Stone Idol, front view (from Copán)


A large stone stela, facing forward, depicts a Maya deity decorated with myriad visual embellishments, its fists clenched upon its chest. The background depicts the small clearing in which the stela now stands, fading back into a thick forest.

Accession Number: 

F 1432 S883 1841 Vol. 1

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Printing Context: 

Stone Idol, front view is one of many illustrations of Copán’s monuments produced by Catherwood, all of which are reproduced in John Lloyd Stephens's Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán (1841).

Associated Events: 

John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood’s Journey to Copán

John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood arrived in Copán on November, 13, 1839 (Bourbon 114), and immediately purchased the city for fifty dollars (Bourbon 114; Evans 54). Stephens then traveled to Guatemala City to fulfill his diplomatic obligations as ambassador to Central America, while Catherwood remained in Copán to clear brush from the city and to begin work on drawing its buildings and monuments. Stephens had originally planned to transport the city’s artifacts, and even some of its buildings, down the Copán River and eventually to a permanent exhibition in New York, but this was impossible given the speed of the river’s rapids (Bourbon 119).

Dissolution of the Federal Republic of Central America

The Federal Republic of Central America was formed by the union of El Salvador, Guatemala (which included much of the modern Mexican state of Chiapas), Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica; the Republic had its capital at Guatemala City. Following the entity’s collective independence from Spain in 1821, the Republic was established in 1823 as a federal representative republic, modeled after the United States. Though a sovereign republic, the country had been annexed by Mexico upon its independence, creating a political battle between liberals (wishing to be part of the progressive Mexican state) and conservatives (loyal to the Republic’s autonomy). Due to his diplomatic experience, John Lloyd Stephens had been appointed Special Ambassador to Central America by President Martin van Buren; however, due to this political civil war, the country was essentially a defunct entity by his and Catherwood's arrival in 1838. This lack of diplomatic obligations allowed Stephens and Catherwood to further concentrate on their archaeological survey. By 1840 four of the five states in the union had declared independence, legally dissolving the country.

Associated People: 

Frederick Catherwood (1799-1854)

Frederick Catherwood was a British architect, artist, and archaeological illustrator whose drawings and paintings of Maya sites in the Yucatán peninsula are primarily responsible for the entry of Maya archaeology into American and European visual consciousness. Of Irish and Scottish ancestry, Catherwood was born on February 27, 1799 in Charles Square, Hoxton (a suburb of London). In his youth, he attended Haberdasher’s School in London, studying Linguistics and Grammar (Bourbon 13). In 1820, Catherwood enrolled in the Royal Academy of Arts, taking classes with Henry Fuseli, William Turner, and John Soane. After finishing his studies, Catherwood took a series of journeys around the Mediterranean, visiting Italy, Greece, Syria, and Egypt, and returning to London in 1826 (Bourbon 24). Catherwood made a return trip to Egypt and the Levant for six years (1829-1835), where he produced a large series of archaeological drawings of ancient Egyptian sites, establishing his prominence as one of the world’s foremost archaeological illustrators at that time.

One of Catherwood’s drawings from this journey, View of Jerusalem, was exhibited by William Burford as a panorama at Leicester Square in 1836, where it was seen by an American lawyer and explorer, John Lloyd Stephens. After Burford arranged their meeting, Stephens and Catherwood formed an immediate friendship. Catherwood returned to New York with Stephens, and in 1839 President Martin van Buren appointed Stephens Special Ambassador to Central America. Stephens used this opportunity to launch an archaeological expedition to the region, with Catherwood as his artist and illustrator; the goal of the expedition was not simply to record sites in the Yucatán but, by doing so, to claim them as cultural property for the American government.  Using a camera lucida for much of his work, Catherwood’s drawings and sketches from these expeditions were the first representations of Maya art and architecture to gain widespread popular appeal in the United States and Europe. Catherwood’s many illustrations were featured prominently in Stephens’ two books, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843). In 1844, Catherwood produced his own lavish series of colored prints of Maya sites, Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, which was published in a limited edition of three hundred copies in New York and London, of which 282 are known to survive.

