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Antigua Guatemala. — Exhibition open to the public at the Training Center of the Spanish Cooperation (Centro de Formación de la Cooperación Española/ Antiguo Colegio de la Compañía de Jesús in 7th avenue North between 3rd and 4th West streets) in Antigua Guatemala, until March 1, 2020. Visiting schedule is Monday to Sunday from de 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. Free entrance.

During the centuries following the Conquest and Colonization of the Kingdom of Guatemala, one of the main objectives of the Church was to evangelize most of the native population. One of the greatest obstacles for the evangelization of indigenous peoples, though, was the persistence and spread of the worship to the local deities, which was considered “idolatry”. The friars and the clergy began to suppress the natives’ “ancient rites and ceremonies” since the beginning of their “spiritual conquest.” However, this extirpation proved difficult, and often incomplete, in many areas with large indigenous population. 

In the Maya region of Guatemala, the Verapaz and the province of Yucatan, the indigenous peoples offered resistance to the Catholic church and continued with their traditional religious practices using figures with the images of their gods during most of the Colonial period. Those images were carved in stone, carved in wood or made of clay. The bishops used their ordinary powers to establish special ecclesiastical courts, or episcopal judicial systems, with the purpose of arresting and punishing the natives who insisted on keeping their religious practices and ceremonies. Censers or images used in ceremonies, were called “idolatries” by the new religious order. For this reason, these episcopal courts had supreme jurisdiction over the punishments given to the indians for their crimes against the Catholic faith.

Maya “idols” came in many images, types, and forms. The “idols” that the Maya worshiped could be as simple as a burd stone of a peculiar color, or as elaborate as a great image sculpted in stone. Many of them were housed inside secret “temples or shrines” which were kept hidden until the end of Colonial times. Other idols were kept in sacred places such as underground cenotes or caves. Many were even hidden deep in the forest -or the “monte” as the Spaniards called it- and in their milpas or cornfields. Smaller idols of wood or clay were household objects in the homes of the caciques and principal lords.

This exhibition presents more than a hundred Pre-Columbian objects, engravings, maps, photographs and facsimiles of documents that illustrate the clash between the European and Indigenous worldviews in the sixteenth century. It emphasizes what was considered sacred in the Maya region of Yucatan and the Kingdom of Guatemala, as opposed to the European beliefs.

The archaeological objects, under the care of La Ruta Maya Foundation, exemplify the kind of objects that were used by the Indigenous peoples but were suppressed under the thought that they were objects of “idolatry”. In fact, the selection of the collection followed the criteria of the lists of “idols” –published in Colonial accounts and legal testimonies- by the ecclesiastical authorities, in accordance to the new religious order in the sixteenth century. 

A main feature of the exhibition is the great Auto de Fe of the Provisorate of the Indians, presided by Bishop Francisco Marroquín on Sunday March 27, 1554. In the square of the City of Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala (now Antigua Guatemala) more than three-hundred Quiche, Kaqchikel, Mam and Tzu’tujil Maya, were forcibly brought from the distant provinces of the highlands, far away from the capital city of Guatemala. Among those who would receive punishment were lords and chiefs, as well as officers from various villages, including members of the Maya elite and the nobility of Quetzaltenango, Comalapa, Chichicastenango, Huehuetenango and other minor towns and villages. This was a central event in the development of the ecclesiastical justice in the Kingdom of Guatemala.

Photographs, maps, paleographed letters, and facsimiles of documents, provided by the Center for Regional Research of Mesoamerica (Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica, CIRMA), illustrate the show.

This exhibition has its basis on the research and academic information carried out by Dr. John Chuchiak, Professor of Colonial Latin American History at Missouri State University, and member of the Academy of Geography and History of Guatemala, with the collaboration of colleagues in archaeology, architecture, archives, photography, and graphic design.

In this exhibition the term “idolatry” is used without any added value of judgment about the “right or wrong” nature of the Maya religion and the cult that the Indigenous peoples maintained towards their deities. Moreover, we aim to present both visions ensuring the participation of Aj’q’ij’ab (Maya spiritual leaders) in all conferences and discussions organized within the framework of the exhibition, emphaizing in the events that occurred exclusively within the sixteenth century.

Watch video here (in Spanish):

Photos: Ana Belén GonzálezPhoto of the Training Center for the Spanish Cooperation/ Antiguo Colegio de la Compañía de Jesús: Jose Alejandro Medina