The art of the missions of northern New Spain

July 2009 | After an hour and half of riding and from the top of a small hill we descried ahead of us the splendid buildings of the mission of San Luis Rey, their dazzling whiteness revealed in the first light of day. At that distance and in the uncertain light of dawn, the edifice, of a splendid design and supported by its numerous pillars, had the look of a palace; from afar the architectural faults were not seen, the eye taking in only the elegant mass of the building. The verdant valley where the mission stood, populated by great herds that now appeared only as red and white dots, extended as far as the eye could see to the north, where it ended in a range of mountains whose contours and summits were softly outlined in the light morning mist. Instinctively, I pulled up my horse in order to observe the beauty of the scene for a few minutes by myself.

To sustain them on their lengthy, rigorous, and potentially dangerous journeys, many missionaries brought works of art with them are now the states of Durango, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa, Sonora, and Baja California in Mexico; and California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida in the United States.

Not surprisingly, churches were the largest structures at the missions. Often designed by the missionaries or architect-builders who traveled with them, they were typically built by Indians, who were also sometimes trained to assist with exterior or interior architectural decorations such as wood or stone carving or wall painting. To decorate the interiors, however, missionaries acquired paintings, sculptures, and additional liturgical objects, mostly from prominent workshops in Mexico City and paid for by the Spanish crown, the orders themselves, or by their patrons. Spain’s global trading system also enabled the missionaries to acquire ivory sculpture from the Philippines and liturgical vestments made from Chinese and European textiles. Other centers of artistic production developed as well, and some objects were made at the missions themselves, including a small number by Indian artisans. This rich variety of objects, totaling in the thousands throughout northern New Spain, was found in virtually every mission church.

Some objects were produced in direct response to the practical challenges missionaries faced. They undertook conversion among vastly different native cultures about which they knew little, if anything. “At the time of European contact in the sixteenth century,” these Indians “spoke more than a hundred distinct languages, the differences among them comparable to those among English, Spanish, Russian, and Japanese.”3 Understandably, missionaries soon prepared Spanish-Indian language dictionaries and translated basic Catholic texts into Indian languages (see Fig.4).

Even before embarking for the distant regions of northern New Spain, Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries prepared themselves for the tasks—and risks—ahead. Their zeal was fortified in part by works of art that celebrated the example of those who came before them. The Franciscans naturally focused on their order’s founder, Saint Francis of Assisi, who was represented in multiple ways, for example as a victorious warrior for Christ carrying a standard (see Fig. 1). The Jesuits likewise celebrated their founder, Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), as well as Ignatius’s compatriot Francis Xavier, founder of the Jesuit missions in Japan and other parts of Asia. Both were canonized in 1622, making their veneration all the more important to the still young order and its missionaries. Francis Xavier’s activities were celebrated in numerous paintings, such as the one showing him baptizing converts in Figure 2. Other works depicted even more starkly the risks missionaries could expect to encounter, for example, a painting memorializing two Franciscan missionaries killed by Indians at Mission San Sabá in present-day Texas (Fig. 6).

To sustain them on their lengthy, rigorous, and potentially dangerous journeys, many missionaries brought works of art with them. One, almost certainly used by a Franciscan, is a rare portable altar (Fig. 3) in which Saint Joseph and Saint Francis of Assisi surround an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, revered throughout New Spain since the time of her miraculous appearance in 1531 to Juan Diego in Tepeyac, just north of Mexico City. This central image was painted on conch shell, suggesting its maker’s familiarity with Indians’ use of shells for decoration and as a medium of exchange.4

The most common objects were those necessary to celebrate mass. They included chalices (see Fig. 7), crosses, candlesticks, ciboria, monstrances, censers, tabernacles, bells, and missals and other books. Baptism, the first sacrament provided to newly converted Indians, also required specific ceremonial objects. Virtually every mission church contained a baptismal font, many made of copper, which was mined extensively in the state of Michoacán. Another highly practical object was a wafer press (Fig. 12) for making the sacred host used for Communion.

Spectacle was a key element of missionaries’ efforts at conversion, perhaps the most conspicuous personal examples of which were the elaborate liturgical vestments they wore to celebrate mass and to conduct baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other religious ceremonies. These vestments were found in virtually every church in the Catholic world. Missionaries brought some with them and, once settled, acquired others; the chasuble in Figure 8 from Mission San Luis Rey de Francia is said to have been worn by the Franciscan Antonio Peyrí.

Typical of paintings for the missions were images of crucifixions or of saints held in particular regard by a mission’s founding order. In 1771, for example, Junípero Serra (1713–1784), Franciscan founder of the missions of Alta California, requested paintings of the “five patron saints of the missions”—the Archangel Gabriel, Luis Obispo de Tolosa, Antonio de Padua, Clare of Assisi, and Francis of Assisi. Several of these paintings, done by the Mexico City painter José de Páez (1720–1790), are still extant.5 Interestingly, while the Franciscans were administered centrally and generally acquired works of art by making requests to a procurador in Mexico City, Serra and his fellow friars of the Propaganda Fide were clearly able to assert their artistic tastes.6 He asked that Saint Luis Obispo be painted “with apostolic papal garb visible under the rochet, and the cord clearly seen, his mitre on his head, an elaborate cope, and his royal crown, and a scepter at his feet.” Saint Anthony of Padua had to be “apostolic, beautiful and with his baby Jesus,” and Clare represented “with our habit, and her veil, not in the style of nuns from here but rather falling over her shoulders, as painted in Europe.”7

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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