5 Days of American Art: Art of Early Spanish Missions in America

Welcome back to another Blog Hop day of American Art!  Today, we’ll be returning to the Picturing America Gallery.  Click to enter the gallery and hover over and click on the second picture to the left, for a closer look of the print pictured below.  It should be a Spanish mission church, reading “1b:  Mission Nuestra Señora de la Concepción San Antonio, Texas 1755.”

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Concepción

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Concepción

So, what is happening in the world during this period of time? Exploration is, in many ways, the key word of the era. Prior to the Renaissance, Marco Polo journeys to the Far East. Europe is captivated by the wonders and riches he brings back; silks, spices, fruits…amazing delights Europeans have never tasted. Suddenly life is no longer bounded by the known world. In the years following, kings and queens send out explorers to seek new land and riches. Scientists are exploring the nature of matter, from the infinitesimal to the universal. Art’s giants (Michaelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael and others) are creating masterpieces still revered today. Religious reformers seek to open the treasure of the written Word to the common man. The New World is colonized and explored….by the Dutch, the English, the French and the Spanish, all in different regions of the North American continent as well as other parts of the world. And of course, each nation seeks to establish and maintain its own boundaries on the land they’re seeking to hold.

Spanish missions were established across what would become the southern, southwestern  and western states of the future United States, including Florida, California, Georgia and Texas, among others.  These missions enable Spanish colonization to accomplish two important goals:  to hold the land for Spain (and thereby prevent encroachment by other nations, such as France) and to bring Christianity (in the form of Catholicism) to the native peoples of North America.  Spanish soldiers and priests make their way across the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico, and north into the land, to explore and build missions where there is available food, good land and Native American populations nearby.  Missions are built in ways reminiscent of the great churches and cathedrals of Spain; with Roman, Gothic and Baroque influences.

Return to the Picturing America gallery now and click thru to enter the gallery and return to 1b, the Mission art.  First, click on number 3 to look at the building alone:

  • How would you describe the building?
  • What do you think it contains inside?
  • Is there anything about it that would give you clues about its purpose?
  • Do you think it would be easy to keep enemies out of this building?
  • How would you describe the parts of the mission that rise above the rest of the building (three)?  What do you think the number three might symbolize?  Do you see threes repeated in the design or architecture?
  • If you were a Native American and you saw this for the first time, what would you think it was?

According to the Picturing America teacher’s manual, the layout of the mission follows Catholic tradition.  When someone views it from the air (you’ll have to use your imagination here), the mission and church are laid out in the shape of a cross, with the rounded dome in the middle back over the part where the two hallways cross.  This dome lets in light.  The repeated threes in the architecture (the two towers plus one dome; the three points of the arch over the door, the three windows above the arch, the 3 raised squares/circles along the center wall, and others) are repeated reminders of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit).   The mission is a strong and sturdy building, with clues everywhere of its purpose; to point to God and the salvation offered by His Son, Jesus Christ.

Now, click on number 2 to see an artist’s rendition of the mission, painted in 1932.

  • How does this version of the mission differ from the first one?
  • How would you describe this?
  • What do you see?
  • Why does this one look so different than the first image of the building?
  • What do you think the builders did to cause this to look the way it does?
  • What did the designers want to communicate to the Native Americans, by the way they constructed the church?
  • What shapes or figures do you see painted in the designs?  (crosses, letters, rays of the sun)
  • If you were a Native American and you saw this mission looking this way, what would you think?  What would this communicate to you?

Originally, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Concepción was covered with plaster, which was then painted white and decorated with beautiful frescoes both inside and out.  Over time, the plaster has weathered away and the building is only left with pieces of frescoes here and there.  The frescoes and the church’s design were able to wordlessly communicate to Native Americans who didn’t speak the language of the priests. The records of the church that have survived (available at the National Parks San Antonio Missions website) include baptism lists of Native American children and adults, both living and those passing from this life to the next.   So evidence remains that the spiritual purposes of the mission were accomplished during the years of the history of the mission.   Today, the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park still includes Catholic parishes that date back to the origins of the missions and their first missionaries, the Catholic priests.

Now, Mission Nuestra Señora de la Concepción is a part of San Antonio Missions Natural Park.  You can see photos here of what the mission looks like today.

Fun activities for you to do with your children:

  • Imagine that you are an artist preparing to decorate the outside of a newly-built missions church in a foreign country.  You are there, perhaps, to write down their language for the first time, so that they can someday have a Bible in their own heart language.  Now, however, you are at the very start of your journey as a missionary.  You don’t know their language; they don’t know yours.  Your job is to decorate the outside of the church so that, in some way, God’s love is communicated to these new friends whose spoken language you don’t yet share.  If you were painting tiles for the outside of a church that would need to communicate to people who didn’t speak your language, what could you paint to tell them about the love of Christ, or God the Father, or the Holy Spirit, the Comforter?  Take a square piece of paper or a ceramic tile and paint a design or a picture on it that will communicate God in some way.  Discover what you can communicate without words, but with symbols.
  • Cook a recipe using nopales (no-pah-les) , aka prickly pear cactus leaves!  These were readily available for the Spanish priests in San Antonio, and you can still find them today at specialty grocers or sometimes even at your regular neighborhood grocery stores.  Here is a recipe (plus tips for preparation) from byzantineflowers for a gorgeous salad using nopales.  It might be a little spicy for your younger palates, but your spicy food lovers might have a new favorite!  She also includes some short videos on prickly pear harvesting and cooking.
  • Check out the animals you might run into or see from a distance if you visited the missions parks.  You won’t see these everywhere in the US!

***Parents, please remember to click thru to all the links together with your child.  At the time of publication, these are all family-friendly, but since they are not websites under my control I can’t verify that they’ll always be safe and sound.

Hop on over here the Schoolhouse Review Crew blog to find the next Blog Hop topic to check out!

Enjoy!  —Wren

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