Friday, July 12, 2013

Espadañas: Yucatan Churches

Oxkcutzcab, Yucatan (begun 1640)

The churches of the Yucatan were all products of the Franciscan effort to christianize the Mayan inhabitants of the region.  They display the characteristic Franciscan architectural simplicity with the exception that nearly all are crowned by espadañas, bell-gables, of varying complexity. Espadaña comes from the Spanish verb espadañar which means to fan out like tail feathers and it is not hard to imagine these bell-gables as having this quality.

Espadañas not unique to the Yucatan, although they have become the signature component of its churches.  They are cheaper and easier to build than a church tower or bell-tower, which was important in an area like the Yucatan which was poor compared to gold-rich central Mexico. The elaborate churches found in that area were not an economic possibility in the Yucatan.  In Spain espadañas are common in small village churches which cannot afford to build a more elaborate bell-tower.

Espadañas added architectural spice to the otherwise plain Franciscan-style  churches of the Yucatan.  They were what provided individuality to each community's church with no two exactly alike and add a great deal if personality to the architecture. Take a look at this sampling of Yucatan churches and you will see what I mean.

Chumayel, Yucatan

Mama, Yucatan
This church in Mama, Yucatan, dedicated to the Virgin of the Assumption. is a good example of how these unique and elaborate facades were built. The church began as a small shrine in the 16th century, expanded in the 17th and in the 18th century, the triple-tier espadaña was added to it.  

Santiago Church, Merida, Yucatan

San Antonio de Padua Church, Ticul,  Yucatan

Ticul Church profile view
Uayma, Yucatan, close up of espedaña

Dzitas, Yucatan
Tunkas, Yucatan

Sitilpech, Yucatan
San Francisco Church, Campeche, Yucatan
These eleven churches with their unique espadaña fingerprints are just a sampling of the churches of the Yucatan.  Most of them, like the church in Mama, evolved from simple buildings being added to in stages with the elaborate bell-gable, the espadaña,  being added last.  Architecturally, these espadañas are a later development reflecting the growth of the Spanish ultra-baroque ornamental chirrugueresque style in the 18th century. 

 Art historian Samuel Edgerton contends that the espadañas also contain a Mayan component, being evocative of the dovecotes (holes for nesting birds)  that sat atop some Mayan temples.  His thought is that, for this reason, the espadaña form resonated with the Mayans for whom and by whom these churches were built.  Perhaps, in some ineffable way, the espadañas made them feel more "at home" within the new faith and its houses of worship. 

Uxmal ruins, Yucatan

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