Mayan Classicism: Axial Symmetry in Uxmal (Part II of II)

by Nathaniel R. Walker
Graduate Student (Ph.D), History of Art & Architecture, Brown University

The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art welcomes member and guest blogger, Nate Walker, to share his views on the Classicist Blog. This post is part two of two. Read part one here. Your comments are welcome.

Uxmal’s grandest and most powerfully enclosed plaza was posthumously christened the “Quadrangle of the Nunnery” by Spanish adventurers.  At its main entrance [FIG 1], a sophisticated design strategy was deployed to ensure the appearance of symmetry where there might otherwise have been none [FIG 2].  The centerline of the façade of the palace beyond is offset to the right of the gateway’s framed view (its middle is marked by the largest of the three doors visible in the photograph), while a complementary set of doorways, combined with the rhythmic patterning of the building’s cornice of mosaic roof-combs, ensure that anyone passing through the gate is presented with a symmetrical composition.  Once inside the plaza, the visitor is framed on three sides by enormous civic buildings with grand, symmetrical stairways.  The inhabitable space of Mayan architecture is generally low and horizontal—partly due to the fact that their designers were limited to relatively weak corbelled vaults, and partly because almost all their civic buildings consisted of a poured-in-place concrete core. The famous masonry of the Maya is the stuff of mosaic façades.  Ancient Puuc architects were not troubled, however, by issues of structural “honesty.”  They had more pressing expressive needs that prevented them from settling upon a fetish of engineering technology.

Figure 1. Quadrangle of the Nunnery Entrance

Figure 2. Quadrangle of the Nunnery

While the main palace facing the Quadrangle of the Nunnery (now partly ruined [FIG 3]), is fascinating for a number of reasons, its lowest components, the subservient pavilions, are of paramount interest [FIG 4]. Of these two symmetrical pavilions, the left one is the best preserved. It has a perfectly symmetrical main façade, book-ended by solid masonry edges framing a tetrastyle portico, whose rhythmic spacing privileges the middle bay. The columns consist of horizontally articulated bases, vertically paneled or fluted shafts, and horizontally articulated sculpted capitals, designed to highlight their intersection with the lintel. Above this lintel is an entablature consisting of both a flanged lower edge and masonry string-courses; above this is a sculpted frieze, and above the frieze is a cornice consisting of more masonry string-courses, the top layer of which is punctuated with rosettes, and all of which is capped by a proudly flanged upper edge. Regarding the frieze: Figurative relief sculptures alternate with what may be a carved metaphor for woven wood construction in counter-rhythm with the columns. At the corners, one finds a recurring motif in Mayan, particularly Puuc, architecture: aesthetic quoining using the elephant-like face of “witz”—a sculptural hieroglyph representing a living, anthropomorphized mountain. The Maya understood building as acts of mountain- and cave-making, and often worked to express their architecture’s spiritual resonance with the bones and hollows of the earth [FIG 5]. Furthermore, their pyramids were intimately tied to a mythological “Flower Mountain” paradise, as shown by scholar Karl Taube.

Figure 3. Main Palace

Figure 4. Quadrangle Pavilions

Figure 5. Figurative Relief Sculptures

As one of a pair of pavilions which flank the main building on the Quadrangle of the Nunnery, the internal symmetry of this composition contributes to a greater external symmetry, extending far beyond its immediate site in the Quadrangle and passing on an axis through the city’s sacred ball-court in the nearby plaza. Here it meets a man-made hill supporting a delightful pair of buildings: The House of the Turtles and the House of the Governor. The partly ruined House of the Turtles, so named due to the sculpted terrapins that cheerfully parade around the building’s cornice [FIG 6], offers stunning views of the city [FIG 7]. Nearby is the real star of Uxmal, the House of the Governor [FIG 8]. This is the only building ever erected by the Ancient Maya to be treated in a monograph, Jeff Kowalski’s 1987 volume The House of the Governor.

Figure 6. House of the Turtles

Figure 7. View from House of the Turtles

Figure 8. House of the Governor

Despite its horizontality, the building exudes a monumental grandeur that is almost Baroque. Its central mass—sporting a tall, carved frieze expressive of the soaring corbelled vaults within—is rhythmically punctuated by a series of doorways that draw one’s eyes to the center with staccato clarity. Passages on either side of the main portion of the structure (once open, now long filled in and blinded) connect it to a pair of flanking wings, creating a unified composition of hierarchical forms that beg to be called Palladian. When crawling at a lurching angle up the steep stairway, it becomes indisputably clear that this building had a profound relationship with the spiritual happenings at what is labeled the Magician’s Pyramid [FIG 9].

Figure 9. Stairway

At the foot of the stairway, directly in line with the central door, sits a double-headed jaguar throne [FIG 10]. This is aligned with a distant pyramid breaking the horizon line miles away. As Kowalski points out, the doorway, throne, and distant monument together line up with the azimuth of Venus at the time of the palace’s construction. Clearly, the men and women that filled this house were themselves aligned with the gods and ancestors. They took their roles in the cosmos very seriously.

Figure 10. Double-Headed Jaguar Throne

In addition to the internal spiritual and civic relationships that are expressed by axial symmetries in Uxmal, there was also a connection to a neighboring Puuc settlement that Classicists may find particularly pleasurable to discover. At either end of a long, stucco-paved white road carved through the forest from Uxmal to the smaller city of Kabah, there were triumphal arches [FIG 11]. These were ceremonial gates, corbelled for their own sake. Today’s students of traditional architecture should step through them a time or two. Heed the iguanas, however—they can be irritable [FIG 12], as alas, they are unaccustomed to the sight of architecture students.

Figure 11. Triumphal Arches

Figure 12. Heed the Iguanas

Image Credits: All photographs by Nathaniel Walker or Sally Caithness Walker, except for the photo of the triumphal arch at Kabah, which is shown here courtesy of Barbara McKenzie from her Mayan urbanism photography site,

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