An unparalleled set of Maya wall paintings, most probably from the 17th to 18th centuries CE, discovered in a local house in the Guatemalan city of San Gaspar Chajul (further referred to as Chajul) blends pre-Columbian with imported European elements, making them a unique example of Colonial art from Latin America.
Central America is home to Maya populations speaking a variety of related languages. Despite the Spanish conquest of the 16th century CE, these populations have persisted, maintaining many traditions and their sense of cultural identity.
Today, the total Maya population is estimated at 8 million, most of whom (around 6.2 million) live in Guatemala.
One of the Maya groups of south-central Guatemala are the Ixils. Today, the three largest Ixil cities are Chajul, Santa Maria Nebaj and San Juan Cotzal.
In 2003, renovation of one of the local houses in Chajul revealed a set of Maya wall paintings.
The murals were then studied by Jagiellonian University researcher Jarosław Źrałka and his colleagues from Poland, Germany, Spain and Guatemala.
“The paintings decorate the north, east and west walls of the main, central room. They probably also once covered the south wall, but this has been demolished and rebuilt,” they said.
One of the best-preserved and most interesting scenes, over 2 m in length, is on the western wall.
The 4.3-m-long panel on the northern wall seems to be a continuation of the scenes depicted on the western wall.
The eastern wall is adorned with two panels, one at either end. If there were any paintings between these two panels, they have not survived.
The murals were probably made by indigenous artists using traditional colors and painting techniques.
According to local inhabitants of Chajul, they represent scenes from either the Baile de la Conquista (Dance of the Conquest) or the Baile de los Moros y Cristianos (Dance of the Moors and Christians).
“Our research to date, including interviews with Chajul inhabitants about local history and tradition, suggests that houses with murals were originally owned by important members of the local community, possibly members of the cofradías,” the scientists said.
“These individuals were involved in the organization of religious events, both those connected with Catholicism and those linked with costumbre (or Maya spirituality, related to the cult of the Maya pre-Columbian calendar and to agrarian rituals).”
“The discovery of a Chajul wall painting tradition adds significant new information to the history of Colonial-period Mesoamerican art, and contributes to our understanding of local, indigenous expressions of art and ritual in the context of foreign influences,” they concluded.
The team’s paper was published in the journal Antiquity.
Jarosław Źrałka et al. 2020. The Maya wall paintings from Chajul, Guatemala. Antiquity 94 (375): 760-779; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2020.87
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