as is logical, since the Maya and the jaguar shared the same habitat.

Jaguars were sometimes sacrificed in rituals. At Copan, sixteen jaguars were sacrificed with the city state’s 16th ruler assumed the throne.


Sites we like: La Antigua Daily Photo

You can hardly go wrong with Antigua, but Rudy GirĂ³n goes the extra mile. Every day he posts a new photo from the city, along with some pretty interesting commentary. Some of his favorite topics are food, architecture, and signage, but really nothing is out of bounds. Well worth checking out (click iamge below).

la antigua daily photo

San Jose El Viejo, Antigua, Guatemala

church of san jose el viejo, antigua, guatemala

This magnificent ruin is San Jose El Viejo in Antiguaga, Guatemala. In some ways it is the quintessence of the baroque, rather Moorish impulse in Antigua architecture.

Mudejar architecture in La Antigua, Guatemala

facade of the church of la merced in antigua, guatemala

Antigua’s distinctive architecture is not all in a single style, yet a certain spirit seems somehow common to each of the examples. Elaborate facades such as that of La Merced (shown) have been called churrigueresque (a term indicating elaborate symmetrical ornamentation). Other writers have called Antigua’s architecture hispano-indigena. But S.D. Markman, in his excellent Colonial Architecture of Antigua Guatemala considers Antigua’s architecture to be in essence mudejar.

The term mudejar is applied to Moors who remained in Spain after the Christian reconquest. It is a corruption of the Arabic word mudajjan, meaning “domesticated.” In book arts, a mudejar binding is one decorated with intricate interlaced designs, and in architecture it refers to a late medieval and early Renaissance Spanish style influenced by Moorish tastes. The mudejar architectural style, in essence, involves the use of simple materials such as brick, tile, plaster, metals, and wood, which are then elaborately worked. For the Spanish workers who developed the style, labor and creativity were more obtainable than were fine, expensive materials.

Cartuja Monastery, Cadiz, Spain

According to Markman, the Spanish examples closest to the Antigua style are found in the provinces of Seville, Huelva, Cadiz, and Malaga (which collectively were called the Reino de Sevilla). “But this comparable stylistic mood is not to be found in the monumental churches of the capital cities of this part of Spain, rather in the small towns of the countryside.” The image at right is the Carduja Monastery in Cadiz, Spain (the image is from somewhere on the web, but I have lost the address).

The mudejar style was exported to the new world as a craft tradition, which underlay all of the iterations and evolutions of the architecture of the often-rebuilt city (most of its architectural landmarks contain elements from a variety of different periods). “The mudejar is the one Iberian style which predominates and underlies all the other recognizable styles from which the Antigua style is derived,” says Markman. It is “the basic core on which the other imported Iberian styles appear as an accretion. In this respect, the architectural tradition of Antigua is but an extension of that of the Reino de Sevilla where the mudejar style is not confined to a single stylistic period, but one which lies submerged in the nonindigenous styles such as the Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque. The same process of assimilation and acculturation of architectural styles seems to have taken place in Antigua.

In future posts we will have an opportunity to look in more detail at some of the elements that characterize the mudejar-influenced Antiguan style in architecture.

View of temple 1, Tikal, from east plaza

This is a watercolor I did some years ago.

watercolor by thomas christensen, first view of temple one, tikal, from east plaza

The fountain at La Merced, Antigua, Guatemala

merced fountain, antigua, guatemala, 1975

The church of La Merced is one of the most distinctive in Antigua. Its history is strongly marked by earthquakes. Originally built in the mid-sixteenth century, it was destroyed and rebuilt several times until assuming more or less its present shape in the eighteenth century. Perhaps its most striking feature, its churrigueresque facade, was added in the nineteenth century.

But this post is not about the church — I will save that for another time. This is about the fountain in the adjacent courtyard. Called the Fuente de Pescados, it dates from the eighteenth century; it was restored in 1944. Twenty-seven meters in diameter, it’s said to be the largest classical fountain in Guatemala, or in Central America, or in Latin America — it doesn’t really matter.

