Antigua saints and ruins

Christianity came to Latin America with the Spaniards, with missionaries following conquerors and colonizers. In Guatemala, there is an interesting mix between traditional Catholicism and Mayan religions. The stories and beliefs of the indigenous peoples have somehow infused even today’s culture. Every town and village in Guatemala has a Catholic church, and it also has adopted a patron saint, often one influenced by that mix.

Maximón (pronounce the “x” as “sh”), also known as San Simón, a folk saint, is by far the most colorful and memorable character. He is most often depicted by a fully dressed and hatted, carved wooden figure who smokes cigars and drinks alcohol. People come to see him bringing offerings of tobacco, liquor, money, or even tortillas. They seek protection, money, good luck for some coming event, to be cured, or even to find a spouse. Not always true to the request, he is prone to making human-like mistakes and may sometimes be a trickster. Maximón is said to originate from Santiago Atitlán, a village on the shores of Lake Atitlán, where he is reportedly moved from house to house each year. But his image is found throughout the area. I first encountered him in Antigua.

Worshippers visiting Maximón, Santiago Antitlán
candles and cigars on the fire

Hermano Pedro de San José Betancur, revered in Antigua as Hermano Pedro (Brother Peter), was a bona-fide saint, canonized by Pope John Paul II. He came to Antigua in the 1700s. After the massive 1717 earthquake that devasted Antigua, he ministered to the poor, and later established a hospital for the poor and homeless, including a school. I happened upon the dancers in the annual Hermano Pedro festival. I could recognize the monk, but I never did get an explanation of who the other masked characters were.

Hermano Pedro

The last time I visited Guatemala, I wandered the ruins of La Recolección with a friend. The church and convent opened in 1717. The complex suffered an earthquake later the same year, and two more large quakes in 1751 and 1773. It is now a protected national monument. I could imagine prayers and chants as I stepped over the piles and pieces.

La Recolección
wall detail

Note: I am certainly no expert on the spiritual lives and beliefs of different cultures. I’m just a traveler that finds joy in uncovering a glimpse into another culture, meeting people and learning about their lives, at times a sponge for information and stories, and a photographic observer for both art and my own memory. Any errors in information in this post are solely due to my conversations with locals, which may or may not have been accurate, and my not-terribly-thorough Internet research.

The Easter processions in Antigua are recounted in a previous post, Semana Santa. More Antigua posts: Antigua, Antigua doors and windows.

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Published by rkrontheroad

Writer, photographer, traveler

33 thoughts on “Antigua saints and ruins

  1. The photos are amazing and truly transmit the vitality and unique spirituality of the local people. Maximon is quite a character, a saint after the people’s heart. It was a very enjoyable read and an interesting insight into the local culture.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a unique blend of Mayan tradition and Catholicism! I’ve heard of such customs in Central American countries, but to the extent of how much both intermingle, it really depends. It appears that Guatemala has more indigenous ties to its history, even in the face of Spanish colonization. Very fascinating!

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  3. A saint who likes to drink rum and smoke cigars -and given that he is reincarnated in a wooden puppet. Maximón certainly is not like any other deity around the world. I am in awe of how colourful traditional indigenous clothing is in Guatemala. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva

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    1. Each village has its own pattern of huipil, the indigenous woven shirt that women weave and wear. They are all so colorful, made with local natural dyes. Glad you enjoyed learning about Maximon. Thank you, Aiva.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. There is something magical about antiquity even in ruins, if not more so. Maximon sounds like my kind of priest! Our parish priest liked his liquor too… I have a distant ancestor from Mexico who was named Cristobal but his original was unpronounceable with Xs.

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  5. Well this was fun. Maximón sure sounds like some of those trickster characters in Japanese folklore that I came across when I was there.
    I always love coming across local customs and festivals when I’m travelling, and like you I try to delve a little into the history and meaning.

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  6. I’d never heard of a “folk saint” before but the concept makes sense; a more relatable figure than the traditional version of a saint. Also, I find it symbolic the arch and columns of La Recoleccion still stand despite three earthquakes. All these years later you can still pass through the entryway and have an understanding of the space.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is quite amazing that the arch is still standing, a testament to the construction of that complex. Maximon is quite a character and relatable is a good descriptor. There is a feeling that he is “one of us”.


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