The Reign of Spain

The splendor of the Old World is on view at a new museum in Dallas—and at San Antonio's most famous mission.

May 2001By Comments

POWER AND GLORY: The Immaculate Conception, by Bartolomé Murillo (1655-60), at the Meadows.

Throughout the more than three centuries that Spain ruled much of the New World, no Spanish monarch ever set foot in his vast American empire, much less its far-flung and chronically neglected border outposts in Texas. The king and queen of Spain did drop by, however, for the March opening of the new home of Dallas’ Meadows Museum, to inspect a collection of Spanish art so formidable that the museum is often called “the Prado on the Prairie.” Sequestered for years in a cramped corner of Southern Methodist University’s student arts complex, the Meadows’ Velázquezes, Goyas, and Picassos have now moved across the street to palatial digs, where the campus’ indigenous Georgian-style architecture has been interpreted with muscular Spanish baroque flair by the Chicago-based firm Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge.The climax of this elegant architectural drama is an immense second-floor gallery dedicated to the Siglo de Oro, the Spanish golden age, which spanned most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There, on sunflower-yellow walls, lit by coffered skylights, hang imposing gold-hued canvases like Bartolomé Murillo’s monumental baroque icon of the Virgin Mary (The Immaculate Conception, 1655-60), testaments to the explosive fusion of Spain’s New World wealth and Old World religious fervor. The gallery is a dazzling vision of bygone glory, an image of imperial prestige and mystical authority that seems almost entirely alien to twenty-first-century Texas.

But the splendor of imperial Spain is not as remote as we might think. Last year curators at no less a Texas icon than the Alamo were astonished to discover faint remnants of Spanish colonial-era frescoes on the walls of the same sacristy that probably served as a last redoubt for Texan defenders in 1836. Recently stripped of the 150-year-old coat of whitewash that had both concealed and protected them, the frescoes are ghostly snippets, a few fragmentary, rust-colored bands of floral and geometric patterns that once circuited the walls and outlined the ceiling vault. But these phantom images vividly remind us that the Alamo started out as San Antonio de Valero, one of more than two dozen missions scattered across the breadth of Texas, each a monument to the same combustible mixture of faith and power that lit up Spain’s golden age. The eight surviving missions still teach an important lesson: The history of the arts in Texas isn’t limited to a few nineteenth-century pioneers followed by a long struggle toward a late-twentieth-century florescence; it also includes a startlingly sophisticated eighteenth century. Well before Tejas was even a glimmer in the eye of Anglo American filibusters and Stephen F. Austin’s colonists, her tiny frontier population took part in a complex cultural dialogue between the New World and the great art centers of the Old World.

The Meadows Museum offers an eloquent summary of the Old World end of that conversation. The collection attests to the persistence as well as the generosity of the late Dallas oil magnate Algur H. Meadows; a stubbornly uninformed neophyte duped into buying a fortune in fakes in the late fifties and early sixties, Meadows wrote off his losses, hired an expert, and went on to acquire masterpieces ranging from the medieval to the modern. The collection is strongest from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth century, when Spain won and then struggled to hold on to an empire that once extended from Sicily to the Netherlands in one hemisphere and from Argentina to California in the other. Throughout this age of somewhat shaky world hegemony, Spain was a paradox, priding itself on its fervent defense of Roman Catholic orthodoxy while at the same time soaking up the heretical culture of subject populations. One of the earliest objects in the Meadows collection is an eight-foot-tall, late-fourteenth-century Catalonian eucharistic cabinet (used to store communion bread) that opens like an altarpiece to reveal a crucifixion scene and attenuated, Gothic-style angels. But the outer faces of the doors are carved in intricate geometric designs, an Islamic-inspired decorative style known as Mudéjar that would remain a vital element in Spanish art long after the despised Moors had been expelled from Spain.

Most Spanish painters never fully embraced the secular idealism of the Renaissance, preferring instead the emotionally charged, Counter-Reformation-inflamed styles of mannerism and the baroque. Seville, which monopolized Spain's New World trade, also became its art capital, nurturing the genius of Diego Velázquez before he was summoned to Philip IV's court; many scholars think that the work that won him the royal appointment was the Meadows' Portrait of King Philip IV (1623-24), a marvelously penetrating examination of the austere yet ineffectual young monarch.

With Velázquez in Madrid, the stars of the Sevillian scene were Murillo and Francisco Zurbarán. In the mid-1600's the latter abandoned the signature black background of his early works for the luminous atmosphere of The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena, typical of the sumptuous baroque imagery favored not only by Sevillian patrons but also by Zurbarán's New World clientele. (Zurbarán was so dependent on the income from consignments of his paintings to New Spain that on one occasion he was forced to defer payment on his daughter's dowry when the return galleon was delayed.)

If Sevillian patrons often preferred their saints cloaked in sweetness and light, a much more ascetic spirituality also fired the popular imagination. Born in Crete, El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos) spent most of his career in Toledo, where he painted Saint Francis Kneeling in Meditation (c. 1605-1610). Framed against a dark grotto, clad in his characteristic coarse gray robe, the contemplative Italian saint gazes in beatific rapture at a crucifix and skull, symbols of the worldly denial espoused by the austere mendicant order he founded in 1209. But the Franciscans, who took a vow of poverty and held their meager property in common, were also a potent worldly power; joined by Dominicans and Augustinians, they followed the conquistadores across the Atlantic with unprecedented evangelical zeal. By the early seventeenth century, according to one count, the New World had 70,000 churches.

