The Nunnery Quadrangle is the huge courtyard directly west of the House of the Magician. Covering an area of 60 by 45 meters (197 by 148 feet), the (almost) square is bounded on each side by long buildings. The buildings contain numerous small rooms, and reminded the first Spanish explorers of nunneries in Spain, hence the name. The buildings evidently were built in a single concentrated effort at the end of the 9th century, shortly before the city collapse.
The combination of a plain lower level topped by an ornate frieze—a staple of Puuc architecture—can be seen in all four buildings of the Nunnery Quadrangle. The West building has the most ornate frieze. Notice the stacked Chac masks at either end and, working toward the center, geometric spirals that represent clouds (the Maya glyph for cloud has a similar design).
Interspersed are panels with lattice patterns, also typical of Puuc design. (Here they are especially fine, embedded with flowers.) The niche over the center door contains the figure of the God of the Underworld (God N, to archaeologists) with the body of a turtle, sitting under a canopy of feathers.
The designers of Uxmal were obsessed with the male phallus, and figure at the ends of the facade are disrobed, with rather prodigious members that appear scarred or tattooed—yikes! (A large phallus also stood in the center of the Nunnery Quadrangle, but it has since disappeared.)
Finally, notice the two long, feathered snakes that weave (and interweave) the length of the frieze. From the mouth of one emerges a human face, a way of emphasizing the divine origin of Uxmal’s leaders.
The North building is the largest and highest of the four, affording great views of the entire site from its broad platform. The frieze contains exquisite Chac masks, with finely curved incisor teeth and distinct upper and lower eyelids.
To many observers, the East building is the most refined in its design and execution. Simple latticework is broken by triangular forms over the doors. On closer look, you can see the forms are in fact an inverted stack of two-headed feathered serpents. Above them are shields depicting owls, which the Maya associated with warfare and sacrifice.
The South building has a vaulted arch, giving access to and from the quadrangle. High on its sloped walls, look for red handprints, left from the original construction. Notice, too, the carvings of thatched huts, or na, over each of the door.
In fact, you can see such images in numerous temples in this region, and beyond. The precise meaning of the huts is unclear—they may have represented the newborn universe, as in some Maya creation myths—but like the handprints in the archway, they lend a powerful humanism to these ancient ruins, not least because the very same na remains a fixture of Maya communities today.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition