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The Old Franciscan Missions Of California By George Wharton James Characters: 10039

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

We cannot to-day 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 understood 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 house 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 pretense to condemn.


Showing original wall decorations prized by the Indians.



After this criticism was written I asked for the opinion of the learned and courteous Father Zephyrin, the Franciscan historian. In reply the following letter was received, 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 themselves. 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 have them decorated as they did for the benefit of future critics, but for the instru

ction 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.

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 Arcángel and Santa Inés 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 the priest 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 informs 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.

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. This marble effect is exceedingly rude, and does not represent the color of any known marble.

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 1861-1862, 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, retouched; 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 o£ 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 design, or, rather, of a diagonal lozenge pattern in reds and yellows.

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

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