Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted, without illustrations, on October 28, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the author, Robert William Brown. The author may be reached by email at emusicka@yahoo.com


Southwestern Colonial Art

By Robert William Brown  


The southwestern region of the United States is generally defined as the four state area of present day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma. After Spain conquered Mexico in 1521, it soon claimed a vast amount of land that included Mexico and most of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. It was christened New Spain and New Mexico. After Coronado's exploratory expedition of 1540-42 into these future states, about fifty years elapsed before colonization of the southwest began. Juan de Onate led a sizable group of settlers and four hundred soldiers along the Rio Grande and into New Mexico in 1598. Their objective: to establish a permanent colony in New Mexico. They carried over seventy Mexican carts of supplies and drove seven thousand head of stock with them, to ensure that they would not starve. Once in New Mexico the Franciscans among the group began building mission churches near each Indian village and set about the task of converting the Indians to Christianity. Santa Fe was founded in 1609 and by the year 1630 some twenty five missions had been established in New Mexico. (footnote #37) Then in 1687-92 the first Spanish mission was founded in Arizona by the Jesuit, Eusebio Kino. This industrious padre came into Arizona from the 'Our Lady of Sorrows' mission in northern Mexico and seems to have founded at least three missions in southern Arizona. (footnote #38) These southwest missions flourished until Indian uprisings caused their abandonment on occasion. But when this occurred the friars would eventually return, and start again.

In 1690, Spanish Franciscan missions were also established near the Neches river in east Texas. By 1718 the San Antonio river chain of missions had begun with the founding of the Alamo mission. From 1690 to 1821 there would be about twenty five Franciscan missions founded in Texas, mostly in south and central Texas. (footnote #34) However, probably less than a dozen missions were ever active in Texas at the same time and by 1800 most of these had been secularized.

Although the geographical dimensions of the southwest mission field is somewhat difficult to define and perhaps comprehend, at one time the southwest had missions in east Texas near Nachodoches and San Augustine. They were very near the Louisiana border. To the south there was a mission at Refugio, Texas not far from present day city of Corpus Christi. Tubac, Arizona where San Xavier del Bac mission still stands, is the most westerly mission point of the southwest missions. And the most northern point of the mission field was the Santa Fe area of New Mexico. Then by comparing distances of these outlying missions we can arrive at a general definition of the mission field, at least in size. From Santa Fe south to Refugio, Texas is about 900 air/miles. While northwest from Nachodoches, Texas to Tubac, Arizona is about 1300 air/miles.

We see immediately that the Spanish southwest mission field encompassed an enormous region and that only relatively small areas of the southwest actually had missions and Spanish settlements during the colonial period of New Spain. However, although these southwest missions in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona were very isolated relative to each other they were not so remote relative to other Spanish missions in northern Mexico. For the missions in Arizona were supported by missions in nearby Sonora, Mexico, while the San Antonio missions were supported by missions in Nuevo Leon and/or Coahuila, Mexico. There were also missions in Chihuahua, Mexico (near El Paso) that supported the New Mexico missions.

The first artworks from the hands of non-native, European artists to reach this region were Christian paintings and sculptures of Spanish origin. Except for Juan de Padilla and his associates, the first Franciscan missionaries came into New Mexico territories with the Onate expedition in 1598. These dedicated padres were prepared to stay and work among the native Indians and did maintain the New Mexico field continuously (except for rebellion period) till c.1821. (footnote #25) Soon after arriving they built frontier churches. And paintings and sculptures of Christian saints and Christian scenes were an integral part of communicating with the American Indians, who initially could not understand any language but their own. As it was much more effective to tell them about Christ through the use of visual images, paintings and sculptures were used to break the communication barrier.

Although records are minimal, every Spanish mission appears to have had at least one painting or sculpture of Christ and one or more such images of the Virgin. And it is historical fact that some of the larger missions possessed numerous paintings on canvas or in mural form, plus numerous sculpture works. For the Spanish had decorated their cathedrals and churches lavishly for centuries with these types of artworks and they continued this tradition in the southwest missions and also the California missions.

