California Missions – Silver And Brass Ware Of The Missions

IT is impossible in a brief chapter to present pictures and descriptions of all the silver and brass ware found at the Missions, but it will be interesting and instructive to see a few examples. Much of this ware was brought by the padres from Mexico. Of much of it we have Padre Palou’s lists, made ere the things were shipped from Lower California. As we have elsewhere seen, many of them were contributed — willingly or otherwise — by the Missions there. Hence all these pieces have a peculiar and romantic interest. Some came from Spain to Vera Cruz. They were then packed on mules across the hundreds of miles to the City of Mexico. From thence they were transported on mule-back to the coast, and then in vessels across the Gulf of California to the Jesuit Missions. Here for years they were the objects of respect and veneration of the rude savages of the Peninsula ; then they came into the hands of the Franciscans, were gathered together, and either transported by vessel to San Diego, or on mule-back up the dreary roads and over the frightful mountain passes of the Peninsula to the new Missions of Alta California ; so that each article has condensed within it a wide range of romance, and should be religiously guarded and preserved because of what it enshrines.

From the technical standpoint, they are also interesting as showing a wonderful difference in artistic conception and workmanship. Some of them are pathetic in their makeshift grasp of essentials, and the rudeness of their make ; others are grandiose, almost bombastic in their portrayal of half-forgotten splendors. Some bring the memory of the land of the dignified Arab, with his orientalism and desert abandon; others the careful touch of classical origin, and of a culture that has departed or become changed out of all its original character. In all the pieces, however, there is a frankness that wins us, and that adds a page to the note-book of the enthusiast, bringing us into closer sympathy with the people who made and who used them, who, while their thoughts seem in the nebulous clouds to us, yet kept one foot on the earth in their childlike wholesomeness and honest intent. The fire needed for their forge and furnace was kindled from the sparks of love and reverence, — love for the supreme goodness of God and reverence for his power; and their hands were guided by thoughts of conceptions above this earth, — conceptions of the mysteries of the hereafter.

The processional cross that used to be borne before the sainted Serra is now at the old presidio church at Monterey. (Plate 59 a.) It is of silver, with a maker’s stamp, ” Ton,” upon it, and is chased with a neat and appropriate design. The Christ is of brass, evidently modern, and used to replace the original, which was probably lost or stolen during the dark days of the secularization period. The reverse side of the cross (Plate 59 b) is most beautifully chased.

There are also two pairs of altar candlesticks, beautifully ornamented in olive-leaf design.

The processional cross of San Miguel stands neglected and forgotten in the sacristy. It is of brass. The cross itself is a foot and a half high, and is hand-carved, rather rudely. Above the figure of the Christ are the letters in capitals, ” I N It I,” and an aureola around the figure.

There is a close similarity between this cross and the one at San Buenaventura. While the design is somewhat different, the workmanship suggests that it might have been done by the same hand. (Plate 59 c and d.) The detail of this cross is both interesting and unusual from the quaint use of decoration of Persian-Moorish character. The rose centre, the floriated detail at crossing and at the foot of the cross show much thought, while the addition of a cross in the lower panel on the reverse side is pathetic and exceptional.

There are two processional candlesticks of plain silver at Santa Ines, and a processional cross, which is finely carved and chased. (Plate 21 c.) The base and standard are plain. (Plate 21 d.) There is a lace-like quality in the contriving of these narrow bands with rosette centres which is very ingenious in that the ornament ties the cross to the standard and increases its apparent length.

The processional candlesticks of the old presidio church at Monterey were brought from Carmelo. (Plate 60 a.) They are of superior workmanship. They afford an excellent lesson in values. Note in each one the relation of the decorative fluting and chasing to the plain moulding at top and to the staff. They are a strong, bold piece of composition.

There are also six other silver candlesticks at Monterey which came from Carmelo. (Plate 60 b.) They are embossed and chased, or engraved in a manner that reminds one somewhat of the work of the Navaho silversmiths, though the design is a little more elaborate than any attempted by these nomad Indians of the plains. These candlesticks are of a type always associated with Spanish metal-work and of considerable value. The turning and the ingenious arrangement of detail, in that it is well-balanced, are added elements of charm. Note the increasing strength given by the use of upright lines and movement.

