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La Casa de Montejo

Mérida, Yucatán

This extraordinary building, facing the zócalo in Mérida, is acknowledged to be the finest civil example of the Spanish Plateresque style in Mexico or indeed in the New World.

Dated 1549 by an inscription, the palace was built by Francisco de Montejo the Younger, son of the Adelantado Montejo, conqueror of Yucatán.

We recently revisited La Casa de Montejo and were impressed once again by its intricate artistry. The profusely sculpted facade is divided into two tiers which, although quite different in style, illustrate the eclectic characteristics of the Plateresque. As developed in 14th and 15th century Spain, this artistic movement drew on late Gothic, Moorish and early Renaissance sources to create an original and highly decorative style of architectural decoration.

The lower facade surrounding the doorway is outlined in elegant Renaissance fashion, with fluted columns, classical entablatures and coffered paneling. The inner panels are neatly carved with grotesques, and enlivened with inscribed plaques and medallions enclosing sculpted heads. The two large flanking busts above the doorway are traditionally thought to be portraits of the Adelantado Montejo and his wife.

Atop this decorous scheme, however, a frieze of horned cherubs and grotesque animal heads strikes a jarring note, and above the doorway, a bowed figure wearing sheepskins holds up the corbelled second floor balcony, which sets the fantastical tone of the upper tier. While contemporary with or later than the lower facade, the more sculptural upper tier nevertheless harks back to the medieval and Moorish antecedents of the Plateresque, and although the stonecarving is less accomplished, it holds greater sculptural and textural interest.

A large shield of the Montejo coat of arms stands above the window surmounted by an armorial helmet upon which an eagle is perched, signifying the heroic nobility of the owner. The escutcheon is set against a stone tapestry of stylized floral motifs hung with rattle-like fruits. Giant figures of Spanish halberdiers flank the entire upper level, their feet resting upon the heads of the vanquished - popularly thought to be Mayan Indians but more likely demonic heads in the European tradition.

The halberdiers are outflanked by "wild men," also clad in rough sheepskins and brandishing rustic clubs - familiar denizens of medieval European myth who are often found in Spanish decoration (notably the doorway of Avila cathedral, and the front of the College of St. Gregory in Valladolid, Spain - Montejo's birthplace - which may have inspired the palace facade). A long inscription flanked by heraldic lions is carved into the crowning pediment.

Much has been made of Mayan influence on La Casa de Montejo. Although it seems probable that Mayan stonemasons had a hand in carving the upper storey (the lower tier being the putative work of European craftsmen) the imagery remains clearly European in origin.


Text & illustration © Richard D. Perry 1998

Note: the classic source on the Montejo palace is the 1941 study, La Casa de Montejo en Mérida de Yucatán by Ignacio Rubio Mañe and Manuel Toussaint.

For more on Mérida through the ages consult our guidebook Maya Missions and our new anthology Exploring Yucatan