California Missions – Interior Decorations Of The Missions

WE cannot today determine how the Franciscans of the southwest decorated the interiors of all their churches. Some of these buildings have disappeared entirely ; while others have been restored or renovated beyond all semblance of their original condition. But enough are left to give us a satisfactory idea of the labors of the fathers and of their subject Indians. At the outset, it must be confessed that while the fathers under-stood well the principles of architecture and created a natural, spontaneous style, meeting all obstacles of time and place which presented themselves, they showed little skill in matters of interior decoration, possessing neither originality in design, the taste which would have enabled them to become good copyists, nor yet the slightest appreciation of color-harmony. In making this criticism, I do not overlook the difficulties in the way of the missionaries, or the insufficiency of materials at command. The priests were as much hampered in this work as they were in that of building. But, in the one case, they met with brilliant success ; in the other they failed. The decorations have, therefore, a distinctly pathetic quality. They show a most earnest endeavor to beautify what to those who wrought them was the very home of God. Here mystically dwelt the very body, blood, and reality of the Object of Worship. Hence the desire to glorify the dwelling-place of their God, and their own temple. The great distance in this case between desire and performance is what makes the result pathetic. Instead of trusting to themselves, or reverting to first principles, as they did in architecture, the missionaries endeavored to reproduce from memory the ornaments with which they had been familiar in their early days in Spain. They remembered decorations in Catalonia, Cantabria, Mallorca, Burgos, Valencia, and sought to imitate them ; having neither exactitude nor artistic qualities to fit them for their task. No amount of kindliness can soften this decision. The results are to be regretted; for I am satisfied that, had the fathers trusted to themselves, or sought for simple nature-inspirations, they would have given us decorations as admirable as their architecture. What I am anxious to emphasize in this criticism is the principle involved. Instead of originating or relying upon nature, they copied without intelligence. The rude brick, adobe, or rubble work, left in the rough, or plastered and whitewashed, would have been preferable to their unmeaning patches of color. In the one, there would have been rugged strength to admire ; in the other there exists only pretence to condemn.

After this criticism was written I asked for the opinion of the learned and courteous Frays Glauber and Zephyrin, the former the guardian of Santa Barbara Mission, and the latter the Franciscan historian. In reply I received the following letter which so clearly gives another side to the matter that I am glad to quote it entire :

” I do not think your criticism from an artistic view is too severe ; but it would have been more just to judge the decorations as you would the efforts of amateurs, and then to have made sure as to their authors.

” You assume that they were produced by the Padres them-selves. This is hardly demonstrable. They probably gave directions, and some of them, in their efforts to make things plain to the crude mind of the Indians, may have tried their hands at work to which they were not trained any more than clerical candidates or university students are at the present time ; but it is too much to assume that those decorations give evidence even of the taste of the Fathers. In that matter, as in everything else that was not contrary to faith or morals, they adapted themselves to the taste of their wards, or very likely, too, to the humor of such stray “artists” as might happen upon the coast, or whom they might be able to import. You must bear in mind that in all California down to 1854 there were no lay-brothers accompanying the Fathers to perform such work as is done by our lay-brothers now, who can very well compete with the best of secular artisans. The church of St. Boniface, San Francisco, and the church of St. Joseph, Los Angeles, are proof of this. Hence the Fathers were left to their own wits in giving general directions, and to the taste of white “artists,” and allowed even Indians to suit themselves. You will find this all through ancient Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The Indians loved the gaudy, loud, grotesque, and as it was the main thing for the Fathers to gain the Indians in any lawful way possible, the taste of the latter was paramount.

” As your criticism stands, it cannot but throw a slur upon the poor missionaries, who after all did not put up these buildings and had them decorated as they did for the benefit of future critics, but for the instruction and pleasure of the natives. Having been an Indian missionary myself, I acted just so. I have found that the natives would not appreciate a work of art, whereas they prized the grotesque. Well, as long as it drew them to prize the supernatural more, what difference did it make to the missionary? You yourself refer to the unwise action of the Pala priest in not considering the taste and the affection of the Indians.”

Another critic of my criticism insists that, ” while the Indians, if left to themselves, possess harmony of color which seems never to fail, they always demand startling effects from us.” This, I am inclined to question. The Indians’ color-sense in their basketry is perfect, as also in their blankets, and I see no reason for the assumption that they should demand of us what is manifestly so contrary to their own natural and normal tastes.

