Temple 22

Copan: Inner Door of Temple 22 [January 9, 2004]

Pál & Elizabeth Kelemen were pioneers in the field of Mesoamerican Art History. Visiting Copán in 1940, they wrote: "A little farther on, our attention was attracted by a small structure standing at one end of a sunken court, the spectacular, so-called Structure 22. Amazingly, this building remained in fairly good condition until razed by an earthquake in 1934. Maudslay's careful notes and photographs from the 1880s were of great help when excavations were undertaken shortly afterward.

It stood on its own e-shaped podium on top of the 20-foot terrace that framed the entire court. The building was dated to the mid-eighth century, and had not been erected over an older structure. A flight of seven massive steps raised it above the level of the other buildings, their risers apparently carved with much-eroded glyphs. We entered into a narrow passage through the gaping jaws of a scaly monster with two curving stone tusks at the sides. Beyond was another carved portal, set back and shielded by the outside walls.

The central chamber was raised about a foot and supported at the ends by two large skulls, each made of a single stone. Above at either side were sculptures of large human figures. On their hunched backs, the figures supported the twisted mass of a fantastic, two-headed monster, whose writhing body formed the lintel, held in place by a thick wooden beam. In and out of the creature's convoluted body wove small, grotesque human figures, with elaborate headdresses and jewels, their arms and legs interwoven as if struggling with the elements. The high sill was also carved with skulls and glyphs, so that the entire entrance to the inner room was framed with sculptures. It appeared that the carving was originally covered with a thin layer of plaster and brightly painted. It had been refurbished so often that some of the exquisite detail of feathers, incised decorations, tassels, and individual hands and feet were lost underneath the multiple coatings.

The work was Baroque in feeling, in its complication of design and ebullience of detail, in the dramatic dynamics of its whole concept, and in its untrammeled, monumental freedom. This profound document in stone voiced the supernatural, occult elements behind Maya religion. It was not one sculptor's interpretation of some religious tenet, but the articulation of a complete, collective imagination, expressed with such clarity that even a twentieth-century Christian could not help but be struck by the physical power and fantasy of this alien world."

Pál & Elizabeth Kelemen, The Kelemen Journals: Incidents of Discovery of Art in the Americas, 1932–1964, p. 62-3