Art of Space,
was imported by the Spanish to the New World. What you’re seeing here is probably kind of the last gasp of that kind of architecture in the New World.”
In the book, he adds that the style is a blend of European Gothic and Spanish Islamic motifs called mudéjar. Other mudéjar elements include the octagonal-shaped bell towers and the cockleshell, an emblem that is both a reference to St. James the Greater and a Muslim symbol of pilgrimage. One of the shell forms is found on the church front, which is technically a “retablo facade,” an intricately carved feature that mimics an altarpiece. The main statue of St. Francis Xavier at the top of the facade has basically been erased by time. “If you look at the statue of the standing San Xavier inside on the main altar, that one on the roof was identical,” Fontana said. “ I’m hoping I’ll live long enough to see that replaced.”
The new book contains an intense amount of descriptive detail about the scores of saints depicted in the church, including their life histories, as well as about architectural details like the sotocoro. “In the architecture of Spain, that’s what the area beneath the choir loft is called,” Fontana said. “It’s very common to hear that word in Mexico.”
The nave at San Xavier is in two parts, each covered by a vault. Both vaults are supported by four squinches that act as bridges between the square areas below and the cupola (dome) at the top, with the eight-sided support structure called the drum in between. Fontana dedicates a chapter to each of these features. Another is the crossing — the intersection of the two arms of the church’s cross form. The crossing consists of the cupola, the drum, the four pillared arches, and the floor space below them. Nearly every available space is decorated; the cupola, drum, squinches, and arches alone bear 28 figures, most of them painted saints. “Of course the crossing is great fun — to look up and see that ceiling,” Fontana said. “But you can see these paintings and images much better in the book than you can inside the church.”
McCain employed scaffolding and lots of lights to make his photographs. “We were moving hundreds of pounds of lighting equipment up and down,” he told the Arizona Daily Star in October. “The setups were very lengthy. Then everyone had to be still, so they didn’t vibrate the scaffolding so the camera wouldn’t shake. Everyone had to sit and practically stop breathing for a while.”
Asked if he has a favorite among the hundreds of paintings and statues that he says were created in the early 19th century, Fontana said one is a large painting that for years was identified as Christ as the Good Shepherd. “But then, after it was cleaned by conservators, we realized that what we thought was his beard is actually the knot from a scarf holding down a hat, and it turned out be the Virgin Mary as the Good Shepherdess,” he said. “She’s also known as Divina Pastora. You have her there in New Mexico. The santeros, people like Charlie Carrillo, have done a lot of images of her. It is a more unusual devotion over here.”
Another strange feature is a painting, way up underneath the dome, of the siege of Belgrade that took place in the 15th century. Fontana said there were probably few people in Arizona who knew about that event when the church was decorated, not to mention today.
The ornamentation of interior surfaces everywhere in the old church is colorful and amazing. “There’s so much to see, it’s kind of overwhelming, but much of it is 30 to 40 feet away from you, and it’s dark in there.” Most obscure are the saints and angels painted on the squinches and the cupola, which is 53 feet from the floor at its apex.
There are so many figures, it’s difficult to count them. Fontana thinks there are at least 170 painted or sculpted angels at Mission San Xavier del Bac. “Every time I count them, I come up with a different number,” he said. “The ones that really drive you crazy are the ones on the main altarpiece. You stand there and go blind trying to count the things: they seem to appear and disappear.”