It must, in justice to the padres, be confessed that, holding the common notions on decoration, it is often harder to decorate a house than it is to build it ; but why decorate at all? The dull color of the natural adobe, or plaster, would have at least been true art in its simple dignity of architecture, whereas when covered with unmeaning designs in foolish colors even the architectural dignity is detracted from.

I am willing to allow my criticism to remain as I wrote it. It is no less a tribute to the great hold the work of the padres has on my heart that I am ready frankly to criticise it.

One writer says that the colors used in these interior decorations were mostly of vegetable origin and were sized with glue. The yellows were extracted from poppies, blues from nightshade, though the reds were gained from stones picked up from the beach. The glue was manufactured on the spot from the bones, etc., of the animals slaughtered for food.

As examples of interior decoration, the Missions of San Miguel Arcangel and Santa Ines are the only ones that afford opportunity for extended study. At Santa Clara, the decorations of the ceiling were restored as nearly like the original as possible, but with modern colors and workmanship. At Pala Chapel, within the last three or four months, the priest judged dead white preferable to the old decorations, and, greatly to the indignation of the Indians, whose wishes he did not consult, he has whitewashed the mural distemper paintings out of existence. A small patch remains at San Juan Bautista merely as an example ; while a splashed and almost obliterated fragment is the only survival at San Carlos Carmelo.

At San Miguel, little has been done to disturb the interior, so that it is in practically the same condition as it was left by the padres themselves. Fr. Zephyrin in-forms me that these decorations were done by one Murros, a Spaniard, whose daughter, Mrs. McKee, at the age of over eighty, is still alive at Monterey. She told him that the work was done in 1820 or 1821. He copied the designs out of books, she says, and none but Indians assisted him in the actual work, though the padres were fully consulted as it progressed.

Plate 35 shows the interior of the church. As its arrangement is not unlike many of the others, and the decorations, necessarily, are dependent upon the various functions performed in different parts of the building, I shall take the privilege of describing San Miguel interior in detail, with a chief eye, however, upon the mural decorations. Five distinct divisions deserve attention. These are : I. the reredos and its ornaments ; II. the ceiling ; III. the walls ; IV. the old pulpit; V. the ancient confessional.

I. The Reredos. This occupies the entire western end of the church, reaching from the floor to the ceiling. (Plate 35.) The altar now in use is modern ; with the remainder just as it came from the hands of the fathers. The reredos consists of three panels ; the central one containing the wooden statue of San Miguel, and the side panels showing other saints. The San Miguel, representing the patron of the Mission, is a striking statue, about six feet in height, and much larger than the side statues. In his right hand he holds the scales and in his left a sword, on which is in-scribed a Latin motto. The bracket upon which he stands is the original one cut and painted by the fathers. It is rude, heavy, and composed of simple members : namely, a slightly rounded base supporting a thick block with quarter-round, square, and round moulding.

The statue at the left of the altar is clothed in the garb of the Franciscan, with beard, tonsured head, outstretched hands, and one foot upon a skull.

Plate 47 a shows the figure to the right. It is tonsured, shaven, and wears the Franciscan garb. The panels are divided from one another by coupled columns; those sup-porting the pediment of the centre panel standing out about two feet in front of the others, and having two flat engaged columns at their back. The bases of these columns are simple, half-rounded mouldings, the shaft is a plain cylinder, and the capital a dual leaf, as if in rude imitation of the Corinthian. The entablature is simple and effective, its centre bearing a large All-Seeing Eye, radiating beams of light. Above this and over each side panel is a bracket sustaining an ornament in the shape of a chalice, each connected with the other across the whole face of the altar by clusters of grapes and leaves. These chalices have each a cover and two handles. The rays issuing from the centre piece bear evidences of having afforded a resting-place for owls and other night birds during the days when the Mission was abandoned. Even now, as I sit writing, I hear the cooing of many doves that nest under the open eaves, through which feathers come floating into the sacred edifice.

The pillars are mottled in imitation of marble, and the altar and mural decorations are in colors, chief of which are blue, green, red, pink, and pale-green. The base of the panellings is pink.

On the left, above the statue, is an oval panel painted with the two crossed hands of the Christ, showing the nail-holes of the cross. On the other side is a similar oval panel, decorated with symbolic figures.

There are two side altars, the one at the right sacred to the Holy Mother; and the other to Saint Joseph and the Holy Child. The figure of the Madonna is modern, but the painting is old and well illustrates the artistic ideas of the fathers. A similar painted canopy covers the old figure of San Jose.

