Antigua, Guatemala’s crown jewel of tourism, art and culture, has a fair assortment of museums. One could argue that the thirty or so churches in various states of repair constitute museums but for me, if it has a sign that reads ‘Museo’ it’s a museum.
For the last few years I’ve walked by the half block long original University of San Carlos, which opened in 1675. It’s located on 5th calle, across from the south side of the Cathedral. The baroque façade is intriguing and the crest over the entrance raises some questions: why the pyramid? Time and fate, plus my new Guatemala I.D card which cut the entrance fee from six dollars to sixty cents, finally got me through the doors. There are large signs saying “No Food, No Drinks, No Touching and No Cameras” in most of the rooms, plus a wandering guard in a blue uniform who’s easy to spot.
I was semi-breaking the rules, as I had a large roll of fresh bread from my favorite bakery and I deliberately brought my smaller size camera in my shoulder bag, neither of which I declared. A gaggle of giggling school children had just left and aside from the guard, the place was mine to wander about.
In the first room to the left, there was religious art on the walls and another sign warning against committing any breaches of the rules. Out came the little black Sony and I powered it on: there was no time to really aim because the guard was coming, curious if not also bored. Click! Flash! He entered the same room after the camera went back into the bag, still powered on, lens extended. In a gentle voice he warned me against taking photos. “Me? No, just this bag.”
By the next room, alone once again, another haphazardly taken snap and I then turned (fumbled) the camera off. There were more large rooms, more religious art of wooden statues and vast panels of Biblical scenes: one room had a tableaux of life-size scholars dressed in authentic period black and white costumes, raptly staring over the centuries up at the teacher in the pulpit. There was one last corner room that I hadn’t seen, where in the back was a wall-to-wall gilded wooded carving of Jesus and two gentlemen in early Spanish dress. As I turned to leave, on my right was another life size wooden statue of a saint, wearing what appeared to be a Viking-style helmet. On closer inspection, even stranger than silver horns, on the statue’s chest was a carved wooden copy of the ‘High Priest’s Breastplate’, also known as “Aaron’s Breastplate.” The original is said to have been created by a command from God, who gave instructions to Aaron, the son of Moses. It was also said to have been made of gold, hung by a golden chain and set with twelve different stones, some precious, some semi-precious and each inscribed with the name of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Antigua, where the strange is commonplace and the unknown waits for a chance discovery, and I thought that the Maximon cult was weird. The early Catholic Church apparently took no chances in borrowing from other religions, in spite of the Inquisition seeking out Jews and Moors to burn or convert. My bag, complete with contraband bread, the illegal photos and I left, to ponder another mystery, without any clues. The museum? It’s worth every bit of sixty cents for admission but I can’t say that there’s six dollars worth of stuff, unless something like the High Priest’s Breastplate tickles your fancy.