Friday, June 14, 2013

A Symbol of Religion and Native Defiance

San Miguel Mission by Tom Mallon, Oil on Canvas
Religion was at the very root of early settlement in the Americas. Construction for San Miguel began in 1610, making it the very first church to be built in what is today the continental United States. This would have been a full 10 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, another religious, but far different, enterprise.

A National Historic Landmark today, San Miguel is located within what was then the Spanish colonial settlement of Santa Fe, located in the newly opened territory then referred to as Nuevo México (New Mexico). The Spanish controlled territory of Nuevo México encompassed what is today the state of New Mexico along with portions of Texas, Kansas and Arizona. The San Miguel church would be the first and largest Adobe structure of its type to be built north of the Rio Grande.

Spanish Conquistadors
In 1598, about a dozen Franciscan priests traveled north from Mexico City in a colonizing effort with over a hundred advancing Spanish conquistadors. The Franciscans would administer the construction and subsequent mission to convert the native population. However, as time went on, the mission would eventually grow into a type of Catholic theocracy with the Franciscan's controlling most territorial policy as well as all dealings with local natives.

Estimates of some 40,000 Pueblo Indians inhabited, hunted and worked the land when Spanish occupation occurred. The regional native population then consisted of Pueblo, Navajos and Apache natives, the Pueblo being more settled and agricultural, the Navajo and Apache nomadic hunters and gatherers. Initial resistance resulted in the Acoma Massacre of 1599 (named after the Acoma Pueblo where a dozen Spanish expeditionary soldiers were attacked and killed). The term "massacre" was loosley assigned to later rationalize the crackdown and executions of natives that followed. Afterwards the Apache would maintain regular harassment raids on Spanish settlements, but relative peace would reign amongst the local Pueblo and Navajo tribes for the next 80 years.

By the end of those 80 years, Franciscan rule appeared to be absolute. Natives had been enslaved or otherwise controlled with systematic beatings and torture. Add to this the introduction of European disease and the native population was reduced to less than 10,000 or a quarter of what first greeted the Spaniards. However, there were some eventual benefits to the natives. New crops, such as wheat, peaches and watermelon were introduced along with state-of-the art plows, which the natives welcomed.

Religious Conflicts

Pueblo Religious Icons
Catholic reprisals began with the limitation and abolishment of certain traditional dances and celebrations. Harsh treatment under the Franciscans was due to the reluctance of the native population to discard their older religious beliefs. Initially, the Franciscans were pleased with the enthusiasm, which the indigenous tribes displayed embracing Christ. However, it wasn't long before the priests would realize Christ had simply become just another god, added to a litany of gods and beliefs occupying traditionally polytheistic native worship. 

Secular Spanish officials, including then Governor López de Mendizábal and the leading Santa Fe official, Nicolasde Aguilar tried to intercede on behalf of the natives. In response, the ruling Franciscan body charged them both with heresy and Judaic practices. This resulted in their arrests and expulsion to Spain to stand trial before the Spanish Inquisition. Subsequently, Governor Lopez died during the ordeal and an ever defiant Nicolas De Aguilar (someone should make a movie about this guy) was found guilty, yet survived and obstanatly returned to the New World (against court decree) to finish out his years in Bernalillo, some 50 miles south of Santa Fe.

The Pueblo Revolt

In the year 1680, the San Miguel Mission and its Franciscan priests became the focal point for a major native uprising, ending in the destruction of the first Santa Fe settlement and the deaths of hundreds of Spanish settlers. 

Now compliant to Franciscan directive, then governor Juan Francisco Treviño arrested 50 Pueblos on charges of sorcery. Most suffered public whippings. A few were sentenced to death, which resulted in a combination of hangings and suicide. Word got out and a large contingency of Pueblo arrived shortly thereafter to demand the release of the remaining prisoners. With the garrison out chasing Apache, the Governor had little choice but to accede to those demands.

San Miguel Mission in 1928, 300 years after uprising
The Governor would live to regret the release of one Pueblo in particular, named Popé. Charismatic and persuasive, Popé would spend the next five years rallying a dozen Pueblo tribes to rise up against the Spanish, eventually outnumbering the settlers by a factor of 10 to 1. A massacre ensued with Spanish loses in the hundreds and more than 20 Franciscans butchered in plain sight of the townspeople.

The settlement had pretty much been destroyed with the San Miguel church set ablaze. The natives then damned the settlement's water supply and the Governor was force to withdraw, eventually returning to Mexico City. The Navajo and Apache tribes are not known to have participated but Apache raids certainly must have contributed to reduced Spanish forces within and about Santa Fe. 

A decade later, in 1691 the Spanish would begin to return to the territory, but they would not regain sufficient control for resettlement until 1700.

The Painting

The Pyramid

Eye-Movement Around Mission Structure
It would be difficult to have anything other than a pyramid design when a church is involved, especially San Miguel Mission with its front buttresses. Click here to view complete painting with details.

The viewer's eye moves immediately from the left traffic sign to the cross atop the structure and downwards again towards the bottom right (red arrows). Here the viewer's vision passes over and about the building to the right (Saint Michael's Dormitory). A circular motion is then created by the forward figure in blue within the central plaza, which forces the viewer's eye again to the center where the elderly couple are at the church door (blue arrow).

There are four anchors to the pyramid, the figure in blue, the couple entering the church (holding the bottom portion of the triangle down), the traffic sign and the cross atop the belfry. In the center of this is the window, the only item remaining of the original exterior.

This painting was completed in oil colors, with the canvas measuring 48 inches in width by 24 inches in height.

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