by Laura Kraus
The Spanish Missions of the San Antonio River had certain goals for indigenous Native Americans, and the process was the same at all the missions of New Spain: baptize, Hispanicize, and secularize. With that process in mind, mission fathers designed the aesthetics of their churches with great care, including the furnishings such as the altarpieces, chalices, and artwork. Thorough eighteenth century inventories, written by priests from missionary headquarters in Queretaro and Zacatecas, reveal the splendor of the church interiors. Art historian Jacinto Quirarte notes in The Art and Architecture of the Texas Missions, that while church communities lost track of many significant mission era art objects during the secularization and the subsequent abandonment of the mission properties, a few remarkable examples have survived the centuries.
Some of the relics of a lost time have received meticulous repair and have returned to their original places in the mission churches. Two significant instances of such restorations occurred at Mission Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion de Acuna, known locally as Mission Concepcion. A 9’4” x 6’ 6” foot painting of the mission’s namesake, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, saved from severe water and fire damage by Swiss art restorer Esther Schmidt Siegfried, was rededicated in 2003, while a smaller restored painting of St. Francis followed in 2004.
The history of the “Immaculate Conception” painting reads like a story of one who is lost and searching for the home she once knew. Wealthy patrons in 18th century Mexico City donated the work along with other furnishings for the newly established missions. Quirarte cites a 1772 inventory made by Father Jose Saenz de Gumiel that states a painting of the Immaculate Conception was present on “a canopy of paintings on the wall” behind the altar, supporting the thinking of Church officials who placed it there in 2003.
Others besides Quirarte have weighed in on the painting’s mission era location in the church. In a 1949 letter to Sister Vrana at the Our Lady of the Lake College newspaper, The Phoenix, renowned Texas Catholic historian Carlos Castaneda writes, “It is my sincere conviction that the Immaculate Concepcion picture was originally in Concepcion Mission and St. Francis was in San Francisco [de Espada].” Significantly, Castaneda came to this conclusion not only because of his knowledge of the subject matter, but because in 1949 he and two friends discovered the rolled up canvases in the rafters above the stage in San Fernando Cathedral’s School. The canvases had come to San Fernando in 1794, with the secularization of the missions, and had remained in several storerooms there for 150 years.
With the discovery of the paintings, Sister Tharsilla Fuchs, director of the Art Department at Our Lady of the Lake College, took them into her care hoping to someday restore them. In a letter to the Archdiocese, she insists on the authenticity of the two works. Two more storage locations and 34 more years, brought the paintings into the hands of art restorer Esther Siegfried in 1999, who gave the works new life.
Monsignor Balthasar Janacek, Archdiocesan Director for the five San Antonio Missions, made it his ambition to guide the renewal of the Immaculate Conception painting, once saying, “It’s kind of the theme painting for the mission.” Until his death in 2007, Janacek expressed a deep concern for the conservation efforts of the missions and artwork.
While restoration project proceeded, a mysterious aspect of the paintings went unexplored in numerous local articles, letters, and references to the paintings. Hebrew script appears above the head of Mary in the Immaculate Conception painting. Barely visible, even after Siegfried’s expert repair, the burnt gold Hebrew letters refer to an ancient name for God.
Considering that the painting was one of many donated during the 18th century by wealthy art patrons in Mexico, it is possible the text may be a valuable example of a still-active Inquisition in New Spain. However, Dr. Stanley Hordes, expert on art in New Spain, says the incorporation of Hebrew letters “is not uncommon in Catholic iconography,” and notes that in New Mexico, the same word embellishes both the main altar at the cathedral in Sienna and the exterior of St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe.
No matter the intent of the ancient inscriptions, the paintings stand as a particular testament to the devotion of the eighteenth century artists, patrons, and mission fathers, just as the twentieth century restoration that resulted in the survival of these wonderful examples of mission era art ensure an enduring heritage.