Unique among mission churches of the northern borderlands of colonial Mexico for its ornate architecture and rich iconography, San Xavier del Bac south of Tucson is a pilgrimage destination for countless devotees and tourists. Passing through the façade entry to stand in the nave, one is dazzled by the transept and sanctuary altarpieces of sculpture niches and baroque pilasters, as well as the expanse of the frescoed ceiling.
This book is the first study of the iconography at San Xavier since its restoration in the 1990s by an international team of professional conservators. It expands our understanding of the numerous Catholic images and emblems of San Xavier through a close analysis of the newly revealed iconographic elements and an interpretation of the significance of their placement. It also proposes that the selection of specific religious themes and their locations was determined by an unfamiliar convention based on a tree-like design, in which the founder of a religious Order appears as the root and followers above in later branchings—an inversion of the more familiar top-to-bottom hierarchy.
Historians Lange and Ahlborn identify all the saintly images and religious elements that adorn San Xavier and suggest how and why they are so arranged. They examine the sculptures and paintings of the church from the façade throughout the cruciform interior in order to determine the organizational concepts that underlie their placement. They note that the selection of images in this Franciscan mission follows traditional Roman Catholic practice for decorating churches in order to instruct novices and reinforce the teaching of conversion in a pictographic catechism of Church doctrine. In short, the book is a dictionary of religious personages and symbols that will help the visitor identify the biblical stories and people portrayed, as well as associated signs and symbols. Entries include a description of the subject, its location, appropriate cross-references, and a bibliography. Recent illustrations by photographer Helga Teiwes and a floor plan facilitate the location of images by visitors.
A handsome, large-format book featuring more than one hundred photographs and supporting line illustrations, Lange and Ahlborn’s work confirms the significance of San Xavier’s iconography for art historians, students of religion, and visitors alike. It is both an incomparable guide and valuable reference source for the famed mission’s magnificent artistic heritage.