Loca Sancta in the New World: The Creation of Sacred Space in the Spanish California Missions, 1769-1823

Arroyo, Nenette, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wilson, Richard, Architectural History, University of Virginia

Art historical scholarship on the California missions has been largely formalist, focusing on church architecture and religious art. The ritual aspect of sacred placemaking, while integral to the experience of these spaces, has received little attention from historians of visual culture. Architectural survival and preservation have also obscured the contested nature of sacred space, which was an ongoing negotiation between Christianity and Indigenous religions, between the spiritual and industrial agenda of the mission, and between the Franciscan missionaries and the military governors. This study of historic architecture and place investigates the interplay of the built environment and faith practice in the missions through an interdisciplinary lens which draws on ritual theory, material culture studies, and postcolonial thought. It seeks to understand how sacred spaces were created on both sides of an uneven power relationship, situating it within the wider context of the Spanish colonial program in America and linking the missions to a longer western Christian tradition of sacred place making through architecture and performance.
Franciscan missionaries founded twenty-one missions in Alta California between 1769 and 1823, in the closing decades of the Spanish empire in America. Missions were spiritual-industrial enterprises established in frontier lands for the purpose of gathering the dispersed and semi-nomadic Indigenous peoples into settlements where they could be converted to Christianity and introduced to agriculture and related trades, under the guidance of missionary priests. A multidimensional approach that considers extant architecture, period images, Franciscan documents, travelers’ accounts, artifactual evidence, and contemporaneous Indigenous perspectives is employed in order to recover the performative nature of sacred space, and to reclaim spaces of Indigenous cultural persistence, erased by ruin and a prevailing Christian narrative.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
California missions, sacred space, material culture, performance, architecture, cartographic theory
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