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Romance of the Bells: The California Missions in Art

October 23 - March 15, 2008


The Irvine Museum's Romance of the Bells, one of the Museum's most successful exhibitions, was organized in the Fall of 2004. Since then it has been traveling throughout California, with showings at the Bakersfield Museum of Art, City of Lancaster Museum, Napa Valley Museum, The California Museum in Sacramento, Grace Hudson Museum, and Temecula Valley Museum. Romance of the Bells has finally come home for exhibition at The Irvine Museum.

When people think of California, the visual image that often comes up is that of a gentle land, with rolling hills of oak trees and wildflowers, dotted with buildings of weathered adobe walls and red-tiled roofs. These and other idyllic images of old California are rooted in the romantic period of California's past that is associated with the missions. Twenty-one California missions and a number of branch missions (asistencias) were founded between 1769 and 1823, yet that brief period of barely 54 years had a lasting effect on the artistic and social fabric of our Golden State.


Related excerpts from California, This Golden land of Promise, by Joan Irvine Smith and Jean Stern



In 1769, while Portolá and Ortega were in the north, looking for Monterey Bay, Junípero Serra, who had stayed behind in San Diego, founded the first mission and named it after San Diego de Alcalá. This particular "San Diego," whose name in Latin is Saint Didicus, was born in Seville, sometime about 1400 and died in 1463. He was a Franciscan monk who worked as a cook at the Capuchin Convent in Alcalá de Hernares, a small town near Madrid that was known for its university and later, as the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes.
Upon Portolá's return to San Diego, on January 24, 1770, he reported to Serra that he had followed Vizcaíno's maps and took into account his descriptions but, unfortunately, had not found Monterey. Yet, Serra was certain that they had indeed reached it when Portolá described the marvelous peninsula north of San Simeon.
On April 16, 1770, Serra set sail for Monterey while Portolá set out on foot again, taking with him all sixteen of the remaining able-bodied soldiers. On June 1, the San Antonio, with Fathers Junípero Serra and Juan Crespí aboard, finally reached Monterey. Sailing north along the coast into the prevailing winds, it had taken the ship longer to reach Monterey than the party traveling on foot.
On June 3, Father Serra founded the mission at Monterey and Portolá dedicated the Monterey Presidio. Portolá then supervised the construction of a group of temporary buildings within the stockade that would serve as the headquarters of the presidio. At the same time, housing was built for his soldiers. With that done, on July 9, 1770, Gaspár de Portolá, one of the most capable and resourceful persons in the history of California, turned over military command of the presidio to his assistant Pedro Fages, and returned to Mexico, never to set foot in California again.
Not long after the founding of the mission, Father Serra became dissatisfied with its location. He realized that the there were too few Indians in the area and furthermore, the soil was too rocky for agriculture. Also, there is reason to believe that for the protection of the Indian neophytes, he intended to distance the mission from the soldiers at the presidio. He selected a site in the Carmel River valley, about 5 miles south of the presidio, and moved the mission.
With the missions in San Diego and Carmel in operation, the system of missions along El Camino Real was expanded by establishing a new mission halfway between existing ones, until each was connected to another by roughly the distance of one day's travel. After San Antonio de Padua, established in 1771, the series of missions continued with San Gabriel Arcángel (1771), San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (1772), San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores) (1776), San Juan Capistrano (1776), Santa Clara de Asís (1777), and San Buenaventura (1782).
After Serra's death in 1784, Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén became Father-President of the missions. Lasuén continued building the chain of missions by adding Santa Barbara (1786), La Purísima Concepción (1787), Santa Cruz (1791), Nuestra Señora de la Soledád (1791), San José de Guadalupe (1797), San Juan Bautista (1797), San Miguel Arcángel (1797), San Fernando Rey de España (1797), and San Luis Rey de Francia (1798). After Lasuén's death, in 1803, missions were built in Santa Inés (1804), San Rafael Arcángel (1817), and San Francisco Solano (Sonoma, in 1823).
In addition to the twenty-one missions along El Camino Real, the Franciscans opened several asistencias, or branch missions, such as the Mission San Antonio de Pala, founded in 1816. There are also a number of churches and chapels in Indian villages, such as the presidio church at Monterey and the pueblo church in Los Angeles, which grew in importance but are not usually termed "missions." Likewise, the chapel at Santa Margarita became an asistencia of Mission San Luis Obispo; the chapel at San Bernardino became an asistencia of Mission San Gabriel; San Pedro or Las Flores Chapel, a ranchería (Indian village) church, became an asistencia of Mission San Luis Rey; and Santa _sabel, in San Diego County, was also a ranchería chapel and later became an asistencia.
Founding missions was only one aspect of the coordinated and well-tested process used by Spanish colonizers for centuries. Concurrent with the establishment of missions was the founding of pueblos (towns) and presidios or military installations.
An additional facet of the Spanish colonial process was that the enormous amount of land attached to the missions was to be held in trust for the Indians who, when ready, would take ownership. The entire process of civilizing the Indians was supposed to take ten years. In a typical mission, two padres were supposed to teach Christianity, farming and a number of trades to as many as 2,000 Indians. Moreover, Indians who had lived in a particular pattern for thousands of years, were supposed to cast off their old culture and live in a way that was completely alien to them, one that was often hard to understand.
The culture shock was too great for the Indians and the transition too difficult. They did not assimilate and instead, their right to live according to an age-old culture pattern was forfeited as the dominant Spanish culture took its place. According to Monsignor Francis Day Weber, noted Californian historian, the Franciscans had often opposed premature colonization, fearing the Indians were not prepared and would be in jeopardy. The missions, they had hoped, would be allowed enough time to teach the Indians to survive in a Spanish culture. But, ten years was not enough time, nor would fifty be.
-- From: CALIFORNIA, THIS GOLDEN LAND OF PROMISE, by Joan Irvine Smith and Jean Stern