The paintings and sculpture that adorned the early southwest missions appear to have come from several sources, some local and some foreign. Since the men that established and maintained these frontier institutions were of the Franciscan and Jesuit orders, they were highly educated men that had studied in some of the finest institutions in Spain and France. The Franciscans founded the Texas, New Mexico and California missions, while the Jesuits founded the Arizona and Baja Peninsula missions, which they maintained until their expulsion from America in 1767. Some of these Franciscans and Jesuits were known to have been talented artists, musicians and designers. And a fair amount of the artworks displayed in the missions were produced on location by these missionaries.

One early Jesuit painter in America was Friar Manuel who was called the 'Murillo of Mexico'. (footnote #7).. Early Franciscan artworks of this type still exist in New Mexico. Two of the earliest Franciscan artists in New Mexico were thought to be Fray Carlos Delgado (active c.1718) and a contemporary Fray Francisco Farfan (active c.1725). (note #10)..

It is also known that the friars also taught the Indian converts various skills of the arts and sciences. So the Indians practiced the art of painting by turning out portraits of Christian saints, and painting decorative murals in the missions. Local Indians even occasionally painted historical scenes of a secular nature, such as the painting of the Villasur Expedition of 1719. (footnote #21).. The Natives also were trained in the mission's carpentry shops where frames could be built, canvases stretched and wood could also be carved into works of art. As one writer in Texas stated in 1776 "The Indians are industrious, diligent and skilled in all kinds of labor." (footnote #8)

An early group of Indian artists of New Mexico are called santeros or saintmakers. These regional folk artists were both painters and carvers of the Christian saints. They usually painted their icons on wood and these works are now called retablos, while their carvings of wood are called bultos. (footnote #20) Although this school of naive artists began during the late Spanish colonial period in New Mexico, it continued beyond this period of time and has been revived in recent years.

Most of the santeros active prior to 1800 are anonymous in identity, but it appears that these artists, though predominantly Mexican-Americans, were not necessarily of a single race. Today the primitive icons of these self-taught regionalist can be found in such prestigious collections as the Hispanic Society of America and the Vatican collection in Rome.

Another source of local artwork came from the hands of amateurs outside the missions, such as Spanish soldiers and civilians. One such amateur artist was the New Mexican soldier Bernardo Miera y Pacheco. He was active in New Mexico as early as c.1760 and he painted for several decades after this. His original painting of San Miguel was on display in San Miguel Chapel, NM in recent years. (footnote #14) Miera y Pacheco painted a number of Christian works that are still in existence. Although his style is rather folkish, his originals are still prized as examples of colonial New Mexico art.

It should be noted also that after missions and presidios were established in a region, towns soon followed nearby. These frontier villages were populated by civilians that ventured into the frontier regions. In 1780 the Spanish population in New Mexico alone, was nearing 10,000, while the Christian Indian population in the area stood at about 9,000 during this period of time. (footnote #22)

We can conjecture then that there were some artists among the civilian locals. In Texas, Spanish colonists had first arrived in 1731 from the Canary islands and had found San Fernando de Bexar (San Antonio). This occurred just twelve years after the founding of the first mission on the San Antonio River, the Alamo mission, originally called San Antonio de Valero mission.

From the above references we can therefore conclude that a percentage of the artworks displayed in the southwest missions was produced locally by the missionaries, soldiers, civilians and Native American converts.

It is also a fact that some of the artwork in these missions had originated in the mother country, Spain. It is true that some of the paintings and sculpture came to the Americas with the missionaries. One such painting was brought into Mexico before 1600 by the noted Franciscan, Father Testera. (footnote #19)

A vast majority of artworks from Spain were shipped to this country as commerce. According to several sources, paintings by some of the Spanish masters were shipped to the Americas during this period of time. It is authoritatively stated that no church, convent or college in the vast domains of Spain beyond the seas was so poor as not to own at least one treasure from the art centers of the motherland. (footnote #5) It is further stated that..because of an insatiable demand for artworks over seas, Spanish artists at home doubled their output to meet this increased demand. Hundreds of Spanish and Flemish paintings were shipped to Mexico before 1800, and some of these had to have reached the borderlands or frontiers of New Spain and New Mexico (footnote #36) .

As early as 1639 Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) the great Spanish master was painting small Madonnas on crude canvases to be exported to America. (footnote #1), which is an example of valuable paintings from the school of Seville making their way to America and perhaps the southwest.

