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Art Historian Highlights Relationship Between the Maya of Yucatan and Franciscan Friars

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Itzmal Monastery by Emily Burns

Amara Solari is taking her readers on a journey through the wake of the Spanish invasion of Yucatan in the sixteenth century, where Franciscan friars and literate Maya elites created a unique and fascinating dynamic of cultural interaction. In her new book, Maya Ideologies of the Sacred: The Transfiguration of Space in Colonial Yucatan, Solari, assistant professor of art history and anthropology, uses the Maya city of Itzmal to explore how indigenous conceptions of space, place, and landscape both aided and subverted the Franciscan evangelical efforts in Colonial Yucatan.

Dedicating a decade to researching the virtually unstudied Maya impact on the Franciscans in the fledgling colony, Solari takes an interdisciplinary approach to investigating how colonial Maya ideologies influenced the conversion strategies adopted by the friars. “As Spaniards built colonies in the New World, men of the cloth saw within ancient ruins and inhabited native towns great potential for easing the colonization effort in the Yucatan,” Solari said. “Their practice of remaking a Maya town into a Christian town—often building their churches on the very foundations of an ancient sacred site—represented the absolute triumph of their religion.”

Solari examined multiple genres of cultural production that speak to and of indigenous spatial conceptions—including narratives and mythistories recorded in Yucatec Mayan, native-produced maps, and images of indigenous heraldry—to determine how the Franciscan reuse of Maya sacred sites shaped the efficacy and nature of forced conversion to Catholicism. “The town of Itzmal was an ancient pre-Columbian pilgrimage city that in 1549 was reconstructed by resident friars to become the ‘jewel’ of the Yucatec mission system,” Solari said. “The remarkable preservation of Itzmal’s visual culture, its urban plan, monastic complex, associated mid-sixteenth-century mural cycles, and well-evidenced ritual performances make it an ideal locale to analyze the preservation and hybridization of indigenous spatial ideologies in the early colonial period.”

Solari was awarded a nine-month Long-Term Fellowship at the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, Providence, R.I., for the 2013-14 academic year. The fellowship is underwritten by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Solari will spend the fellowship completing her third book, Idol Threats: Historicizing Maya/Catholic Icons in the Yucatan Peninsula, 1550-1900, which will examine the shifting role of visual culture in New Spain during the mass epidemics of the early colonial period.  

The book was published by the University of Texas Press (