Expert opinion
An Important Cultural Enclave.
The archeological and artistic legacy of the Chiapas highlands.

The cultural center has been operating uninterrupted for 33 years. Since its foundation in 1984, it has stimulated an interest in the importance of conserving and disseminating awareness of the archeological and historical heritage of the Chiapas highlands among people from the local region, Mexico and abroad.

The gallery displays present the pre-Hispanic customs developed in the Jovel valley. Some of the most significant pre-Hispanic objects in the collection of the Chiapas Highland Museum come from the Cerro Ecatepec site, including an extraordinary ritual vessel with a Mayan inscription unique of its kind. According to archeologists, it shows two female leaders, demonstrating that women occasionally took on governing roles in pre-Hispanic times.

The former monastic building is notable for its small chapel reinforced structurally by buttresses, with a barrel vaulted roof, and the area around the high altar is covered by a saucer dome with skylights and a cupola. On three sides there are pointed arches with large windows. The arches are similar to the arches which support a front balcony.

One of the first caretakers of the building of the Chiapas Highland Museum in the Former Monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán was Mr. Othón Gallegos López, who reminds us that the Chiapas INAH Center moved to San Cristobal de Las Casas from 1979 and 1982 under the direction of the archeologist Enrique Méndez, and subsequently the center was able to move to the state capital once the Chiapas Regional Museum was built in Tuxtla Gutiérrez.

In 1984 Emma Cosío Villegas became the first director of the Former Monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán Museum in San Cristobal de Las Casas, and she was responsible for establishing the first exhibition gallery on the history of city. With her husband, the historian Jan de Vos, she produced the first scientific guides to the museum. Local social organizations and the friends of the museum association contributed to a second permanent gallery which exhibited the Chiapas textile collection of the collector Francesco Pellizzi, which was temporarily removed for safekeeping in 1996. Another significant point is that the State Ministry for Urban Development carried out one of the first major, though not comprehensive, renovation works in 1989.

For 32 years, the museum has been directed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, with a central office and six administrative departments serving the public. This museum building is organized into two complexes, the administrative area and the set of galleries belonging to the building of the Former Monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, which is a listed historical monument. The museum galleries and collections are on the lower ground floor and they consist of a foyer and three extensive, thematically organized permanent galleries covering the region’s archeology, the conquest, evangelization and the founding elements of the Villa Real (Royal Town). Finally there is a section dedicated to the different districts of the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas. The story of the Dominican order and the other orders involved with evangelizing the Chiapas highlands is one of the museum’s most interesting stories. The ground floor has a magnificent temporary exhibition gallery, as well as the porticoes and a central Dominican patio. The chapel dedicated to Fray Bartolomé de las Casas is a notable part of the complex. This is where the textile store is located, while the upper floor has a collection of textiles and the story of the contemporary textiles of the Mayan region of the Chiapas highlands and forest, the Yucatan peninsula and Guatemala. The extraordinary Baroque facade of the church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán must be viewed as part of the monastery.

The Former Monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán was originally known as the Monastery of Ciudad Real, and it was one of the Dominicans’ first centers of pastoral activity in the Chiapas highlands region, hence its interest to visitors. It was founded in 1564 on Cerro de la Cruz, known today as the El Cerrillo district, and it was the focus of the Christian mission with a novitiate and school. The first stone was laid by the Bishop of Guatemala, Francisco Marroquín on his tour of New Spain, and the works were directed by Fray Pedro de la Cruz. By 1550 the church, school, kitchen, dormitories and refectory had been built together with other stone spaces which are silent vestiges of a structure older than the one visible today, revealing the transformations undergone by the original Monastery. The current building dates to the seventeenth century. The Dominicans owned the building until 1853. Well into the twentieth century it became part of Mexico’s national heritage when it passed into the custody of INAH.

The National Institute of Anthropology and History presents the pre-Hispanic history of this region through the Chiapas Highland Museum in San Cristobal de Las Casas, through the display of objects found over the course of 32 years of archeological excavations and research. It also offers a glimpse of the region’s colonial processes and religious evangelization, the founding of Ciudad Real and urban development from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. At the end of a visit we can understand the role of the Santo Domingo Monastery in the life of San Cristobal de Las Casas, from the earliest times until its transformation into a cultural center and museum.

The Monastery of Santo Domingo de Ciudad Real was built by the monks who arrived with Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in 1545. The Dominican buildings in the province of San Vicente de Chiapas were modest during the sixteenth century, but by the seventeenth century the monks had become hacienda owners and had the resources necessary to build great churches and monasteries. For example, the barrel vault of the church of Santo Domingo de Ciudad Real belongs to this period. Given the regional importance of this complex, INAH and the Chiapas INAH Center have restructured the Highland Museum, renewed its facilities and have updated the gallery interpretation.

The collections described here are part of the local archeological, historical and artistic heritage, with artifacts from the museum’s own collection, the collections of the Chiapas Regional Museum in Tuxtla and from the Diocese of Chiapas. This is a space where San Cristobal de Las Casas is shown for what it is: a major cultural enclave in the South of Mexico and Chiapas.

[1] En tzotzil, jovel es zacate; en tzeltal, campo.

[2] Este texto integra observaciones de un arqueólogo sobre un vaso con epigrafía maya proveniente del sitio Cerro Ecatepec, y la opinión de un arquitecto sobre la Capilla Abierta del Ex Convento.

[3] Conversación personal con el maestro Gilberto Coutiño González, actualmente museógrafo del Centro Cultural de los Altos de Chiapas, 2012.

[4] Artigas, Juan Benito, “Arquitectura de Chiapas, 1528-1928”, 2000, en Arte virreinal y del siglo XIX de Chiapas, México, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes y Consejo Estatal para la Cultura y las Artes de Chiapas.

[5] Aury, Andrés, 1991, San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Su historia urbana, demográfica y monumental 1528-1990, México, Apoyo al Desarrollo de Archivos y Bibliotecas de México A.C, Archivo Diocesano San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Fundación Alfredo Harp Helú.


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