There is another record of paintings from a Spanish master being shipped to America from Seville, Spain. In this instance, Francisco Zurburan was commissioned to paint several series of Christian paintings for the monastic institutions and churches in Peru and in Argentina. These early paintings were executed from 1640 to 1658 and were shipped to their destinations in South America when completed. (footnote #2) Some of these paintings are still extant and are priceless art treasures.

One of the early Murillo works would also be quite valuable, if their locations were known. Murillo, who is today considered one of the greatest seventeenth century Spanish artists, went on to exert an enormous influence on Christian art in the Americas. Hardly a Christian mural or madonna of the colonial period in Mexico and South America does not show some influence of Murillo, either in design, expression or color. The colonial artists became familiar with Murillo's art mainly through reproductions of his work. Mexico City was the metropolis of the New World and thousands of art prints flooded the land, affording means of study and advancement. (footnote #36)

It is a documented fact that one art treasure of Spain reached a New Mexico mission, as a gift from the King of Spain. This Christian painting, also by a Spanish master was later stolen during an Indian raid on the mission, and was found sometime later under the saddle of a brave, being used as a 'saddle blanket'! Needless to say, the painting was virtually destroyed. It dated to c.1600.

Another source of southwestern colonial art was the school of Spanish peninsular artists or Spanish artists who were born in Spain and came to the Americas. As early as c.1520, trained artists from Spain and Portugal had begun to make their way to Mexico and South America in search of commissions. Shortly after the conquest new churches and cathedrals were built in the New World and soon thereafter a great demand for Christian paintings, sculpture and decorative works followed. A number of trained artists sought their fortune in the New World during the 16th century. One such artist was Rodrigo de Cifuentes who arrived in Mexico shortly after the conquest of 1521. This early Spanish master painted Christian scenes and portraits. He also executed several portraits of Mexico's conqueror Hernando Cortes. (footnote #3) This trend of artists immigrating or 'going abroad' during the 16th century was not isolated to this period of time, nor this continent. There is little doubt that peninsular artists born and trained in Spain and Portugal continued coming to Mexico and South America throughout the colonial period. Artists have always had an adventurous spirit and this practice even continues today. So it's not surprising that trained artists came to America during this period and that some of their artworks reached the missions and churches of the colonial southwest.

Another source of artworks to consider is the Colonial Mexican School of Mexico City & Puebla, Mexico. This group of artists was made up of mainly of men of Spanish lineage that were born in Mexico. According to definition, any Spanish citizen born in a province outside of Spain is a creole. So most of these artist's could be called 'creolian artists'. But it is not necessarily Spanish ancestry that qualifies an artist to be identified with this school. The artists of this school really have just three common characteristics: all were born in Mexico, all were active during the colonial period, and all were trained in the fundamentals of of academic art. Even though these artists were trained in an academic manner, this does not mean that they necessarily attended 'art academies'. Obviously many of these artists had no opportunity to do so, but the academic rules were passed down from artist to artist and generation to generation, until finally the first Mexican academy of art was founded in c.1750, which was soon followed by the noted San Carlos Academy of Mexico.

The early founder of the colonial Mexican school was the painter Beltasar de Echave, the elder. He was active as early as 1601, according to a dated work. Echave was trained by his wife, La Sumaya..also an accomplished artist. His best work is considered better than the Spanish master Joannes . (Footnote #4).. Although Echave may not have had many students, he had a number of followers of his style. These Mexican creolian artists are classified as being from the School of Echave . (footnote #4).. However, the traditions of his art were not carried on by his son Beltasar de Echave, the younger (1632-1682). He adopted a style which was somewhat inferior to his father's. These artists and their later followers decorated the churches, convents and cathedrals throughout New Spain and it should be emphasized that Mexico included much of the southwestern U.S., throughout the Spanish colonial period or about three hundred years.

The artists of the Mexican colonial school were highly trained and worked as apprentices under a master artist. Only after much training and experience were they allowed to join the local artist guild, which existed in colonial Mexico. The techniques of the Spanish masters were passed from generation to generation in this manner. Since the first Spanish artists in New Spain had arrived just after the conquest, there was always an European influence in art of the southwest. This influence was further enhanced by the copying of original designs from graphic reproductions that were regularly imported to the New World.

From the renaissance to the time of Goya (c.1775) virtually all painting in Spain was of Christian subject matter, the only exception to this being portraiture. Consequently, most of the Spanish-influenced artworks produced in the Americas during this period of time were also limited to Christian art. Such works included everything from large murals for the grand cathedrals to small 'devotional paintings' for the small homes or casas.