The fountain is in the shape of a water lily. Water lilies are more common in the lowlands, in which bodies of water tend to be still or slow-moving, than in the highlands. In Maya symbology, the water lily, perhaps as a result of the way it seems to emerge out of the watery depths, is associated with creation. A Lancandon legend says that the first god created a water lily, from which all the other gods emerged (Miller and Taube, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya).

I took the picture at the top of this post some three decades ago. Compare it to the following one, which I took about five years ago. Here you can see that the surrounding arcades have been completely restored. The stucco-like surface has been replaced with brick. It’s not an unpleasant change, and now one can walk all the way around the courtyard, looking down on the fountain from many angles.

Still, the romantic quality of the ruins in the first photo brings a wave of nostalgia. I feel fortunate to have been among the last to see the fountain in this form. I don’t know when this latest restoration occurred, but I suspect it followed the massive earthquake that struck the highlands just a few months after the first picture was taken. Nothing is permanent in Mesoamerica, where Christian churches are built on the foundations of ancient temples, and the earth itself rearranges the surface of things at frequent intervals.

la merced fountain in antigua, guatemala, 200

Antigua Door Knockers

Tigre fe54 has a nice set of door knocker photos from Antigua, Guatemala, at his flickr site. Clickable thumbnails appear below, via the Crossroads plugin.

Maya Architecture and the Golden Mean

the golden mean at copan honduras

Mathematicians define the golden section as a relation in which the smaller unit is to te larger unit as the larger is to the sum. In other words, a:b = b:(a+b). The name for this relation is phi. Its numeric value is 1.618034. Phi is an interesting number. If you add 1 to it you get its square. If you subtract 1 from it, you get its reciprocal (1/phi). If you keep multiplying it by itself you get an infinite series that retains the phi proportion.

The thirteen-century Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci discovered that the phi proportion often manifests itself in nature as a spiral of increase found in snails, seashells, pinecones, and so forth. And so, it is said, did Maya mathematicians.

One element contributing to the beauty of Maya architecture may be its use of the golden section. (In the image above, I have drawn an approximate golden section over the opening atop the east court at the Maya ruins of Copan in Honduras.) Of course, we must beware of what a professor of mine called “the blueberry principle” — if you are out gathering blueberries you tend not to notice anything else, and you tend to see blueberries wherever you look. If we go looking for the golden section, we are likely to find it. But does this mean the Maya consciously employed it?

A researcher named Christopher Powell concluded that the answer to this question is “yes.” He says that the fundamental shape of Maya geometry is the golden section, and that the Maya composed such sections using a procedure that is brilliant in its simplicity. Using a cord, it is easy to construct a square. If the cord is doubled back on itself it obviously becomes half the length, and that halved cord can be used to find the midpoint of one of the sides of the square. Next, if the cord is placed on the midpoint and extended to one of the opposite corners, it can be swung like a compass in an arc that will define the length of a golden section, from which the final rectangle can be constructed.

Powell observed modern Yucatec Maya using this very technique. He was told that the use of the cord makes houses that are like flowers because of the relations of their proportions. His theory appears to have been confirmed by red marks that remain on some structures at Copan and Tikal and suggest sizing via this cord method.

In the Popul Vuh it is written that gods used the following method to lay out the cosmos:

Its four sides
Its four cornerings
Its measurings
Its four stakings

Its doubling-over cord measurement
Its stretching cord measurement
Its womb sky
Its womb earth
Four sides
Four corners as it is said


  • Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, The Code of Kings (Scribner)
  • Alan Christenson, tr., The Popul Vuh, translation adapted by Schele and Mathews
  • See also the Dennis Tedlock version of the Popul Vuh with his comment on this section in which he says that it is based on the cord approach to layout, and he reports that a source informed him that the passage “describes the measuring out of the sky and earth as if a cornfield were being laid out for cultivation.”
  • Christopher Powell

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