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Mission Art on View at Oakland Museum of California

February 26, 2011 |  8:30 am

Assisi In the spring of 1998, Michael K. Komanecky, then chief curator at the Phoenix Art Museum, took a tour of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. The religious artwork piqued his curiosity, but his guide didn't know much about it. Although the history and architecture of missions have been thoroughly examined, the works of art adorning the interiors have received less attention.

Komanecky reconnected with Clara Bargellini, professor of art history at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City. The two decided to collaborate on a project exploring mission artwork. They spent 10 years gathering sacred objects from museums and missions in northern Mexico, California, the U.S. Southwest and Europe. The culmination of their efforts is on display in "Splendors of Faith/Scars of Conquest: Arts of the Missions of Northern New Spain, 1600-1821" at the Oakland Museum of California.

 "California history is shaped significantly by the missionary enterprise by Spain in the late 18th

century," said Komanecky, now chief curator at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Maine. "They gave a young state a legitimate history and allowed it to feel a sense of pride." Antiphonal

"U.S. history doesn't start with Boston and Philadelphia," added Louise Pubols, chief curator of history at Oakland Museum of California. "There's a deep colonial history of the Spanish empire that is a part of the California experience and culture."

One of the more familiar pieces on view is "The Last Judgment," by José Joaquin Esquibel, circa 1790. The painting is on loan from Old Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside and was recently conserved at the Getty. Other California-centric pieces include a tabernacle inset with abalone, crafted by Chumash artisans at Mission Santa Barbara, and a painting depicting the Virgin of Light lifting an Indian into heaven from Mission San Diego.

Mystical city As they traveled, Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries would bring artworks with them that were created mainly in Mexico City and funded by the Spanish monarchy intent on spreading the faith. Of the nearly 110 sacred objects on display, the majority fulfilled a function necessary to celebrate Mass, such as altarpieces, liturgical vessels, paintings, sculptures and crosses. "There's a great many fabulous works of art that people don't know about, and they played an important role in understanding the formation and heritage of the region," said Bargellini from her home in Mexico City, where the exhibition originated.

 The exhibition runs through May 29.

 --Liesl Bradner

Images: Top, "Saint Francis of Assisi Saving Souls," anonymous artist, 1730; oil on canvas, San Gabriel Convent, Cholula, San Andrés Cholula, Puebla, Mexico. Middle, antiphonal, Joseph Rubio, New Spain, 18th to 19th century; parchment, wood, leather-bound with bronze details, Franciscan Friars Mission San Luis Rey de Francia. Bottom, "The Mystical City of God," Cristóbal de Villalpando, New Spain, 1706; oil on canvas, Museo Regional de Guadalupe, Guadalupe, Zacatecas, Mexico.