There’s a time machine a few miles south of town. It’s called Mission San Xavier del Bac, and it has been standing there since 1797 or thereabouts.
When you walk inside, you enter an almost complete 18th-century environment - a world of rich color, of motion (so many of those statues seem caught in the middle of a motion), of illusion (notice the fake stones, the geometric wall paintings to imitate tiles, the painted doors balancing real doors) and of narrative (every one of those images has its own identity and story).
Another world, another universe, transplanted to the desert. This is the classic Mexican Baroque in its last official gasp – and a pretty spectacular gasp it was at that!
Who built it? Not Father Kino – he started a mission program here, but didn’t build the church he planned. A later Jesuit missionary did build a simple, hall-shaped adobe church… but the church we see was built under the direction of Franciscans in the late 18th century.
Built by whom? O’odham.
Embellished by whom? We don't know.
They were probably a team of professional religious artists who made the long trek up north and stayed till they were done. One good guess is that they came up from Queretaro, the headquarters of their Franciscan employers.
Whoever they were, they produced a marvelously exciting interior, filled with vibrant color. No expense was spared – they used the finest pigments, along with lashings of gold and silver leaf (all those glittery surfaces on the retablos or altarpieces). Exciting visually, and exciting intellectually. Each statue, each painted scene and detail, has its own identity and story, adding to a complex whole that is really an 18th-century view of heaven.
And it’s a heaven complete with angels – more angels than one can easily count. There are angels pulling back painted curtains, playing musical instruments, holding candlesticks and just fluttering around. Count ‘em if you can – personally, I suspect they come and go!
Another ubiquitous figure in this church is the Virgin Mary. She appears so many times that it’s really her church. And this lifts us from the past and into the present, where the Virgin is still a key figure in popular Mexican Catholicism.
But this is not the only continuity we can discover between San Xavier and contemporary Mexican-American culture.
Just go to a low rider show, and look at the cars with their rich paint jobs, their attention to color and detail, their multiplicity of images and ideas brought together, and you’ll see the same Baroque aesthetic that went into the decoration of San Xavier over 200 years ago.
Now that’s continuity!
Fontana, Bernard L. "Biography of a Desert Church, the Story of Mission San Xavier del Bac." In The Smoke Signal, No. 3, Tucson: Tucson Corral of Westerners, 1961.
Fontana, Bernard L., "A Gift of Angels: The Art of Mission San Xavier." Tucson: the University of Arizona Press, 2010.