Cantón Palace Mérida
A symbol of the great aspirations of Mérida's elite during the sisal 'fever', today the Cantón Palace in Mérida houses the Regional Anthropology Museum of Yucatán.
Bear in mind that many online sites incorrectly state that this museum has an exhibition of Maya artefacts. This is no longer so!
It is home to an exhibition about Aztec history, focusing on sculptures from the Great Temple, one of the main temples of the Aztecs in their capital city of Tenochtitlán, which is now Mexico City. All the Maya artefacts were moved to the Mayan World Museum in 2012 (a stunning modern museum 12km up north from this one, also in Mérida).
The Cantón Palace is an architectural jewel. It is the most iconic building on Avenue Pase De Montejo, named after Francisco de Montejo, the Spanish conqueror who founded the city in 1542. The avenue was inspired by the French boulevards, flanked by trees and splendid buildings. During the 19th century the Yucatec capital expanded beyond its centre and this growth gave birth to this avenue. The museum sits in a line of other beautiful colonial buildings and it is a pleasure just to stroll along. The whole avenue is a monument to wealth and class, a reminder of the henequén fever at the turn of the 20th century, that made so many Yucatec Spanish millionaires.
The Palace was designed by the Italian architect Enrico Deserti and constructed by the architect Manuel G. Cantón Ramos (nephew of the owner of the house). The artistic details of the building were made by the sculptor Michele Giacomino: marble floors, Doric columns and stucco detailing all create elegance.
But the museum itself also has an interesting human history. So let me report in my usual structure, starting with The People first.
The people: The Generals
The main protagonist of the building is General Francisco Cantón Rosado. Sadly, there are no exhibits about him here but this house was built as his residence. The Palace house was finished in 1911 and became his home. The general lived here until his death in 1917 (his family continued living here until 1932).
Cantón owned a number of haciendas and railroads in Yucatán. He would have received the hacienda lands for his military services, as he helped suppress the Caste War of Yucatán. This meant he then made a fortune selling sisal, the fibre produced from henequén cactus at his haciendas. This mansion is a clear example of the economic boom experienced by families such as his in the state of Yucatán. He was also Governor of Yucatán between 1898 and 1902 , a status achieved through his support for the Mexican President Porfirio Díaz.
From the 1930s the building had different uses: it was the headquarters of the School of Fine Arts, the residence of several governors of Yucatán, a public library and since 1980, it has housed the Regional Museum of Anthropology, under the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).
Today the museum focuses on the Aztec people and a large part of the exhibition is devoted to the Aztec warriors. At least, this is what I found here during my visit in December 2017. Well, perhaps this is fitting, as the owner of the house was also a general. Like the Spanish general, the Aztec warrior was highly honoured in society if he was successful. Success depended on bravery in battle, tactical skill, heroic deeds and most of all, in capturing enemy warriors. People captured during war became slaves or sacrificial victims in the Aztec’s religious ceremonies. With each rank (which depended on the number of captives) came special clothing and weapons from the emperor, which conveyed high honour. The museum lists the four highest Aztec ranks (left photo below) but in reality there was a fuller range of ranks. The top ranks were awarded a house, concubines and the right to drink alcohol. Well, I don't think the military ranks were very differently rewarded from those in the Spanish army!
The Focus: Aztec gods
The Aztecs were Mesoamerican people of central Mexico in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. They called themselves Mexican and today's country is named after them. Once Hernán Cortés defeated the Aztec kingdom, victory was his. Most of the artefacts presented here relate to the findings at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), which Cortés destroyed. Some of the sculptures that survived the conquest are really pretty.
Here are my favourite ones.
I loved the obsidian mask (in the style of Mezcala, from Guerrero state) and a seated stone figurine from the late classic period (600-900 AD). They both seem to me of very contemporary design, as if they were not made hundreds of years ago. They could easily have been made today by a modern sculptor.
Tláloc incense burners were also pretty powerful for me , because of the large eyes of this Aztec god of rain, lightning and thunder. He is often portrayed with goggles eyes. There are various views on the matter of the use of goggles and their symbolism. One of the theories, that I rather like, is that the goggles are actually owl's eyes, and they represent the owl’s ability to traverse the darkness of the cave or the underworld. The owl can see but seeing could also mean knowing, understanding (he was 'as wise as an owl').
The Gods of Fire and Wind were also impressive. Xiuhtecuhtli sculptures are preserved till today because in the past they were ritually buried as offerings, and therefore had a greater chance of survival. Xiuhtecuhtli (Lord of Fire) was the patron of the kings and the warriors, also God of fire, day and heat. He was the lord of volcanoes, the personification of life after death. A sacred fire was always kept burning in the temples of Xiuhtecuhtli. Interestingly, in gratitude for the gift of fire, in Aztec tradition, the first mouthful of food from each meal was flung into the hearth.
Huehuetéotl in translation from the Nahuatl language means Old God but he is also known as the God of Wind, often considered as the avatar of the God of Fire, Xiuhtecuhtli. Huehuetéotl is usually depicted as an aged or even decrepit man, while Xiuhtecuhtli is much more youthful and vigorous. In order to keep the favour of the God Huehuetéotl, the Aztecs cut out the hearts of human sacrifices and burned them on coal.
