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The Art and Architecture of the Texas Missions

The Art and Architecture of the Texas Missions

To paint a more complete portrait of the missions as they once were, Jacinto Quirarte here draws on decades of on-site and archival research to offer the most comprehensive reconstruction and description of the original art and architecture of the six remaining Texas missions—San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo), San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción, San Juan Capistrano, and San Francisco de la Espada in San Antonio and Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo in Goliad.

Series: Jack and Doris Smothers Endowment in Texas History, Life, and Culture, Number Six

May 2002
261 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 11 color illus., 108 figures, 2 maps, 15 tables |

Built to bring Christianity and European civilization to the northern frontier of New Spain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries...secularized and left to decay in the nineteenth century...and restored in the twentieth century, the Spanish missions still standing in Texas are really only shadows of their original selves. The mission churches, once beautifully adorned with carvings and sculptures on their façades and furnished inside with elaborate altarpieces and paintings, today only hint at their colonial-era glory through the vestiges of art and architectural decoration that remain.

To paint a more complete portrait of the missions as they once were, Jacinto Quirarte here draws on decades of on-site and archival research to offer the most comprehensive reconstruction and description of the original art and architecture of the six remaining Texas missions—San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo), San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción, San Juan Capistrano, and San Francisco de la Espada in San Antonio and Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo in Goliad. Using church records and other historical accounts, as well as old photographs, drawings, and paintings, Quirarte describes the mission churches and related buildings, their decorated surfaces, and the (now missing) altarpieces, whose iconography he extensively analyzes. He sets his material within the context of the mission era in Texas and the Southwest, so that the book also serves as a general introduction to the Spanish missionary program and to Indian life in Texas.


Presidio La Bahia Award
Sons of the Republic of Texas

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Part One. Historical Background: The Role of Missions and Presidios in the Conversion of Texas
    • 1. Missions and Presidios, 1659-1793
    • 2. The Conversion of Texas: Missionaries, Soldiers, and Indians, 1740-1824
  • Part Two. The Art and Architecture of the Texas Missions
    • 3. San Antonio de Valero
    • 4. San José y San Miguel de Aguayo
    • La Purísima Concepción
    • San Juan Capistrano
    • 5. San Francisco de la Espada
    • 6. El Espíritu Santo
    • 7. Content and Meaning
    • 8. Summary and Conclusions
  • Epilogue
  • Appendix 1. A Census of Missions Founded, 1680-1793
  • Appendix 2. The Colonial Documents, 1740-1824
  • Glossary
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

Jacinto Quirarte was Professor Emeritus, History of Art and Criticism, at the University of Texas at San Antonio.


This is a study of the art and architecture of the missions founded in Texas by Franciscan missionaries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A formal and iconographic analysis of the extant churches and related buildings, their decorated surfaces, and the reconstructed altars with their religious images will allow us to determine their meaning and their value as art and architecture. A discussion of the sources and antecedents for the missions found in central and northern New Spain will permit us to place them within a broader historical and artistic context.


The primary focus here is on the art and architecture of the extant missions—San Antonio de Valero, San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción, San Juan Capistrano, and San Francisco de la Espada in San Antonio and Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo in Goliad. Each is discussed in a single chapter with three parts that span the periods when they were constructed, then abandoned, and finally restored or reconstructed.


The former missions suffered after they were secularized (when their mission was completed or as the result of economic and/or political changes) and then abandoned. The first major changes occurred when San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) was secularized in 1793, followed by most of the others in 1824. The most drastic change was the dismantling of the original altars with gilded architectural frames and sculptures and paintings. A few sculptures of the saints remain, but not in their original locations, as in the case of Espada. The sculptures at Capistrano have been placed in a recently acquired colonial altarpiece that has nothing to do with the eighteenth-century mission. No altarpieces, sculptures, or paintings remain in the church sanctuaries of Valero and San José or in the sanctuary and transept of Concepción.


The former missions suffered extensive damage caused by vandalism and deterioration in the nineteenth century due to neglect and the elements. Some of the facade sculptures were destroyed or damaged by gunfire or stolen, and only fragments of architectural polychromy survive. A few remnants of painting and sculpture remain in situ in some of the missions: a depiction of the Crucified Christ painted above a sculptured font in the St. Michael chapel, located in one of the belfry tower base rooms of the Concepción mission, and other wall paintings in the other belfry tower base room, originally used as the baptistry, and in the sacristy of the same mission.


