Uxmal, Governor's Palace'

Governor's Palace

In 1841, Stephens wrote of the Governor's Palace: "There is no rudeness or barbarity in the design or proportions; on the contrary, the whole wears an air of architectural symmetry and grandeur."

The House of the Governor has brought similar responses from art historians and architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, who considered this the finest example of ancient American architecture.

Jeff Kowalski, author of The House of the Governor, believes it was built around AD 900 by the Uxmal ruler Lord Chac, and that it stands as the symbol of "a pivotal moment in the history of Maya architecture."


Uxmal, Governor's Palace

The building, composed in three parts connected by soaring transverse vaults, is 328 feet long and stands on the summit of an immense four-tiered platform that rises more than 50 feet above ground level. It was carefully placed to face the planet Venus as the morning star. It was also positioned to exhibit solar equinox and solstice events.

When architects and art historians discuss the harmonious proportions of the Governor's Palace, they mention the tri-part division of the building or how the recessed doorways lend a feeling of lightness to what is in reality an incredibly massive structure, or how the proportion and spacing of doors lend variety and movement and emphasize the importance of the central doorway.

The central door is wider than all others, and door spacing increases in proportion to distance from the central doorway.


Uxmal: Detail, House of the Governor

Jeff Kowalski writes: "Unlike all preceding portal vaults, the transverse vaults do not function chiefly as gateways or passages. Although they originally penetrated the building, the vaults led merely to a narrow walkway at the rear of the structure rather than conducting to a spacious courtyard or enclosed precinct. The compositional role fulfilled by the transverse vaults has been described by Kubler:

"The architect of the Governor's House...recessed the corbel-vaulted arch behind the facade, and exaggerated the vault overhangs, carrying them down in convexedly curved soffits like curtains down nearly to ground level, in order to accentuate the separation of the three pavilions by shadows and striking contours." George Kubler, The Art & Architecture of Ancient America, p. 160

"The transverse vaults of the House of the Governor thus led nowhere because providing passage was not the prime architectural consideration. The architect's first requirement in the placement of the vaults rather was that they should contibute to the plan and massing of the building, where their bold outlines interrupt and enliven the freestanding block form and stress three-part division of the facade."

Photo from June 13, 2004


Uxmal, Governor's Palace, the Picote

"Near the centre of the platform, at a distance of eighty feet from the foot of the steps, is a square enclosure, consisting of two layers of stones, in which stands, in an oblique position, as if falling, or perhaps, as if an effort had been made to throw it down, a large round stone, measuring eight feet above the ground and five feet in diameter.

This stone is striking for its uncouth and irregular proportions, and wants conformity with the regularity and symmetry of all around. From its conspicuous position, it doubtless had some important use, and, in connexion with other monuments found at this place, induces the belief that it was connected with the ceremonial rites of an ancient worship known to have existed among all Eastern nations. The Indians call this stone the Picote, or whipping-post."

Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, Vol. 1, p. 104


Governor's Palace, Bicephalis Jaguar

The House of the Governor seems to have been designed to serve as an astronomical observatory and was probably connected in some way with the cult of the planet Venus.

"Unlike the roughly north-south orientation of most of the city, the Governor's Palace faces southeast. A Maya standing in the central doorway in about AD 900, when the building was completed, would have looked across the top of a pyramid three miles distant to the place on the horizon where Venus rose as the morning star at its southernmost declination."

George Stuart, Lost Kingdoms of the Maya p.181

"A line almost perfectly perpendicular to the facade of the House of the Governor passes from the central doorway, out over the base of the Picote column, over the center of the platform of the bicephalic jaguar throne, and then extends to meet the mound [of Nohpat] of the horizon. Aveni has reckoned that this alignment points almost exactly to the azimuth of Venus rise when the planet attained its maximum southerly declination around the year A.D. 750.

On the basis of architectural style and its ties with monuments such as Stela 14, a date of about A.D. 900 for the House of the Governor seems likely. This fits comfortably within Aveni's 200-year latitude, suggesting that Venus would have risen "as an impressive spectacle above the flat Yucatecan horizon" directly over the Nohpat mound when viewed from the House of the Governor's central doorway."

Jeff Kowalski, The House of the Governor: A Maya Palace of Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico, p. 85-6.


Uxmal, House of the Governor detail

More than 200 stone mosaic masks of Chaac, the rain god, appear on the palace facade, their lower eyelids all bearing the symbol for Venus, in deference to the planet.

Drawing of Typical Mask Panel showing Venus hieroglyph under the eyes

drawing of typical mask panel showing Venus hieroglyph under the eyes

Kowalski, House of the Governor, p. 182-183



House of the Governor

Stela 14 shows Lord Chac standing on a bicephalic jaguar throne like this one in front of the Governor's Palace, where he is portrayed as a Chac "rain god" impersonator.

