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Observations placeholder

Tree, Isabella - Sliced Iguana – The Church of San Juan Chamula



Type of Spiritual Experience


The town of San Juan Chamula in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas is about 7 miles from San Cristobal de las Casas . According to many people walking into the Church of San Juan Chamula 'is a mystical pre Hispanic experience'. In essence it incorporates many Mayan shamanic symbols and Mayan shamans are often found in the church.  There are no benches inside, so the villagers, mostly of Tzotzil descent sit on the floor, there they light candles.    The saints are on the sides and at the center is the image of St John Baptist, hence the name of the town San Juan.

A description of the experience

Isabella Tree – Sliced Iguana

The Church of San Juan Chamula billowed over the end of the plaza, bright white against the rain clouds like the sail of a Spanish galleon.

From the outside, at first glance, it looked like any church in Mexico – grander and larger than most village churches, perhaps, but with the familiar façade - the stout square belly, the sloping shoulders, the neon crucifix at its peak.  Beneath the bells hanging idly in their arches, was the date 1522-1524 , the Spanish conquest of Chiapas.

But there were differences – signs that a more primeval, indigenous voice was ringing out from within the imposing tower of Christianity.

The arches around the great oak front door were painted turquoise and moulded with arches of flowers, so it looked like you entered the church through a rainbow.

In front of the door, in the courtyard …. Stood a large wooden crucifix.  It was not simple and straight like the Christian cross, but carved and rounded at its ends.  This was the Mayan cross – a totem already worshipped by the Tzotzils when the Spanish arrived.

To the Maya, the cross symbolises the Tree of Life that stands at the centre of the world and supports the heavens.  Seen vertically it represents the roots, the trunk and the canopy of the tree – the underworld, the world and heaven.  Horizontally, the cross is the ‘Eye of God' the axis of the four directions.  It features in the ancient hieroglyphs describing the celestial bodies.

The source of the experience

Tree, Isabella

Concepts, symbols and science items

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps