Art of Space,

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos -

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.”

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