The Temples of the Cross Group were built by Chan Bahlum, the son of Pakal the Great. They were all dedicated on the same day in AD 692 and were built to house the three great patron gods of the city, the Palenque Triad.
"The atmospheric setting of the Cross Group complex, surrounded by mountains and streams, was no doubt intentional. The entire layout was an elegant expression of a sacred landscape, part natural and part man-made, where kings, nobles, and priests performed many of their most sacred duties and venerations."
David Stuart & George Stuart, Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya, p. 185
This photo shows the three temples of the Cross Group. The Temple of the Cross is on the top left, the Temple of the Foliated Cross is the smaller temple in the center of the photo, and the Temple of the Sun appears partially obscured behind the foreground trees at the bottom right.
"Other features of the natural terrain added to the religious significance of this area: just to the south of the three temples a large spring issues directly from the nearby mountainside and becomes the Otolum River, the beautiful channeled stream that still courses through the heart of the site, falling as wide cascades below the ruins.
The ancient inhabitants called this vital stream and its spring Lakam Ha, 'wide waters': the name was extended to refer to Palenque's ceremonial center."
David Stuart & George Stuart, Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya, p. 186
Photo courtesy of Marion Canavan
Each temple within the Cross Group is dedicated to one of the gods known as the Palenque Triad. To understand the meaning of the Cross Group, it is important to know a little about these gods, which the great Mayanist Heinrich Berlin first identified in 1963.
Since he could not read their name glyphs, Berlin cryptically named the three gods GI, GII, and GIII for God 1, God 2 and God 3. Even today they are still referred to with this shorthand even though much more is known about their names and identities.
Each temple is dedicated to one of these gods, and the temples are arranged in the hierarchy of their associated god. The Temple of the Cross (GI) is dominant as highest and largest, the Temple of the Foliated Cross (GII) occupies middle ground, and the Temple of the Sun (GIII) is lowest and smallest. Each god and temple fills a special role within the ancient Maya cosmology.
The temples of the Cross Group has a small inner temple, called a pib na, hidden within the back chamber and featuring an elaborate carved tablet. All three tablets are similar in design, with a central icon and a figure standing on each side. One of the figures is identified as Chan Bahlam in all three temples but the identity of the other smaller figure is open to various interpretations.
Surrounding the figures is a hieroglyphic text concerning the deep mythological past of Palenque interwoven with historical events including dynastic lists and accession dates of Palenque rulers, and ending with the accession of Chan Bahlam.
Temple of the Cross seen from the vicinity of the Palace
The Temple of the Cross, the loftiest and largest of the three temples, is dedicated to god GI, the oldest god of the Palenque triad. The identity of GI is still obscure, but there is speculation that he may have been identified with the daily rebirth of the sun at dawn.
"The Temple of the Cross is the sky temple associated with solar re-birth and ancestral authority of rulership.
The celestial nature of the space is conveyed very clearly by the symbols that decorated the upper roof of the shrine, where the remains of plaster decoration still show sky-band borders. Sky-bands also appear in the main tablet, probably to emphasize the notion of GI's celestial resurrection."
David Stuart & George Stuart, Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya, p. 194
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The Temple of the Foliated Cross
The Temple of the Foliated Cross represents a middle space where maize agriculture and water predominate, symbolizing the procreative powers of the king.
"The imagry of the Foliated Cross is quite different from that of the Cross. Nowhere do we find celestial symbolism: rather, the emphasis seems to be on water, agriculture, and the primordial sea.
Its outer façade or roof-comb once bore large shells with the hieroglyphic label of Matwiil, a place continually mentioned in Palenque's mythological text in association with the birth of the Triad gods and also of the dynasty itself. In the inner shrine, the stucco decor is replete with K'an crosses and bands possibly representing sprouting maize."
David Stuart & George Stuart, Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya, p. 199-200
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The Temple of the Sun
The small Temple of the Sun is, in turn, an explicit depiction of a cave within the earth, housing the solar deity associated with warfare and military authority. The sun in its underworld location was personified as GIII and was known as the Jaguar Sun, a war god.
While it may seem contradictory to identify the sun with caves and the earth, Maya mythology portrayed the sun as continually cycling between birth and death, which it does without interrupting the continuity and order of the world, just as Maya kings succeed one another.
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Stairway leading to Temple of the Cross (right), Temple of the Sun (left) as seen from Temple of Foliated Cross, with Radial Pyramid in center
"All three temples of the Cross Group were dedicated on the same day, 10 January 692, when, according to inscriptions gracing the temples, the three patron gods of the palenque dynasty were "housed" in their respectives shrines.
The dedication was timed to coincide with the upcoming arrival of the great Period Ending in the Maya calendar, 184.108.40.206.0 — that is, the completion of the thirteenth K'atun. This was an event of cosmic proportions, taking place on 18 March of that year.
A modest square platform in the very center of the Cross Group plaza symbolizes the importance of the sacred calendar in the greater design and conception of the temples...
The platform is an example of what archaeologists call a "radial pyramid" — a raised surface without a temple designed to replicate the four-sided structure of the world. Examples of radial pyramids exist at Tikal and elsewhere and are associated with celebrations and rituals associated with calendar period ending dates.
What we can say with confidence is that this platform was the locus of rituals taking place on 220.127.116.11.0. Its presence in the Cross Group tells us that the three temples were designed and dedicated very much with the calendar station in mind, if not for the explicit purpose of properly housing the gods in anticipation of the event."
David Stuart & George Stuart, Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya, p. 211
Photo courtesy of Marion Canavan