Palo Volador
(Pole Flyer)
28" x 19", oil on canvas.

Matias Gonzalez Chavajay

Originality: Moderate, but this painting set the standard for the theme.

Matias Gonzalez Chavajay has elevated this work from a exact painted record of the festival to a fanciful memory of the event. The voladores, who are dressed as angels, look as if they are actually flying. This gives the painting a mystical aspect absent from other artistís versions of this theme. The painting depicts a festival at which a masked dance, the Palo Volador, is performed. Most masked dances mix the customs of the ancient Mayan religion with the customs of the Catholic Church. Mayan shaman priests perform ceremonies when the tree for the pole is selected, cut and transported to the town. A live rooster is placed in the hole for the pole with the pole placed on top of him, this sacrifice ensuring the safety of the voladores.

The Palo Volador is performed both in Mexico and Guatemala. Demetrio Sodi writes in a book produced about and by the National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico:

El Volador (The Birdman) is one of the most spectacular dances.... It is one of the most authentically preserved from pre-Hispanic times, although the costumes now reflect a European influence. Five men are chosen to perform the dance. In the past, the dancers dressed as eagles or other birds. One is the captain and four take the roles of birdmen. A tall, strong, straight tree is stripped of its branches and bark and set upright in the main square of the town. A wooden cylinder is attached to the top of the trunk, with a frame from which hang the four ropes to which the birdmen are tied. The captain stands on top of the cylinder, playing a drum and flute, and dances, turning to the four corners of the universe. Then the four birdmen, tied by their ankles and hanging head down, slowly descend . The number of circles they turn before touching the earth varies, but in pre-Hispanic times, and even now on certain occasions, they circled thirteen times. The number of turns multiplied by the four birdmen equals the number of years of the pre-Hispanic calendar: fifty two, divided by four, thirteen year periods. El Volador undoubtedly has an intimate relation to worship of the sun. The captain who turns toward the cardinal points and the birdmen dressed as eagles (birds of the sun), make this clear.

From the traje [dress] of people in the painting we can tell that the festival is taking place in Chichicastenango, and that this is the dance as it was performed some time ago. The womenís huipiles [blouses] have evolved since then. The traje tells us that the musicians are from SololŠ, a town about three hours walking distance from Chichicastenango. Below the pole, dancers dressed as colorfully caped Spaniards (fanciful Mayan ideas of what Spaniards looked like) interact with jaguar and monkey dancers (remnants of pre-Columbian dances). This painting shows the contemporary Mayan culture which on the face may look Catholic, but which hides the ancient Mayan traditions underneath.