Other changes occurred with the restoration of the missions. Although the structural aspects of the building interiors remain intact, the images and architectural details are no longer visible. The images of saints painted on the pendentives of the Concepción church disappeared long ago. The decorative details of the San José church interior also vanished but were partially restored in the twentieth century. In the late 1920s Ernst Schuchard did colored drawings of fragments of the original paintings, which were used to restore them in the 1930s. Most of the church interiors have been whitewashed. Finally, some of the churches were altered by well-intentioned twentieth-century restorers. Wrought-iron railings and crosses were added where none had ever existed.


Regardless of the problems presented by the normal operation of the missions in the eighteenth century, the neglect of the nineteenth century, and the benevolent attention of the twentieth century, enough remains to warrant a study, analysis, and evaluation of the art and architecture of the missions.


Brief background information on the missionary enterprise is provided in the two chapters of Part One, in notes, and more fully in the appendices. A brief discussion of the many expeditions that began with the discovery of the Gulf Coast in 1519 and culminated with the initial settlement of Texas in 1690 is included in the introduction to Chapter 1, which focuses on the founding and establishment of the first missions and presidios from 1659 to 1793. Chapter 2 provides background information on the Indians and the missionaries' efforts to convert them.


Part Two consists of eight chapters focusing on the art and architecture of the Texas missions. Chapters 3 through 8 deal with the six missions that have retained the original fabric of their churches and the configuration of their facades and also have a number of extant sculptures and paintings. The order of the discussion by chapter is based on the foundation dates (from earliest to latest) of the missions within each region. Each of the chapters devoted to the extant missions is comprised of three parts. The first part, based on colonial documents, provides a reconstruction of the missions in their original state from 1740 to 1824, when they were in full operation. The primary focus is on the mission architecture and the sacred images in the church altars during the years of their optimum condition. The second part, based on texts written by American and European travelers from 1840 to 1890, provides information on the state of the former missions when they were abandoned. The discussion reviews the earliest texts to the latest within each chapter. The third part provides information on the missions from 1890 to the present, when they were restored. It is based on colonial documents, nineteenth-century texts, paintings, and photographs, twentieth-century texts on restoration, and reports on archaeological excavations. The critical analysis of the art and architecture of each mission also proceeds chronologically.


Chapter 9 deals with the content and meaning of the portal sculptures and polychromy and the reconstructed altarpieces. Chapter 10 summarizes the discussions of the original art and architecture, the former missions, and the restored art and architecture.


The appendices provide information on a census of the missions founded from 1680 to 1793 (except those included in the main body of the text) and the colonial reports and inventories, 1740-1824, which document the manner in which the missions were monitored to insure that their assigned functions were successfully carried out.


The Glossary includes definitions of art and architectural terms in English and Spanish along with other Hispanicized words used in the text derived from Náhuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs (such as Tequitqui, mitote, and xacal or jacal). It also includes words used to describe church furnishings, Christian themes, and holy days.


The Original Art and Architecture, 1740-1824


Churches and Altarpieces


The artistic and architectural record of the Texas missions can be partially seen in the churches that were restored or completely reconstructed in the twentieth century. Their original plans and elevations are clearly evident in the San Antonio missions of San Antonio de Valero, La Purísima Concepción, and San José de Aguayo and the church of the Goliad mission of El Espíritu Santo. Some semblance of the original churches is seen in the San Antonio missions of San Juan Capistrano and San Francisco de la Espada. The sacristies of the Concepción and San José churches remain, but the other units such as the conventos (friars' quarters), Indian houses, granaries, and workshops have almost totally disappeared.


Nonetheless, it is still possible to get a detailed account of the art and architecture of the missions by reviewing the many documents written by the missionaries between 1740 and 1824 (see Appendix 2). They allow us to recreate a step-by-step account of the stages of construction of the buildings at each mission.


The best way to present a view of the original art and architecture of the missions is to focus on the years when they were completed and maintained before they began to deteriorate. The Concepción church was the first to be completed, in 1755. Reports from 1756 to 1824 provide information on its art and architecture. The unfinished church of Valero and the churches of the other Querétaran missions in San Antonio were at their optimum condition in 1772, the year they were transferred to Zacatecan administrative control. This is clearly seen in the inventories prepared by Fr. Juan José Sáenz de Gumiel on the holdings of Valero, Concepción, Capistrano, and Espada. San José mission reached its maximum condition in the 1770s and 1780s, as evidenced by the texts written between 1778 and 1783 by Fr. Juan Agustín Morfi and in 1785 by Fr. José María Salas de Santa Gertrudis.


The end of the San Antonio missions was the year when they were secularized. For Valero this was in 1793, when its unfinished church and other buildings were already beginning to deteriorate. The other missions in San Antonio reached that stage twenty years later, before they were finally secularized in 1824 and the Gulf Coast missions shortly thereafter. Their lowest point came in the 1840s and 1850s, when they were all abandoned.