II. The Ceiling. This can be studied in Plate 35. There are twenty-eight rafters upholding the roof, and extending completely across the church. Each rafter rests upon a corbel which can be seen a little more distinctly in Plate 47 b. Both rafters and corbels are rough-hewn from the solid trees and they have sustained unimpaired to the present day the heavy weight of the roof. This is estimated to be not less than two hundred thousand pounds. The rafters are each ten by twelve inches in the square, and fully forty feet long. They were cut in the mountains at Cambria, forty miles away, and carried by the Indians to their destination. These rafters protrude some twelve inches or so through the wall, to which they are fastened or keyed with large wooden spikes.

Over the altar, the corbels are tinted a light green, and the ceiling and rafters pink. Other colors used in the mural decorations, are blue and white. Over the altar, there is also a further decoration of the ceiling in a leafy design in blue, by which special honor is given to the most sacred portion of the church.

III. The Walls. These are executed in three zones : that of the altar, and those of the church and choir. These decorations are generally called frescoes, but, as I believe, erroneously. They are in reality distemper paintings on plaster. A true fresco is executed with mineral or earthy pigments upon a newly laid stucco ground of lime or gypsum ; so that the colors sinking in become as durable as the stucco itself. This, it appears to me, is not the case with the San Miguel decorations. As a general criticism I may say that, although crude and inharmonious, they are exceedingly interesting, as they are so evidently a work of love and devotion. The desire to beautify the sacred house is there manifest, although the power adequately to accomplish the purpose was wanting. To the Mission fathers the completed church was dear, beautiful, and sacred, because beautified to the best of their ability, and raised with the ardor of their whole souls to the glory of God.

In the altar space the mural decorations on the sides consist of thirteen bands, alternating green and brown ; the green being a design of pomegranate leaf, sprig, and fruit; the brown a conventional design of leaves arranged in a lozenge pattern. On each side a painted panel is introduced for an altar, as before described. In Plate 48 a can also be seen, above the perpendicular bands, a horizontal band about three feet wide, the design being of small squares set with a conventional pattern. There is a fringe or border, painted in blue to represent lace with tassels, both above and below this band. Still another horizontal band, about three feet wide, in gray and pink, with a painted cornice connecting the wall decorations with the moulded cornice above, complete the mural adornments in the altar zone.

Beginning at the altar, there is a zone of decoration extending on each side of the church, about eighteen feet. This might be termed the pulpit zone, for in it, on the right side, the pulpit is located, as seen in Plate 48 a. This deco-ration comprises a series of bands in pink and shades of green, radiating fan-shaped from a green base, situated between three and four feet above the floor. This fan design is enclosed in a painted panel, outlined by fluted columns, in blue. These columns continue, at a distance of about twelve feet apart, along the body of the church to the choir zone, at which point an entirely different de-sign is introduced. The columns are further decorated by a conventional leaf-and-fern pattern, as seen in Plate 48 b, which also shows the frieze and the painted balustrade, both of these extending from the altar zone to that of the choir. Above and below the choir loft, the design is the Greek key.

IV. The Old Pulpit. A peculiar fascination pertains to this little structure, with its quaint sounding-board and crown-like cover, the whole resembling a bird-nest fastened upon the right wall. It is reached by a flight of eight steps from the inside of the altar rail, and is octagonal in form, three of the eight sides being occupied by the door and the point of attachment to the wall. It is decorated as follows : the inner panel is deep blue, with a band of greenish yellow ; the outer panel being in dark green en-closed by a moulding in blue, red, and gray. The under scallop is in red, with a band above of greenish yellow. The sounding-board is shaped like a crown surmounted with a ball, on which rests a cross. The crown is painted green, gold, black, and silver, with the scalloped edge in red.

V. The Old Confessional. The confessional shown in Plate 49 a is built into the solid adobe wall, with two swinging doors opening from it. One of these has been replaced by new material, as seen in the picture ; the other, except for the insertion of a new panel of redwood, is as the fathers left it. The old iron hinges, three pairs of which remain, are originals, and good examples of the iron handiwork of the time. The decoration of the old door is the continuation of one of the fluted columns before described.

At Santa Ines the original decorations of the altar zone still remain. Elsewhere they have been destroyed with the all-covering whitewash. In this church the ceiling beams are painted with red, yellow, and green, into a portion of a circle with pendants at each point, and with a leaf de-sign inside each arc. On the bottom of each beam is a conventionalized trailing vine.