The Mystery: life, death and human sacrifice
The museum does not present any mystery topic per se but some artefacts in this museum are pretty mysterious and most labels are in Spanish only. In any case, in the mystery category I present to you the artefacts related to the Aztec beliefs of life, death, and human sacrifice.
Mictlantecuhtli (pronounced micta:n te: kwutli) was Lord of the Underworld, called Mictlan in the Nahuatl language. The underworld had nine levels and the journey was difficult (it took four years to go through it). The dead had to pass many challenges, such as crossing a mountain range where the mountains crashed into each other, and a river of blood with fearsome jaguars. And then there were the tricks of the lords of the underworld. According to a legend, Mictlantecuhtli tricked even the famous Quetzalcóatl, the famous Feathered Serpent, a deity who contributed to the creation of Mankind. When Quetzalcóatl entered Mictlan (to make mankind of old human bones, mixed with his own blood), Mictlantecuhtli asked him to travel around Mictlan four times, blowing a conch shell with no holes. Quetzalcóatl eventually put some bees in the conch shell to make sound. At some point, though, Quetzalcóatl fell into the pit and some of the old bones stored here broke. He still made people of them but the Aztecs believed that the broken bones were the reason why people's heights were different.
Other stories related to this character are pretty murky. The worship of Mictlantecuhtli involved ritual cannibalism, with human flesh being consumed in and around the temple. His wife, Mictēcacihuātl (pronounced mikte:kasíwa:tl), the Lady of the Dead and the Queen of the Underworld, is also displayed here. Her role is to watch over the bones of the dead and preside over the ancient festivals of the dead.
Next, I found the Stone of Sacrifice called téchcatl. A powerful artefact. This stone was used for the sacrifice of war prisoners.
The sacrifice would take place on top of the pyramid, as going up the steps would represent going up to the sky/heavens. At the summit the victim's legs and arms were seized and he was thrown backward over the téchcatl stone. The priest used a flint knife to plunge into the chest of the victim and ripped out with his bare hands the still-beating heart.
The body was then thrown down the steps, all the way to the bottom base, which symbolised the sun falling from the zenith to his final resting place in the dark earth.
Two more pieces in relation to life and death and rebirth may be worth noting: the feathered serpents. There are two stone sculptures of them here, from the Great Temple. The snake cult is pretty mysterious because it is rather complex. Snakes shed their skin through sloughing; they are therefore historically symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality, eternity and continual renewal of life. Every serpent you will encounter represents that rebirth and immortality symbol.
But the Maya and the Aztecs had a cult of the feathered serpent, which in addition represented duality: being feathered represents its divine ability to fly (to reach the skies) and being a serpent represents its ability to creep on the Earth.
Serpent for the Aztecs served as a conduit for passing through the heavens and underworld. Just as wind carries water into the sky, the serpent pulled the ancestors from the watery underworld into the heavens. The serpent iconography is rather complex, but that is the essence of it. The serpent was not a symbol of death, but a symbol of birth (or rather rebirth), and sometimes it was also portrayed as the sky symbol, as he carried the celestial bodies across the sky.
Last but not least there is a stunning visual display of some skull sculptures. The skull is one of man's oldest and most powerful symbols of death and mortality. In Aztec culture, like many ancient cultures, the head was believed to be a source of human power and energy. The Aztecs believed life on earth to be something of an illusion; death was a positive step forward into a higher level of consciousness. For the Aztecs, the skulls were a positive symbol, not only of death but also of rebirth, the afterlife. The practice of decorating skulls and altars with marigolds and other flowers seems to have come to today's Mexico from the Aztec tradition, as do the skeleton figurines. And I must say, their Day of the Dead festival is one of the greatest ones in modern Mexico.
Don't miss: the temporary exhibitions
In addition to the permanent Aztec exhibition, there are some temporary exhibitions, focused more locally on Yucatán. At the time of our visit the top floor was devoted to the history of honey production by the Yucatec Maya, from ancient times until now, while the side room of the ground floor had an exhibition of textile design patterns by Yucatec weavers, who produce the traditional Mayan dresses called huipil.
The temporary exhibition upstairs was called Xunáan Kaab, the Mayan name for the local stingless bee Melipona, a native to the peninsula. In all honestly, I was hoping for more information about the way the ancient Maya kept the bees (in tree trunk holes) and produced the honey. Instead, the exhibits focused on current photography and provided a map of the ancient flora and fauna of Yucatán. One of the main photos gave a very sinister portrait of Melipona, a bit scary!
Xmanikté was the temporary exhibition downstairs. It is the Mayan name for 'Eternal', a reference to the Yucatec embroidery technique, that will last forever. The photo exhibition focused on the pattern designs and featured photographs of local Yucatec women wearing the typical Mayan blouses and dresses called huipiles. The textile design was displayed in colour, against the black and white background of the Maya women, which I found rather effective.
How to get there:
The Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday 8:00-17:00.
Entry fee: $55 pesos.
The Palace is situated on the Avenue Paseo Montejo (No 485) but it is not very well sign-posted if you are going by car. If you are driving from top of the Paseo, park on the right-hand side, or in street 43 but this street is one-way so you would need to make a circle to get into the right direction.