Although the San Antonio missions have been studied extensively, little or no attention has been given to the church altarpieces which were an integral part of each mission. Even less attention has been given to the original altarpieces in the restorations and reconstructions carried out in the twentieth century. The review of the documents here includes all available references to the altarpieces dating from 1740 to 1824. At that time all the remaining sacred images in the San Antonio missions were transferred to San José, where some of them are still found. The rest disappeared shortly thereafter.


A partial reconstruction of the form and content of the altarpieces presented here is based on information found in the inventories of the holdings of the five missions in San Antonio and one at Goliad. The best way to get a sense of the original altarpieces is to concentrate on the period when they were essentially completed and remained intact until they were dismantled in 1824. The midway point for the Querétaran missions in San Antonio—Valero, Concepción, Capistrano, and Espada—was 1772, the year they were turned over to the Zacatecan missionaries at San José. The inventories of these missions prepared by Fr. Sáenz provide us with a complete description of all the altarpieces. The high point for San José was reached in 1785, when Fr. Salas prepared the inventory of the mission.


The Former Missions, 1840-1890


The former Texas missions began to deteriorate soon after they were secularized. Valero saw the greatest changes, following its conversion to a military fortress in 1802. The other missions in San Antonio—Concepción, Capistrano, San José, and Espada—suffered primarily from neglect and vandalism in the 1840s and 1850s. Espíritu Santo was also abandoned during the same period. The abandonment of the former missions lasted until about the 1890s, when the first efforts were made to restore them.


Diaries, books, and recollections written in the nineteenth century by visitors to Texas from other parts of the United States and Europe provide a record of the deterioration of the former missions. Some of the visitors were civilians. Others were U.S. army officers who began to arrive in 1846 as preparations were made for the invasion of northern Mexico at the beginning of the Mexican American war. They all provide detailed accounts of the state of the buildings during this period.


Some of the texts were published soon after they were written in the 1840s through the 1870s. Others were published in the twentieth century. Plans, drawings, watercolors, paintings, and photographs of the missions from this period also provide a vivid account of the condition of the former missions.


The Restored Art and Architecture and the Extant Sculptures and Paintings


The original intent of the builders and artists who created the art and architecture of the Texas missions is evident in a few extraordinary examples, such as the facades of Valero, San José, and Concepción. It is also seen in the sacristy window of San José and in the few sculptures and paintings that have survived the great upheavals that caused so much damage to the missions and their furnishings in the nineteenth century.


The discussion below and the appendices demonstrate the great labors that the missionaries and others endured to establish and build missions to spread the gospel among the Indians and to teach them all the skills believed necessary to make them good, useful, and productive subjects of the Spanish Crown. The reports and inventories provide a detailed account of the building programs and the creation of spaces for the sacred images on facades and altarpieces that were used to teach the Indians about the history, content, and meaning of the new religion. A review of these documents and the accounts of travelers during the period of their abandonment provides the background needed to analyze and assess the restored and altered art and architecture of the churches and other buildings of the former missions.


The Literature, 1824 to the Present


Numerous documents, papers, and books on the Texas missions have been published. The earliest texts, as already noted, were written in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by the inspecting teams sent by the administrative centers for the missions located at the Apostolic Colleges of the Holy Cross at Querétaro and Our Lady of Guadalupe at Zacatecas. The reports, inventories, and letters written by the inspectors contain information on all of the Texas missions, as do some of the nineteenth-century accounts written by Americans and Europeans traveling through Texas. Most of the texts provide a listing of the contents and condition of the missions at the time of the reporting.


Occasionally assessments of the art and architecture are found in the writings of Fr. Morfi and Josiah Gregg, an American traveler. In most cases, the early comments and observations are not of a critical nature. Almost all of the nineteenth-century travelers, among them the Englishman William Bollaert and the American John Russell Bartlett, lamented the fact that the mission buildings were in a sad state and that they were suffering daily from natural deterioration and vandalism.


Although the twentieth-century literature on the Texas missions is extensive, its scope is very limited. Most of the studies—historical, anecdotal, ethnohistorical, archaeological, and others—have dealt with the art and architecture as an isolated phenomenon without reference to central New Spain, where the sources for their forms and structures are found. The same is true of the other mission fields, which have been studied in isolation. This fragmentation of the material is due to historical and political reasons as well as problems of thematic coherence, manageability, access, or the vision of historians, art historians, archaeologists, and others in the United States and Mexico who have studied the art and architecture of New Spain.