Following their travels to the Yucatán, Catherwood spent the next eight years on book tours in Europe, assisting with Stephen’s creation of the Panama Railroad Company in 1848, and finally ending up in San Francisco as a consultant to a mining company at the height of the California Gold Rush. Stephens died in Panama in 1852. In 1854 Catherwood made plans to return to Europe to oversee the European re-print of Incidents of Travel; during the return voyage, however, the ship (the SS Arctic) was rammed by a French vessel in the waters off Newfoundland. Catherwood died in the accident on September 27, 1854.

John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852)

John Lloyd Stephens was an American travel author, explorer, and diplomat whose writings are largely credited with founding the field of Maya archaeology. Stephens was born in Shrewsbury, New Jersey on November 28, 1805. After graduating from Columbia University with a law degree in 1822, he entered a private law practice in Connecticut. Over the next decade he became a well-known lawyer and diplomat in the United States, but grew tired of the practice and instead turned his ambitions to exploration. Stephens began to travel throughout Europe and the Near East, publishing two accounts of his travels: Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia, Petraea and the Holy Land (1837) and Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland (1838). Previously, while in Britain in 1836, Stephens had met architect and artist Frederick Catherwood, and had convinced him to come back to the United States as his travel companion artist. When President Martin van Buren appointed Stephens as Special Ambassador to Central America in 1839, the pair used the opportunity to explore the Maya sites of the Yucatán. Their two expeditions to the region are recorded by Stephens in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán (1843). The books were the first popularly-read accounts of Maya civilization, and are largely credited as being the first attempts at a scientific study of Mexican archaeological sites. Following his success in Central America, Stephens was appointed Vice President of the Panama Railroad Company in 1849; he spent the next three years personally supervising the construction of a railroad between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in Panama. While in Panama, Stephens contracted a liver disease from which he never recovered; he died in Panama on October 13, 1852.

Associated Places: 

Copán, Honduras

Copán is the modern name for a pre-Columbian Mayan city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, originally called Xukpi (5th-9th century AD). It is in the Copán Department of western Honduras, near the border with Guatemala.

Associated Texts: 

While all of Catherwood’s Copán drawings are reproduced in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, Volume I (1841), five of the twenty-five color lithographs that make up his Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1844) were of Copán (Plates I-V, in order): Idol, at Copán; Pyramidal Building and Fragments of Sculpture, at Copán; Back of an Idol, at Copán; Broken Idol, at Copán; and Idol and Altar, at Copán.


This image—rendered using a camera lucida—depicts a monument from the pre-Columbian Maya city, Xukpi, now known as Copán.


Catherwood’s Stone Idol, front view and a number of his other illustrations (reproduced in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán) constitute the first systematic attempt at a realistic representation of Mexican antiquities, as well as the first time a camera lucida had been used draw such ruins. According to Stephens's account of their expedition, Catherwood turned to the camera lucida when the designs on the Mayan artifacts proved too complex for the naked eye and too intricate to replicate by hand (Evans 53; Stephens, Central America 120). Consequently, Catherwood’s drawings blend Enlightenment notions of faithful, scientific representations with nascent, Romantic-era visual technologies (Evans 53).


Catherwood’s illustrations of particular objects, such as Stone Idol, front view, serve a dual function. First, they accurately illustrate the size, proportion, and visual decoration of ancient Maya objects, data which was important to potential collectors of Maya artifacts, museum exhibitors, and investors in future expeditions to the region. Secondly, many of the artifacts Catherwood drew were being seen in the United States and Europe for the first time, and, as such, the assurance of their accurate portrayal was of paramount importance to the viewer. This concern was particularly important for Catherwood, who made use of a camera lucida in his rendering of Maya artifacts like this one.


Bourbon, Fabio. The Lost Cities of the Mayas: The Life, Art, and Discoveries of Frederick Catherwood. New York: Abbeville P, 2000. Print.

Catherwood, Frederick. Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. Barre: Barre, 1965. Print.

Evans, R. Tripp. Romancing the Maya: Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination, 1820-1915. Austin: U of Texas P, 2004. Print.

Stephens, John Lloyd. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. Vol. 1. New York: Harper, 1841. Print. 2 vols.

Stephens, John Lloyd. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. New York,: Harper, 1843. Print.

Von Hagen, Victor Wolfgang. F. Catherwood, Architect-Explorer of Two Worlds. Barre: Barre, 1968. Print.

Long Title: 

Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, Vol. 1.


Image Date: 



Harper and Brothers

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