San Xavier del Bac

San Xavier Mission, originally uploaded by ivoryblushroses.

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.

Tower of San Xavier Mission
The completed tower soars heavenward, with bells in the tower and a cross on the dome.

At San Xavier Mission
Adobe walls surround the church and it’s gardens and enclose the Mortuary Chapel.

West Facade of San Xavier Mission
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.

Ironwork at San Xavier Mission
Even the ironwork has a simple beauty against the white plaster.

Front of San Xavier Mission
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.

Door Handle at San Xavier Mission
Throughout the church, there are many depictions of plants and animals, including snakes such as the rattler door handles on the front doors.

Inside San Xavier Mission
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.

Figure at San Xavier
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.

Angel and Figure at San Xavier
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.

Rosette Ceiling at San Xavier
The paintings on the inside of the dome are lovely and delicate and lit by lovely windows.

Altar area at San Xavier
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.

Painting and Figures
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.

Ceiling at San Xavier
Walking back through the church, the ceiling comes into focus, its arches and domes supported once again by angels, though painted this time.

St Francis at San Xavier Mission
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!

Angel at San Xavier Mission
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.


Anonymous said…
This is so interesting and I love the white against the blue sky too and what a beautiful church. I keep forgetting to mention how I fond I am of your reference to
1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 on your side bar. I keep rereading it. Mary
Ati said…
What a surprise to find such a beautiful old church in the middle of the desert. Maybe one of the few good things the Spanish did in the past?
Like Mary ( before me) said, I like the prase in your sidebar too.
FredaB said…
The pictures are wonderful. I wold love to see this. the workmanship they did in past centuries with so little to work with constantly amazes me. Work of Art.
Hello Lisa, What beautiful landscape and the church is truly a work of art. Glorious. Thanks for sharing such great photos of your world. May I ask you the name of the "Bead Shop" where you buy your bone bunnies and birds??? Thanks for your help. Hugs Judy
Anonymous said…
I just noticed you have different roses for your banner. These are nice, very nice:)Mary

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