San Xavier del Bac
My son the Marine and his girlfriend were here this week visiting. While I worked, they took in the sights around Flagstaff. Then we headed south to Tucson for some warmth and relaxation for a few days. In addition to enjoying the desert, we also visited the Mission San Xavier del Bac south of Tucson.
So often, I think of the western U.S. as being so new and young, but again and again I find myself confronted with the early presence of the Spanish, who left their names and missions carved in the rocks at places like El Morro National Monument in the 1600‘s and now here in this magnificent church in the desert of southern Arizona, and who left a lasting influence on the native peoples of the regions who had been here for thousands of years before. It reminds me that history needs to consider not just the most recent conquerors, but all the peoples who have resided there through the ages.
The beginnings of San Xavier date back to the 1600’s when a Jesuit priest first visited the O’odham people and began building a mission here. Completed in 1792, it’s white towers and domes glisten brightly in the sun. It was easy to understand why it is often called the White Dove of the Desert.
The approach to the Mission is across a large gravel plaza. From here the church is stunning with it’s two white towers and the central piece in deep relief. One tower is unfinished, though the reason is not known. There is ongoing restoration work taking place and at the moment, the west side has been complete and shines brilliant white against a beautiful blue sky while the east side bears the stains of the passage of time.
The completed tower soars heavenward, with bells in the tower and a cross on the dome.
Adobe walls surround the church and it’s gardens and enclose the Mortuary Chapel.
This is the view of the church from the Mortuary Chapel. While I know many photographers love the time of day when the setting or rising sun make the church glow in shades of pink and peach, I love the pristine quality of pure white against the deep blue sky.
Even the ironwork has a simple beauty against the white plaster.
The relief of the front facade stands out in the late afternoon light. On the large curls on either side, there are a mouse (on the left) and a cat (on the right). A myth that has risen is that when the cat catches the mouse, the world will end. Another myth is that there will be peace between the O’odham people and the Spanish until the cat pounces on the mouse.
Throughout the church, there are many depictions of plants and animals, including snakes such as the rattler door handles on the front doors.
Inside the church, one is greeted by the scalloped backs of pews marching forward to an astonishing altar piece. Every wall is covered with paintings. There are many repeating themes such as the rope, representing the Franciscans and the rope that holds their garments around their waist and the shell, which depicts pilgrimage.
Numerous niches hold painted figures depicting various saints. I found myself wishing I knew who was being represented and why. I loved the face on this one. He seemed so sweetly innocent and somehow hopeful.
There are angels and cherubs everywhere, some blond haired and blue eyed, others dark skinned and dark eyed. On either side of the altar, these large angels decorate the columns of the dome.
The paintings on the inside of the dome are lovely and delicate and lit by lovely windows.
The central panel in the altar piece is intricate and filled with symbolism. The central figure on top of the highest arch is Father God, with his left hand on the world and his right hand raised in blessing. Below him in the top niche is a depiction of the Virgin Mary as the Immaculate Conception. Beneath her, robed in white is St. Francis Xavier, one of the first Jesuits, in whose honor the church was built. Below and in front of him is the crucified Christ.
In the west transept, there is a reclining figure of St Francis Xavier. Here, people pin milagros (charms depicting parts of the body representing prayers for miracles), photographs of loved ones, rosaries, etc. Taking a picture of it seemed tactless to me, so I set my camera sights to show the intricate artwork and figures on the walls above. Angels and cherubs are every where as well as various Saints depicted in the niches.
Walking back through the church, the ceiling comes into focus, its arches and domes supported once again by angels, though painted this time.
Upon exiting through a side door, tiles depicting St. Francis Assisi preaching to the birds are in view, framed perfectly by the curving trunk and branches of a mesquite tree. Such a serene view!
We spent only a couple of hours here, though I could have spent much more time. It is a lovely surprise, a treasure in the desert and well worth taking the time to see.