The mysteries of the Cathedral of Merida, a Christian and Mayan house of worship.

The Yucatan Times would like to welcome renowned anthropologist Indalecio Cardeña who as of this Friday, January 17 2020, will be presenting a weekly column about the history and folklore surrounding Yucatan, its cities and municipalities.


The mysteries of the Cathedral of Merida… a Christian and Mayan house of worship.

Built on top of, and with part of the vestiges of the ancient Mayan city of THo’, the Cathedral of Merida, Yucatan, is a building where Renaissance lines and designs, as well as Christian symbolism of European cathedrals, are mixed with the mythical, calendrical, cosmogonic, religious, astronomical and mathematical symbolism of the ancient Mayans.

This amazing combination, this mixture of symbols, hidden from the light of simple eye observation, is found in various parts of this Catholic construction. Here in this magnificent building, the following pre-Columbian cultural features are represented: the days, the month, the year, the lunar or religious calender, the solar or civil calendar, the Wheel Calendar, the Short Count, the Long Count, the Maya deities, the underworld, the surface of the earth and the cosmos.

All these symbols together, refer to the origins of time and the universe of ancient Mayan mythology, as told in the Chilam Balam of Chumayel.

Folio 16 of the Chilam Balam of Chumayel with the explanation of the eclipses

The Chilam Balam of Chumayel.
The Books of Chilam Balam were handwritten books in the Yucatecan Mayan language using the Latin alphabet. The manuscripts are attributed to a legendary author called “Chilam Balam”, a “chilam” was a priest who gave prophecies, “balam” was a surname meaning ʼjaguarʼ, and Chumayel, its place of origin.

These writings preserved important traditional knowledge in which indigenous Maya and early Spanish traditions have merged. Some of the texts contain prophecies about the coming of the Spaniards to Yucatán.

Nine Books of Chilam Balam are known, most importantly those from Chumayel, Mani, and Tizimin, but more existed. Both language and content show that parts of the books date back to the time of the Spanish conquest of the “Yucatan kingdoms” (1527–1546). Parts of the books, appear with hieroglyphic script, dating back to the pre-conquest period.

The Cathedral of San Idelfonso.
To try to understand the symbolism that the Yucatan Cathedral holds, it is necessary to pay attention to certain points in history, architecture, archaeology, cultural anthropology, art, history and literature.

Built during the second half of the 16th century, the Cathedral of Mérida, Yucatán, was the first built on land in the Americas.

With a certain medieval and renaissance style, its Romanesque interior is impressive. In its smooth facade, the stony sculptures of San Pedro and San Pablo stand out on the sides of the central door, the “Puerta del Perdón” or Gate of Forgiveness, has on its upper part a shield of a strange and amazing mixture of symbols.

Initially, it was the shield of King Philip II, but when the Independence of Mexico occurred, the royal weapons were erased from the shield and in its place was carved the eagle of the Mexican Emperor Agustin de Iturbide.

The hidden symbolism
To speak of all the symbolism present in the Cathedral of Merida is very extensive. That is why today, we will only talk about the generality of it, and in later articles, we will see step by step, the different symbols it contains and the places where they are found.

The Cathedral of Yucatan is an extraordinary example of Mayan-Christian art, a style elaborated by the colonial Mayans from the combination they made of Christianity and their ancient religion. It is the stylization of a pre-Columbian architectural complex, a cosmogonic sanctuary, where the sun, the moon and Venus are represented.

Thirteen pre-Hispanic buildings are symbolized in it: The temple of the terrestrial monster, the temple of the sun, the temple of the moon, a pyramid of Venus, and nine observatories: a temple observatory of the sun, a temple observatory of the moon, a labyrinth observatory and six observatory shells.

In this stylized and symbolic architectural ensemble, the three levels of the Pre-Cortesian Maya universe are also represented: Oxlahuntiku, the place of the thirteen gods; the high, the cosmos; the earth; and Bolontiku, the underworld.

In Mesoamerica, the underworld is a place of duality. It is the home of darkness and fear, where the dead are, but it is also a place of life, since from it, the plant of the maize, emerges.

In the Yucatan cathedral of San Idelfonso, the ancient Maya made sure that in its architecture was symbolized the mythical place where the time, the earth and the universe itself were born, as narrated in the Chilam Balam of Chumayel.

For The Yucatan Times
Indalecio Cardeña Vázquez
Mérida, Yucatán, 17 de enero de 2020.

Indalecio Cardeña Vázquez. – Anthropologist, researcher and writer.
He has collaborated with the “Unidad Yucatán de la Dirección de Culturas Populares”, Instituto Nacional Indigenista and was the director of the Pinacoteca “Juan Gamboa Guzmán” of the INAH
Among his anthropological works are the iconographic analysis of the colonial sacred art of the Yucatan Peninsula; the symbolisms in the facade of Conquistador Montejo’s house, in Mérida; the Mayan symbolism in the Yucatan Cathedral and the archaeoastronomy among the Mayans. 

Professor Cardeña has written several books and articles since the mid 1980’s to this date.