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 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. 1 See Duhaut-Cilly’s A Voyage to California, the Sandwich Islands, and Around the World in the Years 1826–1829, ed.August Frugé and Neal Harlow (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999), pp. 110–111.
2 See David J. Weber, “Arts and Architecture, Force and Fear: The Spanish-Indian Struggle for Sacred Space,” in The Art of the Missions of Northern New Spain (Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, Mexico City, 2009).
3 William L. Merrill, “Indigenous Societies, Missions, and the Colonial System in Northern New Spain,” ibid., p.
4 See Michael K. Komanecky, entry for the tabernacle at California’s Mission Santa Barbara, ibid., No. 243.
5 See, for example, ibid., pp. 261–264.
6 The Jesuit and Franciscan missions each had their own resources and system of administration, and hence their own means of acquiring works of art. Unlike the usual practice of the Franciscans, the Jesuits were regularly allowed to manage money and handle requests personally. 7 Quoted in Clara Bargellini, “Art at the Missions of Northern New Spain,” in Art of the Missions of Northern New Spain, p. .
8 Libro XXXXV, fol. 105, Archivo Eclesiástico de la Catedral de Durango, quoted ibid.,” p. . Tamarón was bishop of Durango from 1757 to 1769.
9 Quoted in Bargellini, “Art at the Missions of Northern New Spain,” p. .
10 Ibid., p. .
11 My thanks to Kristina Foss, director of the Santa Barbara Mission Museum for bringing this piece to my attention.
12 See Kelly Wallace-Donahue’s entry on hide paintings in Art of the Missions of Northern New Spain, pp. 293–303.
13 For a discussion of the Chumash in California, see Janice Timbrook’s entry on Chumash baskets in ibid., pp. 327–332. The Chumash, whose population was estimated at some 20,000 when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (d. 1543) explored the California coast in 1542, were spread among some 150 principal towns and villages. The missions at San Luis Obispo, San Buenaventura, Santa Barbara, La Purísima Concepción, and Santa Inés were all founded in Chumash territory. By about 1816 nearly all of the native people in the region had been brought into these mission communities.
14 See Georgia Lee, The Portable Cosmos: Effigies, Ornaments, and Incised Stone from the Chumash Area, Ballena Press Anthropological Papers, No. 21 (Ballena Press, Socorro, N. M., 1981), pp. 17, 25, and 32–33.
15 For a more thorough discussion, see Art of the Missions of Northern New Spain.
16 See ibid., No. 245. Juana Basilia was from Sumuawawa, a town thought to have been located in the Santa Monica Mountains near present-day Thousand Oaks or Newbury Park. She was baptized at Mission San Buenaventura on February 7, 1806, at about twenty-four years of age.
17 The Vancouver expedition made two stops in November 1793 in the Chumash region, one at Santa Barbara and another at San Buenaventura. Based on its materials and weaving technique, it is likely the hat was made somewhere north of Santa Barbara. According to Timbrook, the crown portion resembles a traditional Chumash basketry cap of the type worn by women to cushion the head against the weight of the carrying strap, and the design in the brim is characteristic of traditional Chumash baskets. The small fragment of blue silk ribbon attached where the brim meets the crown is probably a remnant of ribbon used to tie the hat under the chin. Broken stitches at the edge of the crown and near the rim, as well as some discoloration inside the crown and fading on the upper surface, are indications that this hat was actually used. See Art of the Missions of Northern New Spain, No. 244.
18 Marie Areti-Hers, “Northern New Spain and the Ancient Interweaving of Images,” in ibid.
MICHAEL K. KOMANECKY is the inter-im director and chief curator of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. He is the co-curator of the exhibition The Art of the Missions of Northern New Spain.