Idol at Copán

Idol at Copán . Image courtesy of Casa Catherwood.

In  the early 1840’s, two haggard men on mules emerged from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula telling stories of a lost civilization discovered and unknown cities explored, long before the days when Nikon cameras and National Geographic magazine told us of these things.

Between the years of 1839-1842, American John Lloyd Stephens and Englishman Frederick Catherwood, spent many months uncovering the mysteries of Mayan civilization and carried with them hundreds of Catherwood’s superb drawings showing what they had seen.

They were not the first non-natives to have explored Mexico’s Mayan ruins. During the mid-1500’s, these finely engineered pyramids and beautifully carved stone statues had been briefly described by Catholic missionaries and Spanish colonial officials, and a few European antiquarians had visited some Mayan sites. Strangely, many of the sites were unknown to even the residents of Mérida, the capital of Yucatán. Desolate and overgrown with trees, the only evidence of these structures appeared as grass-covered mounds. To the untrained eye, it would take a wild stretch of imagination to visualize the former palaces and temples.

Stephens and Catherwood explored more than forty Mayan ruins, most of them completely unknown to the outside world, and they were also the first to produce a book describing their travels in a mass market edition. They discovered the ruins of Palenque, Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Kabah, Sayil and dozens of lesser known sites across central and southern Mexico. The publishing firm of Harper and Brothers thought the astonishing account would sell. And when Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, came out in 1841 they had a blockbuster on their hands, the book ran through twelve editions in just three months. The 20,000 copies sold was an extraordinary sales figure for the times and attested mightily to the public’s awakening interest in foreign travel and archaeology.  Accompanying Stephen’s lively prose were hundreds of views, sketches and line drawings executed by Catherwood.

A trained architect, the 40-year-old Catherwood (like the younger lawyer Stephens) was well travelled in the Middle East, and was perhaps the first Westerner to have surveyed the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. His attention to detail was meticulous and his proportions precise. As a topographical artist, he perfected a technique using a camera lucida, a small portable device which can be described as an artist’s microscope. It was an optical device, containing a prism or arrangement of mirrors, which superimposed an image of the physical object or scene onto the drawing surface allowing him to meticulously capture the finest detail. Without a doubt, his beautiful drawings helped vault their book into the bestseller that it became.

Following the publishing success of a subsequent Mayan collaboration with Stephens in 1843, Catherwood independently published in 1844, a special folio edition (what we would call today a coffee table book). It contained twenty-five hand-colored lithographic prints on Mayan art and architecture. A collection which remains much prized today, copies in fine condition may fetch upwards of 75,000 dollars.  In these lithographs, Catherwood depicts the ruins with a style that exudes a sense of peace and gracefulness. Through shadow and sharp lines, he reveals how the Maya juxtaposed shallow relief carving with elements that extend fully from the surfaces of the buildings. He skillfully uses the placement of figures to draw the viewer’s eye back into the scene, up the stone steps, past the pillars, to the structures beyond. Some of Catherwood’s views, isolated in scrubby desert settings, evoke a moment in time and a place far from twenty-first century tourist experiences.  His keen eye for architectural detail, with emphasis on the physical labor involved, also creates a romantic perspective on the mysteries of the Mayan people and depicts an image of a magical place.

For hundreds of years, we have been fascinated with the mysteries of ancient civilizations, and this is a common theme in National Geographic, North America’s famous natural history magazine. Year after year, through dozens of articles and TV specials, the iconic National Geographic continues to present the fascinations of the Mayan world to millions of readers and viewers around the world. The magazine knows it’s on to a good story, as did two guys on mule-back, hacking their way through the jungles of the Yucatán so many years ago, bewildered by what they had seen, and determined that the world should know.

-December 2009

More info about images below Photo Gallery…

Temple at Tuloom (today Tulum)

This scene depicts the labor required to uncover each monument chronicled in the expedition of Stephens and Catherwood. This lithograph includes the only known portrait of Catherwood, shown to the right measuring the temple, and he notes that Tulum was especially challenging to uncover because it was “so blocked up with trees, that it was by mere accident that this building and several others were discovered.”

Well at Bolonchen

The town of Bolonchen (“The Village of Nine Wells”) is located on the Yucatán peninsula and is known today for its magnificent caves. One can hardly imagine the labor involved in building this ladder which provides the only access to the well below. However, this 80-foot-tall wooden ladder shows more than a glimmer of the past. Like their ancestors, the Maya of the 19th century were quite capable of using raw materials in a skillful and functional manner.

Gateway at Labnah

As put into words by Stephens…This structure emphasizes Labnah as a place of “…decaying but still proud memorials of a mysterious people.”

Interior of the principal building at Kabah

This is one of the chambers at Kabáh, at its peak around 800 CE (one English translation of this Maya name is “the hand that chisels”).

Las Monjas, Chichén Itzá

Today Chichén Itzá, where this structure stands, is the most heavily visited of all Maya archaeological sites. The moment Catherwood captures in this print is certainly an idyllic perspective on Las Monjas, that invites us to imagine a magical place, in a time where no one hurries.

Idol at Copán

The overgrown jungle of Copán is the backdrop for a formidable stone statue erected in the early eighth century and it is accepted that this is one of Copán’s most famous rulers, King Waxaklajun Ub’aah K’awiil, in the guise of a maize god. When Stephens and Catherwood excavated this sculpture, the dress and the absence of a beard led them to believe this was a woman.