Many of these churches were rudimentary structures of wood and adobe, but many others were grandly imaginative riffs on the latest Spanish architectural fashions. Few Spanish architects worked in the New World, but engravings and architectural treatises provided a starting point for the master masons responsible for most New World architecture, a multicultural group that included criollos (Spaniards born in America), mestizos, and indigenous peoples. These skilled American professionals brilliantly synthesized a wide range of decorative influences, mixing and matching from a vocabulary that included Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, and the Moorish Mudéjar. The indigenous artisans who did much of the stone carving contributed their own interpretation of the European patterns, adding another hybrid style, reminiscent of pre-Columbian low reliefs and known as tequitqui, to the polyglot.

San Antonio de Valero was founded in 1718, the first of five missions built along the San Antonio River by Franciscan friars, who established all the Texas missions. In 1756 work began on the mission church now known as the Alamo (for a squadron of lancers from the Mexican town of Alamo de Parras who were billeted there in the early 1800's, after the mission had been secularized). But the main sanctuary remained unfinished at the time of a 1793 inventory, when it was noted that the sacristy, a large room—then almost twice as long as it is now—to the left of the nave that was intended for the storage of the priests' vestments and liturgical objects, was being used as the church.

According to art conservators Pamela Jary Rosser and Mary Canales Jary, who cleaned the Alamo frescoes, the sacristy painters were possibly guild artisans trained in north central Mexico. Most likely working from a cartoon (a stencil-like drawing used as a template for the design), the painters mixed yellow ocher, red oxide, green earth, and lampblack pigments with water and a goat's-milk binder and brushed them directly onto a layer of wet, orange-brown plaster; red tempera highlights were later applied to the dry plaster, a technique known as fresco secco. In addition to punching up the otherwise featureless walls, the ornate bands would have lightened the sacristy's ponderous Romanesque-style groin vaults, only one of which survives.

Further insight will have to await a detailed scholarly study planned to begin later this year. Meanwhile, millions of tourists will continue to file past far more compelling evidence of San Antonio de Valero's aesthetic sophistication, visible on the face of it—literally—for almost two and a half centuries. The present facade of the Alamo was probably intended to reach three stories surmounted by twin bell towers; only the first story and the partially finished second survive (the trademark arched gable that now tops it off was added by the U.S. Army in 1850). Known as retablo style because it was intended to echo an interior retablo—the lavishly decorated, multi-story repository for sacred paintings and sculptures that towered behind the altar in Spanish churches—the facade has four scallop-shell niches that once sheltered now-vanished statues of saints. The vine tendrils and fleurs-de-lis that frame the niches and the entrance portal are expertly carved but oddly stylized in a flat, shallow relief suggestive of both Mudéjar and tequitqui. The two pairs of columns that frame the first-story niches are even more complex composites, with squat Tuscan proportions, narrow Corinthian-style flutes on the bottom half, and ornate Corinthian capitals; midway, the columns are abruptly divided, with the upper half done in a distinctive corkscrew pattern known as salomónica, or Solomonic. Thought to have originated in Solomon's Temple, salomónica was the exotic hallmark of the Spanish baroque.

Even in its fragmentary state, the Alamo is arguably the finest piece of authentic early Spanish baroque style in North America. It is not, however, the masterwork of baroque architecture in San Antonio. That distinction belongs to Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo, seven miles downriver from the Alamo. The present church was begun in 1768, only twelve years after the Alamo, but stylistically its facade was considerably more up-to-date. Done in a cutting-edge, late "ultra-baroque" style known as Churrigueresque (after a whole family of influential Spanish architects, none of whom ever worked in the New World), the facade of San José is a fantastically effervescent concoction of carved stone: Renaissance cupids gambol over a Moorish arch; mannerist statues of saints, borne upward on vinelike columns, appear to levitate in their niches; the simplest floral motifs are improvised into frothy, deep-relief sculptures. (By comparison, San José's celebrated Rose Window, which was carved later on the southwest side of the church, is less flamboyant and not as fluently executed.) In the mid-1780's a cleric who had toured the entire frontier of New Spain recognized San José as "the first mission in America, not in point of time, but in point of beauty." San José remains just that; later claimants, such as Tucson's San Xavier del Bac or California's Santa Barbara, are far more provincial in character.

The cultural cosmopolitanism of eighteenth-century Texas offers an interesting perspective as the Spanish legacy becomes a twenty-first-century demographic groundswell. With Hispanics already Texas' largest minority and Catholicism soon to be (if not already) our most widely practiced faith, the cultural tsunami that Spain unleashed on the New World five centuries ago shows no signs of ebbing. Putting aside the traditional bias of Texas historians, for whom "the Spanish failure" has long been a knee-jerk assessment, perhaps we should begin to look at what Spain, our other mother country, did right. Tempering their greed and religious intolerance with an enlightened cultural globalism, the Spanish sent the artist and the artisan into the frontier right alongside the soldier and the priest. And as Texas' increasingly rapid Latinization attests, over the long haul, culture always trumps battles, borders, and politics. The opening of the Meadows Museum and the unveiling of the Alamo frescoes are a nicely coincident little wake-up call: Texans may never forget the Alamo, but it's time to start remembering San Antonio de Valero.

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