The Convent at Izamal | Mexico | Living in Mexico

The Convent at Izamal

A thousand years ago, a Mayan center existed where the city of Izamal now stands. When the Spanish came, they found twelve ruined pyramids, some of them very large. This one, the third largest in Yucatán, is called Kinich-Kak-Moo.


What we're looking at here is not the entire pyramid. It's only the pyramid on top of the pyramid. The actual base, not pictured here, covers an area equivalent to eight football fields.

Only three pyramids remain in Izamal. The Spanish conquistadors did not see them as valuable archeological sites that should be preserved. They saw them as symbols of pagan culture that needed to be eradicated. They enslaved the indigenous people to destroy their patrimony and used the stones to build this:


Construction of the Convent of San Antonio de Padua began in 1533 by tearing down the major Mayan temple, the Ppapp-Hol-Chac pyramid, and reprocessing the stones. The Spanish succeeded in replacing Mayan temples with Catholic ones, but they failed to completely replace the Mayan gods with a Christian one. People here still pray to Chac when they need some rain.

Where the convent walls are plastered, they're painted yellow, as is most of the town.


Inside the walls, cool arcades bound the Atrium, a huge grassy forecourt.


On the west side, the Santuario de la Virgen de Izamal dominates the forecourt.


The Virgin of Izamal is one of a seemingly unlimited number of Mexican Virgins. I like to think of them as the Mayans' revenge. "OK. We'll accept your religion. But first, you gotta make it a lot like our religion. And we like lots of Virgins."


Inside the church (which I couldn't photograph because of services) there's a life-sized stature of the Virgen de Izamal, costumed in satin robes and jewelry. She looks like a fine doll. When Pope John Paul II visited Mexico in 1993, he brought a silver crown for her which she now wears. In exchange, the good sisters of the convent erected a bronze statue of the Pope outside the entrance to the church.

A few years ago, a worker was scrubbing the walls of the church when he made a discovery.


Sometime in the distant past, someone had whitewashed over 16th-century frescoes. Perhaps the whitewash protected the images through the ages: The colors seem fresh enough. Whatever the case, we are fortunate that they were protected until a time when preservation has become a priority.

I'm not sure who this painting represents: The Virgin of Izamal? Or some other holy figure? The setting may be tropical; a palm grows to her left. But mountains in the background mean this scene cannot be in the Yucatán. And what is the picture she's holding? It's either of three standing figures or a molar with three cavities.

In the end, we're left with a mystery. Nobody really knows who painted this fresco nor who he was painting. Then again, we don't know for certain who built Kinich-Kak-Moo or what it was used for. So soon, knowledge slips away and we're reduced to guessing. In a decade or two, this blog may become unreadable by the communications machines of the future, just as 8" floppy disks are unreadable today. In the end, it may well become a mystery, too.