Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Mission Dolores, San Francisco

Mrs. Sgt. T and I like church architecture. Someday we're going to make it to Europe together and see some of the great cathedrals; she's seen a lot of them, but I haven't. In the meantime, whenever we travel in the US we try to see famous churches. Which is not too easy, because for all its Christian fervor, America doesn't celebrate its church buildings as much as I think it could.

Case in point: when we went to San Francisco we sought out Mission Dolores. This is the original Spanish mission, founded by colleagues of Father Junipero Serra in 1776, from which the city of San Francisco grew. The original late-18th century mission chapel still stands, relatively unchanged, surviving earthquakes and fires; it's the oldest structure in the city. The modern basilica next to it was built after the great earthquake, but it has going for it an immense architectural beauty, inside and out. All told, you'd figure this would be a major tourist destination, and yet when we went it was all but empty; certainly it gets only a fraction of the visitors that Alcatraz does, or the Golden Gate Bridge, or Chinatown. All of which are awe-inspiring; but so is this.

The mission chapel is adobe, and is imposing even now; obviously part of its architectural message at the time was shock and awe, and you can still feel a little of that today. It was an interesting comparison for us with San Xavier del Bac south of Tucson, which we visited last December but never got around to blogging. They were both built at around the same time, and my impression at least is that both more or less retain their original look. But San Xavier, besides being rather larger, is almost entirely frescoes inside, and seems to have more of the flavor of Native American design in its wall-paintings. There's a little of that in Dolores, on the painted roofbeams for example, but the centerpiece there is a huge altarpiece that was carried up from Mexico proper in the late 18th century: it's much more subdued in its coloring and European in its shapes. At least, so it seemed to me: no expert.

The basilica next door dates from 1918, after the earthquake, and it's a marvelous early 20th century cathedral. It contains a dazzling array of mosaics and stained glass of a variety of colors and subjects, but what gives the whole place such a memorable air is the big mostly-scarlet stained glass of St. Francis at one end, which bathes the whole interior in a crimson glow, like a late-summer sunset.

(I wish now that I'd blogged San Xavier at the time: it's tremendously impressive, too. And in both cases we were invited to think about the naked power the buildings were meant to display. At Mission Dolores that's not as immediately apparent, since the surrounding buildings are nice modern apartments; but San Xavier is still surrounded by the evident poverty of the Tohono O'odham reservation. That is to say, it's still pretty easy to see what impression the missionaries meant to give with this building, and by extension with Mission Dolores too [different missionaries, same mission]: shock and awe, as I say.

It's a good thing to be reminded of that. And yet we find it doesn't really diminish our admiration of the beauty of the buildings themselves. I don't know if that's insensitive of us; I hope it isn't, but I do wonder. How can the same heart be simultaneously saddened by the mistreatment of indigenous peoples and gladdened by the architecture that was an instrument of that mistreatment? I don't know. I mean, in an odd way my experience of these places is probably enhanced by a sense that their beauty is mingled with tragedy. So much of history is like that.)

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