California Missions – Furniture And Woodwork Of The Missions

WITHIN the past few years, the term ” Mission Furniture ” has become current. But it has been accepted too freely, and without having been subjected to proper investigation. If by the use of that name the idea is conveyed that it is modelled after the furniture made and used in the old California Missions it is clearly unjustified, since the Spanish fathers who established the California Missions failed to create a style of furniture as distinctive as their architecture.

In the erection of the buildings themselves the padres seemed to reach the limit of their artistic capacity. This result was inevitable. The Mission houses were the property of one of the two great brotherhoods founded early in the thirteenth century in the effort to preserve the religious unity of the world. Everything tending to assure the life, to strengthen the power of the fraternity, was to be undertaken without fear and executed at all risks. As a consequence, the claims of the individual were reduced to nothing, or rather absorbed in the general scheme. The vow of the Franciscan involved personal poverty, chastity, and obedience. Daily he was reminded of his vow by the scourging of the three knots of his rope girdle, and constantly he found the results of his solemn promises in the most frugal of fare, hard labor, and the absolute bareness of his cell.

From these facts it is clear that everything which approached the idea of individual belongings, ease, or luxury was strictly eliminated from the life of the California missionaries, as fatal to the interests of their order. They provided their cells, their refectories, their chapels with such movables only as served their strictest necessities. To have done otherwise would have been to attack the foundations of their brotherhood, to have provided for the comfort of their bodies, which they were taught to abase and mortify. It was as impossible as it was unsought on their part for them to create any types whatsoever of domestic art. Their movables were collected by chance, or, when made by them, were constructed upon primitive models. Their chairs, tables, and benches were such as fell into their possession, or else were fashioned from such upright and horizontal timbers as might have been used by the first cabinet maker.

Thus, obedient to their conception of the religious life, furthermore, not possessing a racial art-instinct like certain other divisions of the Latin peoples, these Spanish monks accepted whatever material objects were most easily obtainable, and held themselves aloof from their influence. It cannot be too much emphasized that, regarding life as a mere passage, as a series of painful tests and proofs, they rejected upon principle whatever might attach them to it.

Therefore, from argument, and equally from evidence existing in the objects themselves, it is apparent that there is no ” Mission Style,” except that which pertains to architecture. And as the latter has been illustrated in the present pages by its most notable examples, so now the movable objects used or constructed by the missionaries for domestic or ecclesiastical purposes are here shown in a representative collection. These objects may be divided into two classes, one of which comprises such things as were copied more or less accurately from typical originals, as they were remembered, or else such as were brought from the mother country. These especially are the pulpits, confessionals, lecterns, and candelabra. It is proper to designate them as objects found in the Missions. The other class consists, for the most part, of objects for domestic use. They originated in the Missions, without, however, constituting a distinctive style, since they show nothing but the simplest provisions to meet bare necessities. They prove that no ” Mission Style ” of furniture ever existed, and place the term where it rightly belongs ; that is, among those names which, first applied for commercial purposes, are generally accepted, in obedience to that love of mystery and romance which invades even the most prosaic lives.

In order, then, to afford a basis of judgment between the types of the new style and the objects from which they received their name, the accompanying illustrations have been selected from those Missions of the entire California chain which offer the best examples ; and, as already it has been said, the collection has been arranged with the direct purpose to show that the furnishings of these religious houses, being indiscriminately gathered, can present no thorough principles upon which to base a system of constructive art. In this collection there is included, it is believed, a specimen of every important variety, excepting the altar chairs at San Carlos, Monterey, and one chair formerly at San Diego ; all of which, plainly of Oriental origin, were probably brought by one of the ships trading with the Philippines in the early days of Spanish supremacy.

The series of illustrations may well begin with the benches which are among the most direct models serving for the new ” Mission Style.” Plate 52 a is a seat of this character, preserved at Los Angeles. We observe in this a piece of good form, constructed of rough uprights and horizontals crudely put together by an unskilled joiner, the back-rest and the seat front board even suggesting the work of Indians. It is interesting to note that the priest sitting on this bench is the Reverend Father Adam, widely known and greatly esteemed, whose departure for Spain a few years since was much regretted in California, where he had been one of the most zealous workers of the Catholic Church. Father Adam is here seen holding in his hand one of the old registers of the San Juan Capistrano Mission, bound in the soft leather peculiar to the conventual books of the period.

A similar simple and well-constructed piece, displaying on the seat front board carvings which are not ungraceful, exists in the relic-room at Santa Barbara.