The decorations of the side wall are of black and green around the window, and a rude imitation of marble in panels at each side. In each panel hangs a wooden bracket, painted in water-color, and supporting oil paintings. About three feet from the base is a border of yellow, green, and red of a large conventionalized leaf, alternating with a chalice, or vase.

The reredos is pretentious and inharmonious. Indeed, were it not for the sacred furnishings, statues, and altar beneath, it would suggest a rude stage-setting hastily pre-pared for an emergency, rather than its sacred function. It is a series of marbleized panels, enclosed in columns, with bases and cornices. The archway leading from the sanctuary into the sacristy is somewhat elaborately, al-though rudely decorated, as shown in Plate 49 b. This figure, also, gives some detail of the dadoes of the reredos, with its marble panelling and conventional figures in diamonds of differing size.

The most striking and pleasing mural decoration of the whole building is found in the seclusion of the sacristy. It is done in blues, reds, and yellows, and is pictured in Plate 50 a. The flower (rose?) and leaf below the Greek key, and the conventional flower and leaf above are the most artistic decorations that I have yet seen in the California Missions.

At San Luis Rey some of the old mural decorations remain, as seen in the marbleizing of the engaged columns, the dadoes at their base, the wavy line extending about the lower part of the walls, and the designs in the doorways and arches (Plate 51 a). On the reredos of the side altar, also, there are remnants of decoration in distemper.

The winged angels, carrying the crown, constitute a fair example of the ability of the fathers in this branch of decorative art; the columnar design on the right and the left of the reredos, as well as the decoration of the lower wall on the right, deserve to be examined.

Plate 51 b shows the interior wall decorations of the Pala Chapel, a dependency of the San Luis Rey Mission. The adobe walls were plastered and whitewashed ; then the rude columns and arches were colored in distemper to a reddish brown. When the Palatingwa Indians were removed from Warner’s Ranch to Pala, they were told that this chapel would be theirs, and that a priest would be sent regularly to minister to them. Imagine their chagrin to find it leased to the Landmarks Club of Los Angeles. Bishop Conaty of Los Angeles arranged that services should be conducted with regularity, sending a priest to reside among them. This latter, with a zeal for cleanliness and for making all things under his control conform to his own ideas, neglectful or unobservant of the irritated condition of the Indians under his charge, and without consulting them (so I am informed), ordered the walls to be whitewashed. The indignation of the Indians was intense ; and were it not that high feeling had been common to them of late, they would have practically resented this desecration of the time-honored wall decorations. To an unsympathetic stranger their anger might appear unreasonable and absurd; but when it is remembered that all the Indians of this region are responsive to the memories and traditions of Padre Peyri and other early workers at the Missions of San Diego and San Luis Rey, their feelings appear natural and almost proper.

At Santa Barbara all that remains of the old decorations are found in the reredos, the marbleizing of the engaged columns on each wall and the entrance and side arches, as shown in Plate 29. This marble effect is exceedingly crude, and does not represent the color of any known marble.

Here and there on the walls at San Juan Bautista are a few remnants of the old distemper paintings. On the further side of the seventh arch on the left is a conventional leaf design in brownish red.

In the old building of San Francisco the rafters of the ceiling have been allowed to retain their ancient decorations. These consist of rhomboidal figures placed conventionally from end to end of the building.

At Santa Clara, when the church was restored in 1861-62, and again in 1885, the original decorations on walls and ceiling were necessarily destroyed or injured. But where possible they were kept intact; where injured, re-touched; and where destroyed, replaced as near the original as the artist could accomplish. In some cases the original work was on canvas, and some on wood. Where this could be removed and replaced it was done. The retouching was done by an Italian artist who came down from San Francisco.

On the walls, the wainscot line is set off with the sinuous body of the serpent, which not only lends itself well to such a purpose of ornamentation, but was a symbolic reminder to the Indians of that old serpent, the devil, the father of lies and evil, who beguiled our first parents in the Garden of Eden.

In the ruins of the San Fernando church faint traces of the decorations of the altar can still be seen in two simple rounded columns, with cornices above.

At San Juan Capistrano, on the east side of the quadrangle, in the northeast corner, is a small room ; and in one corner of this is a niche for a statue, the original decorations therein still remaining. It is weather-stained, and the rain has washed the adobe in streaks over some of it ; yet it is interesting. It consists of a rude checkerboard de-sign, or, rather, of a diagonal lozenge pattern in reds and yellows (see Plate 50 b).

There are also a few remnants of the mural distemper paintings in the altar zone of the ruined church.