The art of the missions of northern New Spain

Other devotional images, especially of the Virgin, held even greater significance for missionaries and their missions. Some were believed to have special powers, not only to convert the Indians, but also to heal and otherwise perform supernatural tasks. The Jesuits introduced and disseminated many miraculous images of Mary through-out the missions, including Our Lady of Loreto (Fig. 9). They brought this image to New Spain from one of the most famous shrines in Italy, where, according to legend, the house in which Mary was born and in which the Annunciation occurred was miraculously transported first to Tersato on the Balkan Peninsula to Italy in 1291, to Recanati in 1294, and Loreto in 1295. The blackened sculpture of the Virgin within it was alleged to have miraculous powers and inspired numerous copies, each regarded as having similar efficacy as the original. Not coincidentally, this tale of the house’s travel and the power of its sculpture related directly to the international character of the Jesuits’ own enterprise.

Perhaps the most impressive work of art at any mission was its main altarpiece. Despite the sometimes isolated locations of the missions, these altarpieces could be remarkably luxurious. Pedro Tamarón y Romeral, the bishop of Durango, in his account of his 1760 visit to the Jesuit mission among the Opata people at Santa María de la Asuncíon, noted that the church had “seven altars, each one with its corresponding colateral (altarpiece).”8  The form and materials of altarpieces varied according to a variety of circumstances. One at the Jesuit mission San Francisco Javier Satevó, located among the Tepehuan and Tarahumara people, was recorded in 1753 as “entirely gilded on the scale of the height and width of the front of the church with three large statues with their niches” and “sixteen paintings of several saints, and over the tabernacle a Christ Child in a niche.”9

Another type is the so-called perspective altarpiece, not simply a framed painting but a painted trompe l’oeil illusion of a carved altarpiece. Examples were found in the Sacristy of Satevó, at Santa María de Cuevas, and at San Lorenzo, all located in the state of Chihuahua just north of Parral, a burgeoning silver mining region during the missionary period.10 The one from San Francisco Xavier Satevó in Santa María de Cuevas is signed by the Mexico City painter Juan Correa (Fig. 5) and dates from around 1700, when most of the church’s interior decorations were completed. Perspective altarpieces were also found, on occasion, in the Franciscan churches of Alta California—one remains at Mission Santa Barbara, perhaps the original main altarpiece, which was replaced in the early nineteenth century.11
While the vast majority of art objects found at the missions were made by artisans in Mexico City, some were made at other centers of production that developed later, and some were made locally. Of these last, a small number can be attributed to Indian artisans, especially in areas around the Franciscan missions. Among the most distinctive were paintings on hide, found in relatively large numbers at the missions of New Mexico. The practice of painting on animal skins likely began shortly after 1598 when Juan de Oñate (c. 1594–1624) first led Spanish settlers to the region, resulting in an art form unique to New Mexico that incorporated a native tradition. By the 1630s there was a flourishing business of hide painting, with workshops employing Amerindians from local pueblos that produced large numbers of them for patrons there and as far away as Mexico City.

Whether any of these seventeenth-century examples were painted for the missions is not known, in part because of the damage done to mission churches in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 to 1692. During the eighteenth century both mestizo and Hispanic artists painted on hide, and it is possible that some Franciscans were among them. It is certain that hide paintings were used to adorn most mission and parish churches during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Their subjects typically included devotions particular to the Franciscan order as well as images of Christ and the Virgin popular in Spain and New Spain.

One shows the Virgin of Guadalupe(Fig. 10). Although the painting’s colors have faded (as is the case for virtually all hide paintings due to the light-sensitivity of their pigments), the decorative qualities and firm drawing are still visible. The selection of the subject can be traced in part to the growth of the cult of the Guadalupana following her 1746 designation as the patron saint of New Spain. The Virgin of Guadalupe’s popularity among Spaniards and Amerindians in central Mexico made her an especially appropriate artistic subject for the evangelizing missions. This hide painting may have hung at the Franciscan mission church at Pecos Pueblo, possibly executed by Carlos José Delgado, a missionary there in the early eighteenth century who was known for his ornate drawings on church records.12

A rare Indian-made work can be found at Mission Santa Barbara in California. Every mission church had a tabernacle, a cabinet placed on the altar in which the ciborium containing the consecrated hosts was stored. The unique polychromed wood tabernacle made around 1789 for Mission Santa Barbara was clearly made locally (Fig. 14). While its form and decoration indicate familiarity with stylistic preferences and techniques widespread in northern New Spain in the period, in design and materials it is unlike any others found in Alta California. The pediment contains polychromed relief symbols of the passion, mirrored doors, and abalone shell inlay in a diamond and flower design. Although mother-of-pearl had been used for decorative purposes by artists in New Spain, shell was a material that the Chumash in the area around Santa Barbara, for example, used as a medium of exchange; for personal decoration, clothing, and ritual objects; and for tools.13 Abalone, in particular, was used for funerary objects.14 The tabernacle’s unusual materials and form point strongly to collaboration between a resident Franciscan missionary and a local Indian craftsman.15

The Chumash were also expert basket makers who put their skills to use for objects directly associated with mission use. One basket (Fig. 11), dating from about 1822, contains decorations based on Spanish real coins used in New Spain, namely, the pillar-shield designs from the reverse of the so-called portrait dollar, which encircle the body of the basket, and the center motif, taken from the obverse of the earlier pillar dollar, with two hemispheres over ocean waves, flanked by pillars and surmounted by a Spanish crown. The inscription around the rim identifies its Chumash weaver, Juana BasiliaSitmelelene.16 Unique among Chumash basketry produced at the California missions is a hat woven in the shape of a wide-brimmed friar’s hat (Fig. 13). It was among artifacts collected by George Goodman Hewett, surgeon’s mate on the British exploratory expedition that included California and the Pacific Northwest led by Captain George Vancouver (1757–1798) from 1791 to 1795.17

The absence of texts revealing the voices of indigenous people sadly leaves us with very little information about the impact of the missions’ European-based imagery on those for whom it was intended. That so many works have come down to us today, however, is one measure of the mission communities’ acceptance of such objects. One instance of later im-position of Christian expression over earlier native imagery is at a site called Las Adjuntas, where following the Jesuits’ arrival an image of a church with its bell tower was carved on a panel that depicts a large turkey devouring a flower or a heart (Fig. 15). “In this way this ancient sanctuary was inserted into the new religious and political reality without losing its sacred nature.”18 

Despite the decline of the mission system following Mexican independence, hundreds of churches have survived along with the works of art that once filled them. Scores of these are documented in the exhibition The Art of the Missions of Northern New Spain, which recently opened at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City, and its accompanying catalogue. Many are in need of conservation, as are the churches themselves. Happily, the exhibition has helped encourage restoration, subsidized by a combination of foundation, private, and Mexican government funding, thus contributing to a fuller understanding of a remarkable artistic legacy shared by Mexico and the United States.

The Art of the Missions of Northern New Spain (El arte de las misiones del norte de la Nueva España, 1600–1821) is on view at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City until August 16. It will travel to the San Antonio Museum of Art, October 17 to January 3, 2010; the Museo de Historia Mexicana, Monterrey; the Centro Cultural de Tijuana, Baja California; and the Oakland Museum of California. The exhibition is co-curated by Michael Komanecky and Clara Bargellini of the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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