After the fall of the capital of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), the Spanish conquerors, using sword and cross, decided to extend their domination. The territory of Guatemala was explored by Pedro de Alvarado who came by order of Hernán Cortéz with 300 Spaniards, a similar number of Indians, and several pieces of artillery. After months of fighting the defiant Mayas, he finally defeated them and took possession of their territory.
In 1524, Alvarado founded the city of Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala at Iximché, the capital of the Cachiquels, as part of the colonial expansion movement.
That was the first European settlement on Guatemalan soil and the new settlers soon introduced printing, metallurgy, iron works, silversmith´s trade, leather work, the art of working silver and gold leaf and the manufacture textiles and rich brocades. The old trades of Europe and the natural talent of the Indians soon joined with splendid results, as mestizo sensitivity and creativity gave rise to a special Guatemalan Colonial style of its own.
The cities built during the era that began in the early days of the Conquest and ended in 1821, when Guatemala declared its independence, were influenced by the Spanish Baroque Style. These were not an imitation, but rather a new interpretation thing, resulting in a unique style which still amazes both local and foreign visitors.
Skillful Mayan hand, used to richness perception, and detail, created the true works of art during the Colonial Period, this is particularly evident in the sacred images so coveted today by experts and collectors. Some of these works can be seen in San Carlos University Museum and in the churches of Antigua Guatemala, as well as in Guatemala City and other towns throughout the country.
Equally significant are the facades of la Merced and Del Carmen Churches in Antigua Guatemala. Their Mayan artists transformed grapes into corn acanthus leaves into guisquil vines, and created angels with Indian features. The Church Façade of San Andrés Xecul followed the same technique used in Totonicapán for traditional glazed ceramics, where decorative figures are formed from thin clay bars. The Mayan belief of perpetual renewal is also present in the constant repetition of paint and colors, characteristics of Mayan Cosmogony.
Examples of the Guatemalan Colonial Style
At the skirts of the volcano known as Agua, lies the former colonial capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala, now called Antigua Guatemala. Many of its convents, churches, and buildings were partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1773. However, Antigua Guatemala is the ideal setting of those seeking the beauty and romantic atmosphere of a colonial city. There, the beauty of a bygone era has been preserved and time seems to have stopped. The walls of the General Captains Palace rise to meet a pale gold down an impressive view best seen from city hall. The cobbled streets are walkways for tourists on their way to see the intricate carvings on the cornices of the Plaza Mayor buildings.
Around every corner of this plaza, also known as El Parque, inviting cafes and restaurants await with Guatemalan delicacies guaranteed to please the most demanding palates.
Antigua Guatemala, renown in the Americas for its beauty and has been designated by UNESCO as Cultural Heritage for Humanity.
The High of Neoclassicism
After the earthquake of 1773, the city of Guatemala was moved from the valley of Panchoy to the valley of la Ermita. The royal audience decided to build a new city with a different architectural style: the Neoclassic style which at that time was a sign of modernism and good taste.
The buildings followed the general canons, but derived from a neoclassic style with unique features, distinct from the colonial style. For example, recent memory of the earthquakes was so vivid that high towers and thin walls were replaced by low towers and thick walls. No buildings could be higher than that stipulated by the laws, nor could houses have more than one floor.
In spite of determined support for the neoclassical style, churches and civic buildings appeared with combined elements of the Neoclassic and colonial. The duality produced rather surprising results such as buildings with Neoclassic facades and Baroque interiors. This peculiar legacy is today part of the urban landscape and can be admired I Guatemala’s City Churches of la Merced, El Carmen, Capuchinas and Santa Rosa.
The Return of Guatemalan Colonial Style
Guatemalan colonial style made a strong comeback in the 40s with its main exponent, Rafael Pérez de León. This period was characterized not only by a mixture of aesthetic principles, but by baroque ornamentation varied with traces of Neoclassic and other styles. Pérez de León produced masterpieces like the Post Office Building and the National Palace, both well worth a visit.
After this eclectic period, which reached its peak in the ornate excesses, texture and materials of the Yurrits Church, Guatemala entered the Bauhaus movement. Although this trend lasted only two decades, it produced several buildings worthy to visit. Finally in the 70s with the development of new zones in the capital, Guatemalan colonial style revived, this time with even more changes.
Disciples of the modern school of architecture created false slanted ceilings by means of tile covered concrete slabs. They replaced iron and aluminum windows with wood and substituted thick geometrically designed bars with fanciful shapes etc.
Throughout the course of several centuries, an urban panorama unique in variety and unusual harmony has taken shape. The observant visitor will have no trouble discovering, here and there, the obvious charms of a colonial and Neoclassic architecture, interpreted in a very particular and creative fashion.
The architecture of Quetzaltenango follows the Neoclassic Style. Among its most beautiful buildings are the Municipal Theater, the Pasaje Enríquez, the Penitentiary building, The Property Registry, The Institute for Young women, and many private homes. Quetzaltenango¿s charm has long attracted many artists. Writers, poets, musicians and painters come here to create and exhibit their best works. Every year, the Juegos Florales competition is held in the streets and squares of the city. There to the delight of locals and visitors alike, artists recite, sing and exhibit their creations.
In San Andrés Xecul church, in the department of Totonicapán, the earthly mingles with the heavenly colorful altar-pieces reminiscent of vivid huipiles. The altar-pieces represent small heavens full of angels and saints: They are the artisan’s fantasies depicted in fine wood carving. In San Cristobal, San Francisco, El Alto, and San Andrés Xecul, their beauty competes with heaven itself in these unique versions of Guatemalan Neoclassic. And why not go to Totonicapán to admire the imaginative forms of glazed pottery?