2014 World Monuments Watch
Los Altos de Chiapas, or the Chiapas Highlands, is a region of southeastern Mexico that is renowned for its iconic baroque altarpieces, or retablos. Most of the altarpieces are located in the churches of San Cristóbal de las Casas, one of the earliest Spanish settlements in the Americas, and its neighboring municipalities, including Teopisca. The ornate sixteenth and seventeenth-century altarpieces are made of carved wood, with gilded and sometimes polychrome surfaces. In some of the earlier churches, like the San Agustín in Teopisca or San Felipe in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the original retablos were painted on the sanctuary walls using dry tempera, organic binders, and mineral pigments on a lime, sand, and gypsum surface. The carved altarpieces were created later, at a time of prosperity, and replaced the original painted ones.
The collection of 36 altarpieces is facing several conservation challenges, including deterioration from moisture, insect invasion, and structural damage. A number of the buildings that house the altarpieces are also in need of conservation. Moreover, these significant artistic monuments are threatened by theft and the illicit trafficking of religious property in the region. There is a growing need for enhanced local engagement in the protection of these important religious and architectural features. The Retablos de los Altos de Chiapas were included on the 2014 World Monuments Watch in order to increase awareness about the need to inventory sacred art, the threat of illicit trafficking, and the impact local communities can have in the safeguarding of their cultural heritage.
In August 2014, the town of San Cristóbal de las Casas celebrated a Watch Day event to commemorate the Retablos de los Altos de Chiapas. Community members, parishioners, and heritage experts gathered for a discussion of the ensemble’s significance and conservation needs. Participants also enjoyed a guided tour of the Templo de la Caridad, where schoolchildren had the opportunity to learn about the altar’s importance through educational and drawing activities.