Before the work of Manuel Toussaint appeared in the 1920s, there were few studies of the art and architecture of New Spain. The state of the field reached a high point in 1948 with the publication of his book Arte colonial de México, later published in English. This made the colonial monuments more accessible to everyone interested in their artistic and architectural qualities. The lack of major roads in the rural areas where a large number of such structures are found made it difficult to study them. It is now standard for students of colonial art to pursue their studies using the seminal works by Toussaint and others who have focused on various aspects of these materials. Examples are the books by George Kubler on the sixteenth-century architecture of Mexico, by Joseph Armstrong Baird, Jr., on the colonial churches of Mexico, by Elizabeth Wilder Weismann on the sculpture of Mexico, and by John McAndrew on the open chapels of the sixteenth century.


The same pattern emerged in the study of the various mission fields along the northern frontier. The distinctive character of each of the mission fields made it easy to focus on any one of them without reference to the others. The vast distances from central New Spain and the limited or nonexistent communication between the northern provinces forced the missionaries to build missions with what they had available in their respective regions. In addition, the formal characteristics of the missions differ because they reflect the styles in fashion at the time when each of the mission fields was explored, settled, and developed. Further isolation was caused by the change in national boundaries between the United States and Mexico following the war between the two countries from 1846 to 1848.


By the time the missions were considered worthy of study, they had long been within the territorial limits of the United States. This led to the study of the missions as part of the northern frontier without reference to central New Spain. This is not unique to U.S. scholars. The same is true of Mexican scholars and others who have ignored the northern and southern peripheries of New Spain, particularly the southern states of Campeche and Yucatán, in their studies of the art and architecture of colonial Mexico.


The study of the missions in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, therefore, is characterized by a focus on a particular state or a single mission and rarely on the missions of the entire area. An exception is the study of the missions of the Southwest by Cleve Hallenbeck. Among the single-state studies of the mission architecture are the books on California missions by Rexford Newcomb and Kurt Baer, on Texas missions by Charles Mattoon Brooks, Jr., and on New Mexico missions by George Kubler. Among the studies of single missions are those on Xavier del Bac mission by Prentice Duell and on Acoma by Ward Alan Minge.


Closer to the intent of this book is the study of the New Mexico missions by John L. Kessell to determine how they have changed over a period of two hundred years starting in 1776, when Fr. Francisco Atanasio Domínguez described them. Kessell found no more than five or six missions which have retained some of their original form in plan and elevation!


The format for most studies of the art and architecture of the Texas missions was established by William Corner, who published a study of the missions and history of San Antonio in 1890. A number of similar studies have been published since then, such as the book on the architecture of the San Antonio missions by C. M. Brooks, Jr. Most other studies have focused on the history of the missions, including the book on the San Antonio missions by Marion A. Habig and books on all the missions of Texas by Walter F. McCaleb, James W. Burke, and Herbert M. Mason.


Single missions have also been studied from a historical point of view. Among them are the articles by Willard F. Scarborough on each of the San Antonio missions and monographs on Concepción by J. W. Schmitz, on the Alamo by Frederick C. Chabot, and on San José by Ethel Wilson Harris and Marion A. Habig. In recent years there have been a number of archaeological reports on the work carried out at the missions, such as those by Mardith K. Schuetz and Jack D. Eaton on the Alamo, by Mardith K. Schuetz on Capistrano, by Dan Scurlock and Daniel E. Fox on Concepción, and by John W. Clark, Jr., on San José.


Archaeological work has also been carried out at some of the other missions and presidios in Texas. Among these are the reports on the missions and presidio at San Sabá, the San Xavier missions, and the Rosario mission by Kathleen K. Gilmore and on the presidio San Agustín de Ahumada at Orcoquisac by Curtis D. Tunnell and J. Richard Ambler.


Part One of this study includes historical information on all the missions founded in Texas from 1680/81 to 1793 and the conversion effort by the Franciscan missionaries up to 1830 or 1831, when the last missions were secularized. Particular attention is paid to the information that the documents provide on the geography and climate of Texas, the economy of the missions, the problems encountered by the missionaries, and the Indians, their customs, and the languages spoken by the many groups found in the province. Part Two provides historical information and an in-depth analysis of the art and architecture of the six remaining missions in Texas—San Antonio de Valero, San José de Aguayo, La Purísima Concepción, Capistrano, Espada, and Espíritu Santo. The primary focus is on the condition of the missions during the period when they were in full operation in the late eighteenth century, when they were abandoned in the nineteenth century, and when they were restored or reconstructed in the twentieth century.




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