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Solari awarded art history grant to study Maya Christian Murals of Yucatán

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Solari NEH grant

Amara Solari, associate professor of art history, has received a significant grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in support of the research project “Maya Christian Murals of Yucatán: Indigenous Catholicism in Early Modern New Spain.”

The collaborative research grant will enable Solari to pursue the multi-year project with Linda Williams of the University of Puget Sound. 

Solari and Williams’ research will focus on the 22 remaining religious murals painted by Christianized Maya artists in Yucatán, Mexico, between 1550 and 1750. In addition to photographing and interpreting the paintings, the research includes materials analysis that will determine the pigments used by the Maya artists, which will facilitate preservation as well as interpretation.

“I was shocked, thrilled and ultimately grateful to receive this award,” Solari said. “Having this source of research funds means that, for the first time in my career, I will be able to conduct the materials characterization analysis and archival research necessary for a project of this scale.”

Interpretation of the images themselves is a vital part of the project. Vibrantly painted scenes of heavenly realms and saints ostensibly testify to Christian content, but the imagery also harkens back to sacred indigenous motifs that had been suppressed under European conquest and colonization.

Solari and Williams are studying the paintings as records of Maya experience during a period of transition and upheaval and as the research duo explained, “We center Maya artists in the vast networks of exchange that marked the Counter Reformation, querying how the visual adaptation of pre-Columbian artistic practices impacted the emergence of Maya Catholic identity.”

In addition to writing a scholarly book on the murals, Solari and Williams are creating an interactive website that will provide open access to images of the murals and results of their research.

“Our hope is to be able to introduce the world to these fragile and threatened human treasures before they are completely disappeared and to provide a narrative of indigenous Catholicism’s development among the Maya peoples of Yucatán,” Solari said.

The grant award, which was established by the NEH to support interpretive research undertaken by a team of collaborating scholars that adds significantly to knowledge and understanding of the humanities, is one of only 14 collaborative research grants awarded this year by the organization.

Cassie Mansfield, head of the Department of Art History said the project exists on the “cutting-edge” of art historical research and will help to promote Penn State as a leader in the field of art history research.

“What’s so innovative about this project is its combination of traditional art historical methods like archival research and connoisseurship with the latest techniques for pigment analysis,” Mansfield said. “Amara and Linda Williams are changing our understanding of Maya art during the colonial period in Mexico while forging new connections between art historians and materials scientists here at Penn State.”