Allen J. Christenson offers us in this wonderful book a testimony to contemporary Maya artistic creativity in the shadow of civil war, natural disaster, and rampant modernization. Trained in art history and thoroughly acquainted with the historical and modern ethnography of the Maya area, Christenson chronicles in this beautifully illustrated work the reconstruction of the central altarpiece of the Maya Church of Tz'utujil-speaking Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. The much-loved colonial-era shrine collapsed after a series of destructive earthquakes in the twentieth century. Christenson's close friendship with the Chávez brothers, the native Maya artists who reconstructed the shrine in close consultation with village elders, enables him to provide detailed exegesis of how this complex work of art translates into material form the theology and cosmology of the traditional Tz'utujil Maya. With the author's guidance, we are taught to see this remarkable work of art as the Maya Christian cosmogram that it is. Although it has the triptych form of a conventional Catholic altarpiece, its iconography reveals a profoundly Maya narrative, replete with sacred mountains and life-giving caves, with the whole articulated by a central axis mundi motif in the form of a sacred tree or maize plant (ambiguity intended) that is reminiscent of well-known ancient Maya ideas. Through Christenson's focused analysis of the iconography of this shrine, we are able to see and understand almost firsthand how the modern Maya people of Santiago Atitlán have remembered the imagined universe of their ancestors and placed upon this sacred framework their received truths in time present. (Gary H. Gossen, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Latin American Studies, University at Albany, SUNY)
About the Author
Allen Christenson is Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature at Brigham Young University.