The two most noted artists of the colonial Mexican school of the 18th century were Jose Ibarra (1688-1756) and Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768). Cabrera, the most famous of the two, was such a prolific painter it has been stated that almost every church and convent in New Spain owned at least one of his originals. (footnote #6) From this statement we can assume that some of Cabrera's originals made their way into Texas, New Mexico or Arizona. It should be noted here that by the mid-18th century New Mexico had a growing Spanish population and there was a demand for 'Christian devotional paintings and carvings' outside the missions. So the Spanish missions were no longer the only market for Christian paintings and sculpture. In some instances, villages had sprung up around the presidios that were built near the missions, as protection. Civilians were moving into these towns on the frontier and almost every Spanish home had need of devotional artworks. One devotional painting has recently been found in West Texas that could possibly be from the Cabrera-Ibarra School. (see illustration #1). This work has been tentatively identified by it's design and coloring. Cabrera and Ibarra developed a coloring technique that varied from the old master's methods, which is identifiable in skin tones. Another unique feature is found in this madonna. In Cabrera's work, whenever a madonna's head is turned slightly toward a particular shoulder, that same shoulder will be closest to the viewer, while the other shoulder will recede farther into the background of the painting, while the exact opposite occurs in European madonnas.

By 1753 the Mexican Academy of Art existed in Mexico City. Cabrera was the president-director of the academy and other master artists included Ibarra and the noted muralist Jose de Alcibar. The academy probably consisted mostly of Christian subject painters and possibly sculptors. There is little doubt that some artist from this academy traveled on occasion to remote sites and 'worked on location'. It should also be noted that some of Cabrera's original paintings were in the 'Temple of Santa Cruz' in Queretaro, Mexico possibly in c.1760. A painting titled Virgin of the Luz was still extant in c.1975 when the book El Pintor: Miguel Cabrera was first published. The painting is contemporaneous to the founding of the San Saba mission in Texas, which was in fact founded by missionaries from the Franciscan college of Santa Cruz in Queretaro. There is a good possibility that Cabrera traveled to Queretaro and painted on location. For there are a number of other paintings by him in two other temples of Queretaro today. From this we can conjecture that the Franciscans in Texas from Queretaro were at least acquainted with Cabrera's work.

Until Spain became concerned about the French being in Louisiana and they began to establish missions in Texas as a result of this concern, art in Texas and the southwest had consisted mainly of the native Indian's decorative artworks. However, when the first Texas missions were founded in 1690, near the Neches river in east Texas, Christian Art in Texas was born. The two missions, San Francisco de la Tejas and Santa Maria, were established in that year and wooden structures were built to house the missionaries. These were established by Franciscan missionaries from Zecatecas, Mexico. Since Christian icons such as paintings and sculpture were regularly used by the Franciscans to teach natives about Christ, artwork of this type always accompanied them and the founding of any new outpost or mission.

Although there are few records or clues pertaining to such early artworks in Texas, the noted Father Antonio Margil preserves one. In a letter dated 1719, he mentions a statue of San Jose and other church properties, as being in his possession at that time. He further states that he brought this statue and other items to Bexar (San Antonio) from the abandoned east Texas missions and they were now available for use in a new mission, providing the governor will allow just such a new mission to be founded in south Texas. This letter from Margil to the Spanish governor of Texas, Sr. Aguayo, may be the first historical reference to Christian and European art in Texas. Only one other Texas mission, near El Paso, predates 1700 and it has not always been north of the Rio Grande. This letter may actually be referring to the second founding of east Texas missions, which occurred in 1716. For Margil had accompanied the St. Denis expedition of that year into east Texas where he and his associates re-established several missions along the Neches river there. So, this statue of San Jose or St. Joseph would probably date to at least 1716, if not earlier. For it's not impossible that this artwork was originally brought into Texas in 1690, with the first Franciscans who had founded the two original Texas missions near the Neches river, which unfortunately were abandoned in 1693.

One year after this formal letter to Aguayo was written, the Governor granted permission to Margil and his Franciscan brothers for the founding of a new mission near the San Antonio river. This new mission was to be named San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo mission. (note #12).. It is probable that the aforementioned statue occupied a most prominent pedestal in the newly constructed mission when it was finally completed. Although the original mission structures had been replaced by 1777, a visitor to San Jose mission made a direct reference to just such a statue. In the records of Fray Juan Agustin de Morfi, the chronicler of the Croix expedition, he stated "there is a stone statue of San Jose on a pedestal." (footnote #11)..