His full name has now been translated from Stela 14 and appears to have been K'ahk' Pulaj Chan Chaahk or "The Chaahk that Burns the Sky with Fire", i.e. the storm god of thunder and lightening.


Uxmal: Detail, House of the Governor

Regarding the Chaac masks adorning the Governor's Palace, Jeff Kolwaski writes:

"The message of the masks is clear. They are images of supernatural power, symbolizing to the people that the authority of the Maya lord who lived within was divinely granted. The ruler was their intercessor and benefactor acting as a divine agent.

Just as the monumental representations of Maya lords show them bedecked with a multitude of long-snouted creatures which distinguish them from ordinary mortals, so the House of the Governor is laden with countless masks of like supernaturals, whose distinctive appearance serves to identify the royal nature of the structure from great distances."

Kowalski, Palace of the Governor


Uxmal, Photo of Detail from Governor's Palace

The individual elements of these great mosaic façades are enormous, single stones frequently measuring a yard in length and weighing up to several hundred pounds.

Although to our thinking the term mosaic refers to something small, even minute in scale, as used in Maya architecture it refers to these great façades, the individual elements of which are each cut to fit with other elements of the giant mosaic designs.

Sylvanus Morley, The Ancient Maya, p 330

Commentators often remark that the quality of stone joinery reached its peak with the later constructions of Lord Chac, including the House of the Governor and the East and North Buildings of the Nunnery Quadrangle completed around 900 AD. It is interesting to compare the joinery at the much earlier House of the Birds, which dates to about 570 AD.


Uxmal, House of the Governor detail

Although much fallen away, the personage represented by the central ornament over the central doorway is presumed to be Lord Chac.

"At the House of the Governor the largest single figural motif on the entire east frieze is placed above the central doorway of the large, middle chamber. A frontal human figure sits at the center of a tiered arrangement of eight bars terminating in serpent heads. Within the bars are hieroglyphic inscriptions, some of which pertain to astronomical phenomena and some of which are grotesque reptilian heads.

The central personage of the design sits on a semicircular pedestal ornamented with disks. The sculpture's head and arms are missing, but we can presume from an extant sculptured head taken from elsewhere on the frieze that the visage was human.

The individual's shoulders are covered by a broad cape, at whose center is a plaited mat-weave medallion. He wears a belt decorated in front with an inverted, miniature human head and with step-frets, mat-weave design, and serrated bands on the sides. The figure supports a huge feather headdress whose plumes are attached to a tall central frame, only the armature of which exists today."

J. Kowalsky, The house of the Governor, p. 153-154


Uxmal, House of the Governor detail

With the exception of the central figure, the best preserved figure of the central frieze is the southern figure, whose trunk, belt and upper arms remain.

The head is broken off. The figure wears a cape composed of large mosaic beads and trimmed with feathers. At the front is a large knotted breast ornament. The wide belt is trimmed with plaited designs and contains panels decorated with complex mat-weave motifs.

The figure sits on a throne with a plaited upper edge and with mat-weave designs on the sides, and wears a lofty headdress that reaches to the height of the masks beneath the cornice. Similar designs decorate the spaces over other doorways of this building.

Kowalski, p. 154

One wonders if these subsidiary figures are vassel lords allied with Lord Chac.


Uxmal, House of the Governor detail

Empty thrones and frames for opulent feather headdresses are the only remains of other figures which have long since fallen away. The ever-present Chaac masks look on silently from above.

Similar designs decorate the spaces over other doorways of this building.


Uxmal, House of the Governor detail

The face of the figure wearing a headdress in this photo has a distinctly reptilian look. Note the cascade of descending Chaac masks to its right.

The large volutes that swirl around the masks are thought to represent winds associated with the rain god Chac. They swirl in a counter-clockwise direction on the left side of the central doorway and clockwise on the right side.


Uxmal, House of the Governor detail

Three-quarter view of the gigantic Venus-marked Chac masks present everywhere on the House of the Governor.


Uxmal, Photo of House of the Governor

"The most beautiful Puuc buildings in all Yucatan, what we may properly call the true Maya architectural renaissance, the neo-classic period of Maya architecture, are to be found at Uxmal...The Puuc, or neo-Classic Maya, here reached its finest expression."

Sylvanus Morley, The Ancient Maya, p. 330


Uxmal, Photo of House of the Governor

"The House of the Governor is the most refined and perhaps the last achievement of the architects of Uxmal. In it many scattered solutions were brought together to make up an edifice of striking harmony and repose.

Its profiles are adapted to the scale of the landscape, and its surfaces are adjusted to the hard light of Yucatan with an ease that reveals both a mature architectural tradition and the presence of an architect of great endowments."

George Kubler, The Art and Architecture of Ancient America, p.241


Uxmal: Detail, House of the Governor