In Focus

Huipils for a figure of the Virgin of the Rosary (Guatemala, Kaqchikel Maya)

In San Juan Sacatepéquez, a city in Guatemala, the veneration of the Virgin of the Rosary includes dressing her statue in miniature huipiles. Two extraordinary striped huipiles in the Dallas Museum of Art's collection were probably woven for her (see 1983.210; 1982.158). The prototype on which the miniatures are based had similar warp stripes in red, yellow, purple, and naturally pigmented brown cotton; its brocaded motifs were restricted to the shoulder line. As if rejecting precise replication on a small scale as visually ineffective, the San Juan weaver chose not to indicate the number of panels and extended the area for motifs to the lower edge on one side. Weaving is not easily an art of illusion: curves can only be suggested by the stepped or diagonal progression of the supplementary-weft yarns that create the form; individual motifs are not completed one by one but simultaneously, weft by weft, across the entire width of the textile. The spontaneity of the San Juan miniatures is therefore remarkable.

Recognizable among the motifs of the vestment given by Patsy and Raymond Nasher (1983.210) are the monkey, the deer, and the rabbit, all of which appear in the Popol Vuh and in the art of the pre-Hispanic Maya. They are repeated in rows but with changes in color banding that establish a visual rhythm; they have a vitality, an inner tension, that suggests they were not merely decorative elements but symbols whose meaning the weaver understood. As on other San Juan textiles that seem to date from the 1920s or earlier, the animals are associated with a diamond form—in front of the monkey and rabbit, above the tail and on the back of the deer, as if it were a ritual bundle.

Details of the huipil from the Carolyn and Dan Williams Collection (1982.158) place it more securely in time. It has an extensive use of plied reddish-purple cotton, a commercial yarn thought to imitate the shellfish dye and rarely seen in textiles after 1940. Its embroidered side seams (randas) are wider and denser than those of the Nasher piece, more like the seams of huipils collected during the 1930s. The deer and the frontal bird have become more elaborate, their necks (and the tail of the deer) fringed by parallel lines. Visual fringing of certain elements seems to have been popular by 1935, becoming gradually more constant and stylized so that later versions of the animal look more like horses than deer. The frontal bird is unusual in having only one head. The characteristic double-headed form, tiny yet still emblematic, is found among the brocaded animals of a third San Juan huipil (1985.100), whose white ground and purple warp stripes were inspired by a ceremonial prototype.

The images for which the textiles were woven range from large figures kept in the churches, many of which date from the Colonial Period (1524-1820 CE) and are outstanding sculpturally, to small doll-like santos housed by the cofradías, usually more recent, less sophisticated, and considered part of the folk tradition. Regardless of size, most are carved from wood, sometimes coated with a layer of gesso and painted; they may have tenoned hands, glass eyes, and wigs of human hair.

Excerpt from

  • Carol Robbins, Maya Miniatures and Other Textiles for the Saints (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1986), 12-13.