San Jose mission was the second mission in the area. San Antonio de Valero mission, now know as the Alamo was founded in 1718, which was the first of the now famous San Antonio river missions. By 1758, San Jose mission had been rebuilt at a new site, on the San Antonio river. The new structure contained elaborate stone carvings on it's main entrance that required great skill to create. (footnote #13) It is speculated by one modern writer that "Artisans from Mexico or Spain may have performed much of the skilled carpentry, masonry and sculpture." (footnote #9) If this writer is correct and some artisans did come from Mexico, it is most likely that they came from Mexico City or Puebla, Mexico. And would it be stretching credibility to suggest that these anonymous artisans could have come from the same academy that Cabrera presided over? However, all of the stone work at Mission San Jose is not by anonymous artists. The famous Rose Window has been attributed to the legendary painter and sculptor Pedro Huizar. It has been speculated that this beautiful, carved window was used for special mass and today it is one of the most photographed artworks in Texas, if not the southwest. (footnote #40)

Although there are limited clues as to what other artworks may have been in the first Texas missions, there are some. After San Francisco de la Tejas mission had been abandoned in 1693, it was re-established in 1716 by the Franciscans with the St. Denis expedition. It's new site was only a few miles from its original site on the Neches River. It became a sister mission to the three missions that Father Margil also established in east Texas, at the same time. History records that this mission was also attached by the French and temporarily abandoned in 1718. After it's second failure in east Texas, it's priests brought the remaining properties to the San Antonio area and founded a third mission on the San Antonio river in 1731.

In this new location the new mission was named San Francisco de la Espada and the cornerstone was laid in March of 1731. (note #13) Then in 1745, this observation of art was made at Espada mission; "On either side (of the alter) were two pictures, San Juan & San Bernadino." (note #14) At this time a relief carving of St. Francis was also observed over the altar. What other Christian artworks may have been in the east Texas missions, is difficult to ascertain as the references are somewhat minimal. However in the San Antonio missions we have some documentation to work with.

In an official report of 1762, artworks in San Antonio de Valero (Alamo mission) were described as "The Chapel contains a stone cross, the altar is adorned with carved and painted images. The church contains sculptured images of St. Anthony and St. John. There is also an image of Christ crucified." (footnote #15).. Paintings on canvas were reported in New Mexico as early as 1718, but the earliest mention of paintings on canvas in Texas appears to be in 1731 at the San Juan Capistrano mission, also a San Antonio river mission. There are several canvas paintings and crude frescoes in this mission. (footnote #16).. This early reference to frescoes indicates that the missions and churches of the southwest were decorated in the same manner and traditions as the cathedrals and Catholic churches in Spain.

As was mentioned earlier, Christian paintings were used to teach the Indians Christianity, because the Indians initially could not understand Spanish. To offset this language barrier, members of the monastic orders used visual images. We also find documentation that suggest the Franciscans painted a number of Christian paintings, strictly for this purpose. For it is clearly states: "An early response by the members of the monastic orders (to the language problem) was that of preparing paintings to be used as pedagogic devices." (footnote #17).. Fray Jacobo de Testora, one of the earliest missionaries in America first utilized this visual teaching method in Mexico during the 16th century. He seems to have been the first missionary to use paintings as a teaching tool. (footnote #18)

It was common practice for the mission builders to decorate the walls (and sometimes ceilings) of the mission churches and chapels with decorative designs and Christian murals or frescoes. One such fresco was reported as being in the 'Mission Concepcion' in 1762. Padre Francisco Dolores states that there was a fresco of Cinco Senoras (Five Ladies) in this Texas mission at that early date. (footnote #23) In the library room of this same mission there still is visible an early mural that was once mistakenly called the Eye of God. (footnote #24) Frescoes were also in the chapel of the early San Juan Capistrano mission in c.1731, as were three statues. These were described as statues of Jesus Nazareno, San Juan Capistrano and Nuestra Senora de la Rosa. These titles translate into Jesus the Nazarene, St. John of Capistrano and Our Lady of the Rose. (footnote #16)