Plate 53 a is one of two old chairs of the sanctuary, now preserved in the relic-room at Santa Clara. They are heavy, solid, and crude in workmanship and ornamentation. The legs of one of the chairs are strongly curved and carved. The seats of both are much too narrow, and eloquently speak of the compulsion they laid upon their users to sit bolt upright. The arms of one are slightly hollowed for the elbows, and the ends are scrolled. The top of the head-rest has a slight pretence of ornamentation in the crude scalloped work. The other chair is absolutely plain except for the scalloping, which it is evident was laboriously done by hand. Hand-made nails and wooden pegs were used to hold the pieces together.

Plate 53 b, a dilapidated chair at San Juan Bautista, is of a type often seen in Spain. Although quite simple, the chair, as judged by its structure and lathe-work, proceeded from the hand of a well-skilled cabinet-maker.

Plate 53 c, from the relic-room at Santa Barbara, mingles the Dutch with the Spanish type, an occurrence not infrequent in art and handicraft work, owing to the close political and social connections once existing between the peoples of these two widely different races.

Plate 53 d, a chair at San Buenaventura, is built upon sound structural principles, although in a crude fashion. It is mortised and tenoned, and there is an attempt at ornamentation in the front stretcher, the rounding of the arms, and the terminations of the posts.

Plate 54 a is a cupboard at San Juan Bautista, still bearing the rude hinges of the early Mission forge, and carved with the utmost skill of the early fathers ; the work on this piece being much superior to that which is generally seen on similar pieces. The ornament is here significant of the use fulfilled by the cabinet, which is a receptacle for ecclesiastical vessels. The monstrance and the chalice appear surmounted by a design which may be a variant of the ” Tree of Life,” so frequently seen in old Italian, Spanish, and Flemish wood-carvings ; while the cockle-shell of the cornice is the symbol of Saint James the Elder, or Santiago, the traveller among the Apostles and the patron of Spain.

Plate 54 b shows brackets, shelf, and a cupboard, the work of the Indians at Santa Barbara, and dating from 1824.

Leaving now the furniture proper, let us pass on to examine other wood-work found in the Missions. The first specimen chosen is a door, and it may be observed that in producing work of this character the Mission fathers kept within the limits of their capabilities, no delicate handling being required in order to attain satisfactory results. The entrance door at San Luis Obispo is shown in Plate 56 b. At this Mission the entire church has been ” restored ” out of all resemblance to its original state. But fortunately, although the framework seen in this picture is new, the door itself dates from the days of the early fathers. It has sustained the attack of time and weather better than most modern work will do, and some of its original hinges are still in use. It is ornamented by two rosette-like panels with terrace-bevelled edges, fastened upon each of the two divisions ; these being impaled with heavy spikes, the heads of which form star-like bosses, while other similar bosses are disposed symmetrically throughout the body of the door. Regarded as ornament, both panels and bosses are trivial, but, serving to strengthen the door, they are admissible as a constructive feature.

Plate 56 a is chosen from San Miguel. Here, also, the frame is new, the door only being original. This, as occurs elsewhere, is a device of a door within a door, the construction of which may be better understood by reference to the illustration than through an explanation in words. It may be noted that here some of the original hinges are still in use, being as firmly riveted as when first attached. Of these there are three pairs fully a foot in length, together with three smaller pairs for the use of the smaller doors.

Plate 54 c shows a confessional at San Buenaventura, and in Plate 28 a is seen a pulpit of similar workmanship, both of which were brought from Spain through Mexico, or else were made in the latter country by a superior work-man. Unfortunately, like the church in which it stands, the confessional has been subjected to a ” restoration ” which has greatly marred its original character. The pulpit has totally disappeared, or, at least, so stated the present priest when recently questioned.

Plate 55 a shows a pulpit, being the original construction still in use at San Juan Bautista. It is in no wise distinctive, and might be found in any Roman Catholic country, just as the reredos or the side altars might as well be located in France or in Lower Canada, for aught that is revealed in their structure. The pulpit, however, attains importance from the fact that from it, seventy-five years since, a devoted missionary, Father Arroya, preached the gospel to the Indians in thirteen of their native dialects.

Another pulpit (Plate 54 d) is of a type commonly found in continental churches, and calls for no special comment, except that the corbel with its conical sides harmonizes with the panels and base-moulding of the box proper. This model, so frequently seen, loses nothing by familiarity, and is always grateful to the eye by reason of its symmetrical proportions.

