An Account of the Things of Yucatan by Diego De Landa

       Fray Diego De Landa’s Account of the Things of Yucatan was written between the years 1563 and 1572, shortly after the end of the Spanish conquest.  The text can be described as a complete record of Maya culture.  Now a controversial figure in history, De Landa was a Franciscan friar who arrived after the conquest and was responsible for bringing Catholicism to the Yucatan civilizations.  He violently imposed his beliefs onto the indigenous Maya and publicly destroyed thousands of Maya manuscripts.  In 1562 he held the infamously vicious auto-da-fe, which led to his return to Spain where he was forced to defend himself against the Council of the Indies for unwarranted violence and going beyond his authority. His condemnation by the council led him to write the Account of the Things of Yucatan through which he defended his actions by cataloging everything he could remember about the Maya.


         De Landa begins his account with a description of the region of the Yucatan, including geographic information and a map, and the ancient history and information from before and after the Spanish conquest.  He continues with Maya residential living, clothing, food, drink, agriculture, seeds, trade, currency, genealogy, mathematics and number systems, marriage, inheritance, childcare, priests’ duties, sacrifices, skull modification, self-mutilation, sciences, festivals, and feasts.  War, military practices and leaders, punishments for criminals, education, women’s’ chastity, death, funerals, and the afterlife are also described.


        He continues with the Maya year count and its deity associations and the Maya calendar’s century. He also describes the sacrifices corresponding to each year in the calendar in great detail.  The flora, fauna, water sources, fish, snakes, poisonous animals, bees, birds, large and small animals and soils of the region are also discussed.  The following passage from Yucatan Before and After the Conquest by Diego De Landa describes auto-sacrifice in Maya culture:

At other times they practice a filthy and grievous sacrifice, whereby they gathered in the temple, in a line, and each made a pierced hole through the member, across from side to side, and then passed through as great a quantity of cord as they could stand; and thus all together fastened and strung together, they anointed the statue of the demon with the collected blood. The one able to endure the most was considered valiant, and their songs of tender age began to accustom themselves to this suffering; it is frightful to see how much they were dedicated to this practice. (De Landa 47-48)

The passage shows the descriptiveness of De Landa’s account as well as the bias and defense he utilizes through his writings.  De Landa describes the ritual from a sixteenth century European stand point by exaggerating the bloodshed and worship of “demons,” instead of attempting to understand the religious devotion the Maya had. He is offering his experience as alleged evidence in defense of his violent actions towards his brutal treatment and torture of the Maya, as he explains his fear towards their dedication to auto-sacrifice.

            Although De Landa’s account is considered a primary source for understanding Maya culture and religion, one cannot forget the biases the writer inexorably held.  As a result of De Landa’s actions, the once booming Maya civilization is now understood by many modern people as lost or forgotten.


Patrons and Artists in the Renaissance

The two artworks in discussion are Giotto, Arena Chapel, c. 1305, Padua, Fresco, and Michelangelo, Sistine Ceiling, 1508-1512, Vatican, Fresco. Although these frescos both cover the insides of chapels and exhibit religious content, the Patron for each artwork was of great influence and each had quite different motives. One must also notice the contrasting usage of space and style in each chapel due to the transformation in thought and increasing yearning for classical forms seen in the Renaissance.

The patron for the Arena Chapel in Padua was Enrico Scrovegni, a wealthy banker known for charging exorbitant interest rates to his clientele. Without a doubt, he had committed the sin of usury, other wise known as greed. In order for Scrovegni to make up for his sin, he dedicated the Arena Chapel to the Virgin of Charity. Above the entrance doors, one can see a fresco of the Scrovegni on his knees along side an Augustinian Monk, offering a small model of the Arena Chapel to the Virgin Mary, who is being accompanied by two other unidentified deities (below).


Many visitors to the chapel must have been somewhat irresolute about the prominent placement of the greedy patron himself among the blessed heavens in the fresco. The portraits of Scrovegni and the Monk are early examples of the interest in portraiture that will take hold in the fifteenth century. Giotto himself and portraits of his assistants may be included among the blessed human figures. The involvement of the patron to such a foremost extent in the chapel indicates how important the idea of indulgences were at the time, as a ticket into heaven.


Giotto, Arena Chapel, 1305

            The patron for Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was no other than Pope Julius II. Under the reign of Pope Julius II, an artistic revolution spread through Rome, and in his determination to transform Rome from a medieval city into a classical city, he replaced St. Peter’s Basilica with the Sistine Chapel in order to embody the majestic grandeur and religious drive of his regime. Because of the Pope’s interests in ancient Rome, any ancient remains were investigated, including Nero’s Golden House. The discovery of the sculpture Laocoon and his Sons was a great influence on any artist that viewed it (below).

Laocoon & His Sons

Laocoon & His Sons

An immediate impact was made on the depiction of nude figures by the classical sculpture of passionate exertion and theatrical muscular energy. Michelangelo was most certainly influenced by Laocoon and his Sons, as he painted the dramatic muscular nude figures seen in the Sistine Chapel only two years after viewing the classical sculpture. Another ancient work that influenced the human figures in the Sistine Chapel was the Belvedere Torso. The muscular twisting bodies of young men that decorate the ceiling are reminiscent of the classical Belvedere Torso and the Laocoon to an extent that is almost immeasurable.  Pope Julius II influenced the content of the Sistine Chapel furthur than helping to uncover classical sculpture which influcned Michelangelo, though. One can notice acorns and medallions throughout the intertwined figures on the ceiling. The acorns are symbolic of the Pope’s family name, delle Rovere, which translates to oak. The medallions are reminiscent of trophies, and symbolize Julius’s military campaign through out Italy at the time. Pope Julius II certainly exercised a decisive authority over the execution of the Sistine Chapel, from choosing the artist, Michelangelo, to paint it, and how the subject matter would be treated.


Michelangelo, Sistine Ceiling, 1508-1512, Vatican, Fresco



            The grandeur in the Sistine Chapel is immense compared to that of the Arena Chapel, but naturally these distinct differences in energy and the degree of classicism are due to the ever-increasing desire for classical forms in Italy. In the fourteenth century, Giotto was ground breaking in his application of weighted figures and expressive, classicizing cloaks on his human figures. And almost 200 years later, Michelangelo is surpassing Giotto’s innovative classical concepts, displaying powerful muscular, nude human figures throughout the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The discovery of classical sculpture that took place in the sixteenth century influenced the art being made to such a degree that there were nude human bodies inside of a chapel, which is an idea that would most certainly never be considered in the more medieval fourteenth century.