In the ruins of the Arizona mission San Jose de Tumacacori, which was founded in 1691, remains of frescoes were still visible in c.1930 "The walls are partly decorated with colored frescoes." (footnote #26) This early mission was founded by the noted Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino and was maintained by the Society of Jesus order until their expulsion from America c.1769. When this occurred the Franciscan Order was given control of all the Jesuit missions in Mexico, Arizona and in Baja. Then, under the guidance of Padre Junipero Serra, the newly appointed president of the Baja missions, the Franciscans ventured into present day California. By 1782, the ninth California mission San Buenvaventura or St. Bonaventura had been founded in California. (footnote #27) By 1823 a chain of twenty one Franciscan missions would stretch along the California coast, from San Diego all the way to San Francisco. (footnote #28)

The most famous mission in Arizona is at Tubac, near Tucson. The elegant San Xavier del Bac mission is still decorated extensively with frescoes. During a period when the mission was abandoned in 1881, while the unoccupied mission lay almost in ruins, these artworks were observed: "On the right side between the front door and main altar there is a fresco representing The Coming of Christ and there is also a picture of The Last Supper. The frescoes near the altar are Adoration of the Shepherds and The Annunciation." (footnote #29) This same observer goes on to state that the ceilings had numerous frescoes and there were also some (frescoes) in the choir area. This mission has been completely restored today and is one of the finest examples of southwest missions.

It should also be noted that some early southwestern missions could not accommodate frescoes and murals. For some of the early missions were built of logs and were more like nineteenth century 'calvary forts' than Alamo type structures. They consisted mainly of several log cabins surrounded by a stockade. One such mission was the San Saba mission in central Texas. In 1758 this newly built mission was attacked and virtually destroyed by an army of Comanche and Wichita Indians. During the melee, two of the three priests present were killed and so were a half dozen settlers and Indians. This frontier outpost and it's nearby presidio were subsequently abandoned when the lone surviving missionary reported to his superiors in Queretaro, Mexico. This unfortunate event was commemorated probably in Queretaro by an artist, who may have known the slain priests personally. This incredible painting titled The Martyred Padres of San Saba depicts the Indians routing the inhabitants inside the stockade. This massacre scene is flanked on one side by a portrait of the slain padre Fray Terreros and on the other by a portrait of Fray Santiesteban. (footnote #30) This painting, which for many years seems to have been at the Franciscan college in Queretaro, is now reported to be in Texas. It is probably the earliest depiction of a Texas battle or massacre in existence. It could also rank as the earliest historical painting that relates to the Franciscans and their missions in the southwest, excluding Christian icons and saints. The oldest known painting of a California mission dates to 1832. (footnote #31)

At a number of the missions of Texas and New Mexico decorative design painting was done on the interior walls. Also in Texas, decorative designs were sometimes painted on the exterior walls of a mission. Examples of this occurred at Mission San Jose and Concepcion mission. Quatrefoil designs were painted on the exterior fronts of these two missions and were still visible at San Jose in 1851, when John Bartlett (a U.S. surveyor) wrote: "There are red and blue stenciled designs on the church front and faded frescoes inside." (footnote #32).. Colorful designs similar to what Bartlett was referring to were also reported by William Corner in 1890, as being visible on the front of the nearby Mission Concepcion. (footnote #34) Recent photographs of these missions indicate that these may no longer be visible at San Jose, but they were still partially visible at Mission Concepcion in 1965. It is also interesting to note that according to a 1762 report Mission Concepcion's church contained sculpted images on a pedestal over the altar. These were statues of Our Lady of Sorrow and Our Lady of the Pillar. (footnote #35) Two statues, bearing these same titles were reported to be in this same mission as late as 1965, but it's unknown (by the author) if these were the original statues or only modern copies.