Plate 28 b is a picture which no lover of the old Missions can look upon without being sensible of its pathos. It represents the interior of San Antonio, as it stood some twenty years ago ; and when it is compared with the present state of the place it awakens deep regret. A number of interesting features have disappeared. The wooden ceiling, the altar rails, the benches, the confessional, the pulpit have been taken away or destroyed by ruthless hands. Other objects of interest would have shared the same fate had they not been seized and preserved by Mr. G. C. Dutton of Jolon, who, holding them in trust, has now arranged to deliver them to the Landmarks Club of San Francisco, which has undertaken to preserve what remains of the buildings at San Antonio.

Plate 56 c is a Paschal candlestick now in use at Santa Barbara, showing the undisguised constructive lines which the new ” Mission Style ” takes as its basis. On the other hand, the Paschal candlestick of the Santa Clara Mission is quite elaborate, carved in a very conventional and ornate manner, and then painted and gilded. It is nearly six feet high, and is composed of three parts, — the base, the sup-porting column, and the candleholder. There appear in Plate 57 a two other light-holders, placed on either side of a large crucifix. The former are evidently of domestic make, but are pleasing by their obelisk-like outlines and the lamps at the apex, which accentuate the artistic idea. The crucifix is notable in having the feet of the suffering Christ crossed and pierced by a single nail. It once served on the high altar, and it shows over all its surface the assiduous work of ” the worm, our busy brother.”

Plate 56 d represents the music desk, or lectern, at San Juan Bautista, which once held the ponderous psalter-book, while the brothers stood about it chanting the service. The pages of the book were kept in place by small wooden pegs inserted into holes, and the pegs were hung upon the desk by means of fine, braided catgut.

In the missal-stand for use on the high altar, shown in Plate 57 c, and contained in the relic-case at Santa Clara, we have an ingeniously constructed piece of wood-work. It is formed of what appears to be two pieces of inch-board which open and shut without hinges. The two pieces of board are themselves hinged in the shoulder, so that the piece closes up tightly, or can be opened at the angle permitted. It was made from a two-inch board sawed down to the upper part of the shoulder from above, and up to the lower part of the shoulder from below. Five vertical cuts or slits were made in the shoulder for the hinges and then the curves of the shoulder itself, on both upper and lower sides, were cut with a sharp instrument. The result displays much inventive faculty, and the repetition of the device at several of the Missions proves that its merit was appreciated.

At Santa Barbara there is preserved among the relics an old processional wooden cross, having the floriated terminals familiar in examples of the Holy Symbol, dating from the crusading period. This piece is shown in Plate 57 b, while Plate 57 d represents the old font for holy water, still in use, at the entrance to the Mission of San Miguel. This is made from the bole of a tree, and is about three feet in height, fluted and fitted to contain a basin.

At San Juan Capistrano and Santa Barbara rude movable wooden belfries formerly served on occasions when it was not advisable to ring the larger bells. The one seen in Plate 58 a is now preserved in the relic-room at Santa Barbara. It is a rude wheel of wood, to the circumference of which the bells are fastened; the whole revolving on an iron pin, held in the sockets of the supporting posts and operated by an iron handle.

Plate 58 b pictures the matraca (clapper or rattle) used at the Mission from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday, a period when the bells of the campanario are never rung, and are said to have ” gone to Rome.”

At San Juan Capistrano the baptismal font is capped with a wooden cover represented in Plate 58 c. It is an interesting although crude piece of workmanship, provided with old iron hinges made in the Mission shops. Three sections of the carved circular frame have disappeared, but the remaining portion testifies to the taste and the rudimentary skill of the one who fashioned it. The pouring shell seen at the front is of silver, and was probably brought from Mexico.

Plate 58 d is of a chandelier made by the Indians, and long used in the Santa Barbara Mission.

Almost hidden in an obscure corner of the relic-room at Santa Barbara is an interesting decorative fragment. It is the crown-piece of the ancient altar tabernacle, and is ornamented with the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and the instruments of the Passion. The piece is further-more notable as affording the first instance, as far as is known, of the use of the iridescent abalone shell, which is now employed so frequently and effectively in the modem handicraft of California.

There remain many other uses of wood and many other wooden objects which might be described, such as the wooden bells once hanging as ” dummies ” in the campanile at San Buenaventura ; the old pulpit at Santa Clara (which has been restored according to the original scheme) ; the reliquary case used in processions by Father Junipero Serra ; the altar rail in the practically new Mission church at Santa Clara, made from the original red-wood beams which spanned the old Mission structures.