Equally beautiful, though of different style, are two fine silver altar candlesticks, still used at San Juan Capistrano, one of which is shown in Plate 60 c. These are somewhat unusual in that the shaft is interrupted by the introduction of a square motif, rosetted. The base is square, hollowed in plan, with corners removed. The feet are quaint and of grand design, riveted from face. The interest of the whole is much enhanced by this method of simple outline. They illustrate considerable thought and understanding of proportion.

Another style of candlestick, in brass, is shown in Plate 60 d. This is at the presidio church at Monterey. Variations of this same type are shown in the two pairs (Plate 62 a and b), which are at San Luis Obispo. The singular delicacy of these candlesticks is well worthy of note. The mouldings are ” under cut,” finely turned, and full of delightful charm. The work shows considerable thought and artistic taste. The method of attaching the feet by a system of overlapping the lower moulding is both quaint and curious.

With a somewhat different base are two of several at San Juan Capistrano, shown in Plate 62 c. These have balustered stems, turned in sections with delicate mouldings. They stand on three-sided bases, — significant and curious, — with splayed projecting moulding to top edge. The feet have strangely shaped claws.

Plate 61 a shows two silver incense-burners, an incense-holder, etc., from San Luis Obispo. The pierced portion of these incense-burners speaks eloquently of the crafts-man’s knowledge of grotesque rococo scrolls, while the concave and convex ornament, alternating and overlapping, is curious and interesting. All this is distinctly Spanish in character and workmanship.

Plate 61 b is a fine silver piece of beautiful workman-ship for holding the elements used in the sacrament of baptism. This is in use at San Luis Obispo. It is of late design, and a singular expression of indifference to the relation of things ; convenience, rather than artistic result, being the thing sought. Note the ends to the arms of the cross.

There is an incense cup of silver at Santa Ines, from La Purisima, and a silver incense-burner from San Miguel. It is pleasant thus to think of the older Missions contributing to the equipment of the younger one; as of big brothers and sisters caring for a smaller and newer member of the family. Let us hope it was done with more willing tenderness than was felt when the Missions of Peninsula California were called upon to contribute for the establishments in Alta California.

Three aspergers must suffice to represent these vessels. Plate 63 a shows the influence of Moorish design. The handle is cast and turned. The base is hammered from the back in primitive fashion, the whole portraying the quaint workmanship of a simple people.

More ornate and elaborate in its chasing is Plate 63 b, from San Carlos, Carmelo, and now in use at Monterey. The handle; with its interlacing moons and ring, and the arabesque ornament through body and base, — all show the distinct influence of Moorish conception, though it is clearly Spanish in execution.

That at San Juan Bautista (Plate 63 c) is beautiful and artistic. The only ornament is a silver band, which is worked into a simple design for a handle. This is undoubtedly of Moorish character, and the very unusual method of attachment to so large and plain a body is a striking proof of ability in design, far beyond the average. The ring and its system of riveting is well worth the study of both craftsman and artist. The flat lip also adds a small note to the charm of the whole.

At San Luis Obispo is a baptismal, font of hammered copper, as shown in Plate 63 d. It is a rude and simple piece of work, and was undoubtedly made either there or at one of the other Missions, as, for instance, San Fernando, which had a great reputation for its copper work. The stand upon which it rests is of wood, painted in a rude design. As one looks at this piece, the blows of the hammer can be heard, and the eyes of the worker glowing with affection and pride. Each blow leaves its mark and tells its own story. The overlapping seam, the big projection of the edge, the hinging of the cover, its fastenings, — all lend intense and appealing interest to the piece. There are more of these copper fonts at others of the Missions, but that of San Luis Rey has a history peculiarly its own. After secularization the Indians stole it and sold it, and for many years it was used for ” base purposes.” But ultimately it was located and claimed, and is now back at San Luis; but its travels and experiences away from home have so injured it that it needs considerable repairs. At present, therefore, a temporary font is being used, with an abalone shell as the pourer. In all Catholic churches water is poured over the head of the child or adult to be baptized by means of a small vessel, generally a silver shell, as pictured elsewhere in these pages. This necessitates a font, for the holding of the consecrated water and oil, and then a waste bowl, over which the neophyte holds his head. In the more elaborate fonts the two bowls are in one. At San Luis the waste bowl is of fine soapstone, probably gained from the Indians of Santa Catalina Island. It stands about four feet high.