Since the Texas missions were secularized just prior to 1800, some became parish churches and some were soon abandoned. Therefore much of their artwork was stolen, lost or destroyed. If they had operated continuously to present day, this would not necessarily be the case. However, when the missions were first established by the ecclesiastical societies they were to be somewhat temporary by nature. The initial plan was to Christianize the Indians and establish functioning, local societies. Then a parish was to be set up and secularization of the mission and mission properties was to follow. The secular clergy would then take over the missions and use them as the local parish churches. This process was supposed to take place within one decade, according to Spain's original plan, but this time table failed in the southwest. The Indians of the region were much more difficult to Christianize and civilize than were those in California and elsewhere. After the Franciscans left Texas, Mexico soon won it's independence from Spain and the missions fell into disuse and disrepair during these tumultuous years. Texas was under Mexico's rule for about 15 years, then it became independent for about a decade. The parish church concept didn't become a reality till many years later. By the mid-nineteenth century a number of the missions were completely abandoned and almost lost. However, the Texas legislature finally returned the missions to the Catholic church. Today all the existing missions in Texas have now become parish churches except the Alamo mission in San Antonio. (footnote #41)

In New Mexico, decorative designs were used in a somewhat unique manner. They were incorporated into Christian paintings. The anonymous artist Laguna Santero and other artists of the Santero school utilized this method. The Laguna Santero, who was active as early as 1798 may have started the practice of surrounding Christian saints with painted, decorative borders, which included twisted-salmonic columns, capitals and cornices. Although this folk artist's depiction of the saints is somewhat crude, his placement of figures within a field of decorative designs, flanked by columns is artistically effective. Other santero artists also used 'decorative borders and devices' in some of their santos but the use of salmonic columns appears to be unique to the Laguna Santero, at least in New Mexico colonial painting. Another anonymous New Mexico santero artist that painted a number of church panels is labeled the 18th Century Novice Painter. This artist was painting in c.1776 and twenty four of his panel paintings were still extant in c.1978. (footnote #39)

Two of New Mexico's most noted santero artists are Jose Aragon and Jose Rafael Aragon but they did not become active until the end of the colonial period. Many of the artists of this school also were carvers and a number of their works in wood, bultos, also exist and are highly collectible also. Because of these artists and also since a number of New Mexico missions churches were never vacated (as were those in Texas and Arizona) much original colonial artwork still exists in New Mexico today. Some of these works are still in the Catholic churches where they originated and some can be seen in museums of the state. There is also a colonial society that maintains a fine collection of such works.

In Texas, original colonial artworks can be seen in the exterior stone carvings of several of the San Antonio missions, including the Rose Window at Mission San Jose. Original colonial murals can also be viewed in some of the Texas missions and some colonial portraits of the clergy also are still existing. One such portrait of the noted Franciscan Antonio Margil de Jesus was extant in 1978, but was in a private collection. (footnote #42)

Since the Arizona mission field was rather limited in size and longevity, the original colonial artworks are much rarer in that state. However some fine examples of colonial frescoes and/or murals can still be seen at San Xavier del Bac mission near Tucson. Some of the finest colonial architectural design and construction can also be seen at this Arizona mission, which has been called the Southwest's most beautiful Spanish mission.



note #1: "Encyclopedia of World Art" Mcgraw-Hill Pub./ Refer to: volume 10, page 375, column 1

note #2: "Encyclopedia of World Art" Mcgraw-Hill Pub./ Refer to: volume 14, page 973

note #3: "Encyclopedia Americana" Americana Corporation Pub./ Refer to: volume 18, page 770, column #2 / 1951 edition

note #4: "Encyclopedia Americana" Americana Corporation Pub./ Refer to: volume 18, page 773, column #1 / 1951 edition

note #5: "Encyclopedia Americana" Americana Corporation Pub./ Refer to: volume 18, page 772, column #1 / 1951 edition

note #6: "El Pintor: Miguel Cabrera" author unknown/ published by National Institute of Anthropology & History, Mexico City DF, 1966

note #7: "Encyclopedia Americana" Americana Corporation Pub./ Refer to: volume 18, page 774, column #2 / 1951 edition

note #8: "Texas Highways" magazine / September 1987 issue / Refer to: page 21

note #9: "Texas Highways" magazine / September 1987 issue / Refer to: page 26

note #10: "Popular Arts of Spanish New Mexico" by E. Boyd / University of New Mexico Press / Albuquerque, NM / 1978

note #11: "Diario y Derrotero: 1777-1781" by Juan Agustin de Morfi / Pub. by Eugenio del Hoyo & Malcomb D. McLean / 1967 / The Diary & Maps of Juan Morfi

note #12: "Texas Highways" magazine / September 1987 issue / Refer to: page 18

note #13: "Texas Highways" magazine / September 1987 issue / Refer to magazine cover

note #14: "The Missions of New Mexico since 1776" by John L. Kessell / University of New Mexico Press / Albuquerque, NM / 1980 / refer to page 50 & 57