From as far back as the early 1540s, Spain had explored the coast of California. The motivation had always been the search for wealth but in spite of numerous tales and rumors of Indian treasure, no gold or jewels had ever been found. Thereafter, California was essentially abandoned until 1769, when Spain moved to establish permanent colonies here.
This abrupt change of course came as a result of the Seven Years War of 1756 to1763, called the French and Indian War in the United States. The British, who had just defeated the French in North America, had taken possession of Canada and were casting aspirations southward into Oregon and beyond to California. Furthermore, the Russian Empire was expanding its base of operations in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest by establishing fur trapping settlements just north of California.
To protect his distant part of the Empire, King Carlos III of Spain ordered José de Gálvez, the Inspector General of Spain, to prepare a plan for the establishment of a number of missions, pueblos (towns) and presidios (forts) throughout California. Gálvez selected Father Junípero Serra, a Franciscan priest, to establish the missions, and Gaspár de Portolá, the governor of Baja California, to secure a military presence with the presidios.
Junípero Serra (1713-1784) was born in Petra, a small village on the island of Majorca, Spain. He was baptized under the name Miguel José Serra. His father, who worked as a quarryman or sometimes as a farm worker, was Antonio Serra and his mother was Margarita Ferrer. His paternal grandmother was named Juana Abram, most likely from a Jewish family that had converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition.
On January 9, 1769, part of the expedition left La Paz on two ships, the San Carlos and the San Antonio. The sea voyage from La Paz to San Diego took 110 days.
The second part, the land expedition led by Portolá, arrived in San Diego on May 15. Along with their supplies, Portolá's expedition brought 200 head of cattle, the ancestors of the great herds that would later roam California. By the time all parties and ships reached San Diego, about one hundred of the men who had come by sea had died of scurvy.
The expedition set out from San Diego on July 14, with Portolá in command. The party numbered sixty-four in total, with Father Juan Crespí and Father Francisco Gómez as spiritual advisors. Father Serra stayed in San Diego because of a severely infected leg.
Sergeant José Francisco Ortega, the chief scout, and seven soldiers went ahead to mark the path. Their destination was the harbor at Monterey, discovered by Vizcaíno 167 years earlier. Along the way, they charted potential locations for missions, presidios and pueblos.
Continuing north, on July 22 they entered what is now Orange County where Father Crespí baptized two Indian children not far from present-day San Clemente. The soldiers called the village site El Cañon de Los Cristianitos (the Canyon of the Little Christians.)
On July 26, the expedition came to a large river which they found difficult to cross. As it was the Feast Day of Saint Anne, Portolá named the river Rio de Santa Ana. The party camped by the river for a couple of days, during which time they experienced a series of earthquakes. Alarmed by these events, the padres re-named the river Rio de Jesús de los Temblores (River of Jesus of the Earthquakes) but the soldiers continued to refer to the river as well as the valley as "Santa Ana."
On August 2, the party camped by a river which they named Rio de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula (Our Lady, the Queen of the Angels of the Small Portion), whose Feast Day is August 1. The site was recorded as ideal for future settlement. Years later, on September 4, 1781, a city bearing the same long name, now called simply Los Angeles, was founded on this site.
On September 13, when they reached what is today San Simeon, on the central California coast, the explorers were forced to turn inland, as the coastal plain was blocked by the range of rugged mountains, the Sierra de Santa Lucia, which turned directly into the Pacific Ocean. They crossed over the range and emerged in the Salinas Valley, and following the Salinas River northward for several days, Portolá and his men reached a hill that overlooked a large, open bay. Although they had unknowingly found the Monterey Peninsula, they concluded otherwise as the harbor did not meet Vizcaíno's exaggerated description.
Thinking Monterey was yet to the north, the expedition continued to present-day San Francisco. Finally, on November 2, a group of soldiers who had been sent out to hunt deer, reached the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula and became the first white men to see the body of water now called the Golden Gate.
On November 11, Portolá was forced to turn back as the generally poor health of his men and their inability to cross San Francisco Bay prevented them from going any farther north. They retraced their steps to Monterey, remaining there from November 27 to December 10, still trying to find Vizcaíno's harbor. The weather grew miserable and supplies were dwindling. Discouraged at his apparent failure to complete his mission, Portolá ordered an immediate return to San Diego.
-- From: CALIFORNIA, THIS GOLDEN LAND OF PROMISE, by Joan Irvine Smith and Jean Stern

CALIFORNIA, THIS GOLDEN LAND OF PROMISE. published in 2001, is a profusely illustrated book the presents the history of California in a highly readable and entertaining format. Written by Joan Irvine Smith and Jean Stern, with a timeline by James Irvine Swinden. Published by Chapman University and The Irvine Museum. 368 pages, 9x12 inches, 405 color plates and 88 black and white images, extensive timeline, bibliography and index. The book is available through the Museum's bookstore.


(above: Sydney Laurence (1865-1940), The Evening Star, Mission Capistrano, Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Private Collection, Courtesy of The Irvine Museum)


(above: Julie DeForest Morrow (1882-1978), In the Mission Garden, Capistrano, Oil on canvas, 26 x 30 inches. Courtesy of The Irvine Museum)


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Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Judy Thompson, Director of Media, The Irvine Museum for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above texts.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the The Irvine Museum in Resource Library.



(above: Mission Santa Barbara as seen from the Mission Rose Garden at Los Olivos and Laguna Streets, Santa Barbara, CA. Photo © 2011 by Barbara Hazeltine)

rev. 4/18/11

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