Skip to content

Splendors of Faith, Scars of Conquest: Oakland Museum opens its new exhibition

on February 25, 2011

On Saturday, the Oakland Museum of California will kick off its new show, Splendors of Faith/ Scars of Conquest, which features 110 pieces of art from the mission churches that dot the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. This is the first time many of the artworks will be seen outside of their original locations.

“California history is so interwoven with the missions,” says co-curator, Michael Komanecky. “There’s a rich legacy of the mission enterprise.”

“The furbishing of the missions were something of great concern to the religious orders and the Spanish government,” agrees co-curator Clara Bargellini. “This is the first time all of these missions have been brought together in some way and brought together with art.”

As missionaries left Europe to colonize the Americas, they not only built hundreds of churches and monasteries but also spent time meticulously decorating their interiors, explains Bargellini. The missions were often filled with wall-sized paintings, sculptural altarpieces and other types of adornments that were a unique stylistic mix of Old World Catholicism with New World imagery and materials.

The goal of this art was to help convert the indigenous peoples to Christianity. In many instances, since the colonists and Native Americans did not speak the same language, artwork was a way for the missionaries to show the natives religious miracles and what would happen to their souls if they converted—or not.

The Oakland Museum’s exhibition has several sections that cover the years 1580 to 1821, including “Art and indigenous traditions at the missions,” “Rituals and celebrations,” “Art in the missions,” “Icons and miracles,” “Altarpieces at the missions,” “The dreams of the missionaries” and “Places and culture.”

As people first enter the exhibition they will find a series of photos projected onto the wall, showing the missions and the places where they were built–nestled in the mountains, on the desert plains or overlooking the rocky California coast. “There’s extraordinary architecture in extraordinary scenery,” says Bargellini.

In the exhibition’s main room, story-high paintings transported from the churches dominate the walls with images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Heaven and Hell. With radiant and bold colors, these gigantic paintings were meant to mimic altarpiece sculptures that were too difficult to build in the far-reaching missions.

“Our great joy was finding all of these pieces,” says Komanecky. “Even though some are not that sumptuous, they suggest the richness of the art that existed in all of these missions.”

Almost all of the pieces in the exhibition have been restored or preserved in some way, which the curators say is an important part of the show. One artwork called “Last Judgment,” painted in 1790, was almost completely blackened when the curators first found it in the San Luis Rey Mission in Oceanside, California. After several rounds of restoration, the images were revealed—hundreds of figures either ascending or descending into the tiers of the afterlife, going to a bright heaven filled with angels or a brownish-red hell filled with skeletons, ghouls and rats. “It’s about death and damnation and the joys of heaven,” says Komanecky, “about converting Indians to Catholicism.”

Some of the pieces of work have accrued miraculous legends themselves, such as a statue titled “Lord of Mexquital.” This is the oldest piece in the exhibit, built in 1580, and is a life-sized crucifix of Jesus showing bloodied knees and stigmata. It is made of cornstalk paste, which is light and made it easy to carry during processions. According to legend, the sculpture was attacked in a church in Durango, Mexico during the 1616 revolt by the Tepehuan Indian tribe. After suffering a blow to its right leg, the statue was said to have bled miraculously.

The back room of the exhibition is titled “The dreams of the missionaries” and has several pieces showing an image of Jesuit priest Francis Xavier, who is famous for his extensive missionary work. In almost every artwork, he is clutching the middle of his black cloak and holding it open near his heart. “He is so enflamed with the love of God that he has to let the fire of love out,” explains Bargellini.

This passion for spreading Christian faith goes right to the core of the missionaries’ work and the construction of the missions in the Americas, says Komanecky. “The soul purpose was conversion—driven by the love of God,” he says.

The Splendors of Faith/ Scars of Conquest exhibition is being displayed in conjunction with another show called the Contemporary Coda. This companion installation features 17 pieces by contemporary Latino and Native American artists that address the legacy of European colonization and religious conversion. These pieces tend to be more provocative, says Drew Johnson, curator of photography for the museum. “A lot of these works deal with the issue of identity and what that means in the 20th and 21st centuries,” he says.

Some of the pieces seem to play off the art in the main exhibit by exploring the harsh historical conflict between the missionaries and native peoples and how that history is shown in today’s society. For example, Ester Hernandez uses religious iconography in a screen print titled “Wanted” to examine the racially charged immigration debate in Arizona. It depicts the Virgin of Guadalupe in an Arizona police “wanted” poster, saying she is a cult leader, human trafficker and terrorist. “This is her take on a pointed political satire,” says Johnson, “since it’s directed at Arizona.”

Both shows open on Saturday, February 26 and will run until May 29, 2011. The museum will also be hosting public programs and talks about the exhibition—for more information go to the museum’s website. Co-curator Michael Komanecky will be speaking at 2 pm Saturday, February 26 about Spanish Missions in the American imagination.


Oakland North welcomes comments from our readers, but we ask users to keep all discussion civil and on-topic. Comments post automatically without review from our staff, but we reserve the right to delete material that is libelous, a personal attack, or spam. We request that commenters consistently use the same login name. Comments from the same user posted under multiple aliases may be deleted. Oakland North assumes no liability for comments posted to the site and no endorsement is implied; commenters are solely responsible for their own content.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
Oakland North

Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to:

Latest Posts

Scroll To Top