note #15: "Six Missions of Texas" by James M. Day / The Texian Press, Waco, TX--1965 / Refer-to: page 11-12

note #16: "Six Missions of Texas" by James M. Day / The Texian Press, Waco, TX--1965 / Refer-to: page 187

note #17: "Handbook of Middle American Indians" by Robert Wauchope / University of Texas Press / Austin, TX-1075/ Refer to: Volume 14 , page 282-284, column #1

note #18: "Handbook of Middle American Indians" by Robert Wauchope / University of Texas Press / Austin, TX-1075/ Refer to: Volume 14 , page 282, figure #94 in appendix

note #19: "Handbook of Middle American Indians" by Robert Wauchope / University of Texas Press / Austin, TX-1075/ Refer to: Volume 14 , page 282, column #1

note #20: "The Spanish West" by Hedley Donovan & George G. Daniels / Published by TIME-LIFE Inc. / New York / 1976 / Refer to: pages 132-135

note #21: "The Spanish West" by Hedley Donovan & George G. Daniels / Published by TIME-LIFE Inc. / New York / 1976 / Refer to: page 72

note #22: "The Spanish West" by Hedley Donovan & George G. Daniels / Published by TIME-LIFE Inc. / New York / 1976 / Refer to: page 131

note #23: "Six Missions of Texas" by James M. Day / The Texian Press, Waco, TX--1965 / Refer-to: page 84

note #24: "Texas Highways" magazine / October 1992 issue / Refer to: page 30

note #25: "Spain in America" by Charles Gibson / Harper & Row Publishers / New York & London 1966 / Refer to: page 195

note #26: "The National Encyclopedia" by Henry Suzzalo / P.F. Collier & Son / New York 1937 / refer to: volume 10 / page 129-130

note #27: "The Beautiful California Missions" by Lee Foster / Beautiful America Publishing / Portland, Oregon 1977 / Refer to: page 27

note #28: "The Beautiful California Missions" by Lee Foster / Beautiful America Publishing / Portland, Oregon 1977 / Refer to: page 5

note #29: "The Resources of Arizona" by Patrick Hamilton / The Territorial Papers: Arizona--1868-1913 / U.S. Dept. of Interior / Washington DC / on microfilm / Refer to roll #3

note #30: "The Spanish West" by Hedley Donovan & George G. Daniels / Published by TIME-LIFE Inc. / New York / 1976 / full color reproduction on: page 74

note #31: "The Beautiful California Missions" by Lee Foster / Beautiful America Publishing / Portland, Oregon 1977 / full color reproduction on: page 20

note #32: "Six Missions of Texas" by James M. Day / The Texian Press, Waco, TX--1965 / Refer-to: page 84

note #33: "El Palacio" magazine / published by the Museum of New Mexico / Refer to: volume 77, issue no. 3 / July 1971 / page 21

note #34: "San Antonio de Bexar" by William Corner--1890 / Reprinted by Graphic Arts / San Antonio, TX / 1977 edition

note #35: "Six Missions of Texas" by James M. Day / The Texian Press, Waco, TX--1965 / Refer-to: page 84

note #36: "Encyclopedia Americana" Americana Corporation Pub./ Refer to: volume 18, page 771, column #1 / 1951 edition

note #37: "North from Mexico" by Carey McWilliams & Matt S. Meier / Praeger Pub. / New York / refer to: page 34

note #38: "North from Mexico" by Carey McWilliams & Matt S. Meier / Praeger Pub. / New York / refer to: page 82-83

note #39: "Popular Arts of Spanish New Mexico" by E. Boyd / University of New Mexico Press / Albuquerque, NM--1978 / Refer to: page 110

note #40: "Texas Highways" magazine / September 1987 issue / a reproduction / refer to: page 21

note #41: "Texas Highways" magazine / September 1987 issue / refer to: page 27

note #42: "Art and Art Objects" by John H. Jenkins / The Jenkins Company / San Antonio, TX--1978 / Refer to: illustration #99

About the author

Robert William Brown is a private collector and researcher in West Texas. He is the author of Brown's Index of Southwest Painters. An outline of the Index can be found at: http://musicka.freeyellow.com on the Web.

Resource Library editor's note:

Readers may enjoy images of the historic Southern Arizona missions referenced in this text.


Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012-2103 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.