Saturday, September 21, 2013

Artifacts from the Junipero Serra Exhibition, Huntington Library

I came to the Huntington Library (actually more of a museum/ bontanical garden) in order to write, but not about this.  When I stepped into the temporary exhibition of "Junipero Serra and the Legacies of the California Mission," I only meant to stroll through and take a few pictures.  But the curator told me no photos, so the only way to capture the exhibition was through old fashioned pen, paper, and fine observation.

This is not a narrative of the history of Juniper Serra, just a description of a few random items that caught my eye.  I'm posting them here because I want to remember them.  As a writer, everything can be story fodder, and I can see these things slipping into my fantasy novel.  And who knows?  Maybe these descriptions will inspire you too.

Historical Note: The 21 white-walled church-towns are California's oldest historical buildings and one of our cultural icons.  Franciscan friar Junipero Serra (1713-1784) established the first 9 Missions, used to convert and "civilize" Native Americans in the area.  Though the intentions of these missionries were good, thousands of their converts perished from disease and much of their culture was lost.  The legacy of Junipero Serra is mixed, but his mark on the state remains irrefutable.


This map shows the town where Junipero grew up, home of 30,000 residents and a thriving Mediterrean trade.  Red-roofed white houses with no space between them cram together in rectangular and triangular bunches, laced together by narrow disorderly streets.  The wall holds the city in.  It curves and juts, ragged, like the edge of an oyster.  But I recognize the strategy in such a design, trapping invaders into corridors, angling guns and cannons at them.  The cannons are so small I almost miss them--as big as the white stripe of a thumbnail.  There are tiny palm trees along the one fat road and windmills outside the walls.  A grey cathedral made of sloping vertical lines sits close to the wharf, and the wharf pokes sword-like into the sea.  There are check points close to the tip of the blade.  Galleons sail the blue se, the water around them like white puffs of cloud.

"Sacristy Cabinet"

It's just a cabinet about three feet high used to store sacrements important to the Catholic mass.  Yet to me, it's like a treasure chest.  The sacred objects--chalice and monstrace--sit in a display nearby.  The chalice and monstrance are made of gold and have the curvy ornate bases of Victorian candleholders or lamps.  The chalice ends modestly as a normal-sized cup, but the monstrance explodes into a spiky sun, twice as tall as its brother.  I have no idea what its for.  The chalice and monstrance both appear as a relief on the cabinet's door.  Above them are carvings of twisty vines and red flowers.  The sacristy cabinet is very old.  Tiny holes where insects once burrowed flecks the wood, and the paint looks waxy, like a child has scribbled on it with a melty crayons.

"Soldier and Wife"

They are sketched with pen on yellow paper no bigger than a To-Do list.  1791.  The soldier is young.  He has no beard and his face is freckled.  He wears a black hat, pants and a jacket, and a long leather vest over his jacket which the information panel tells me is for deflecting arrows.  His leather vest/jacket reminds me of a fitted poncho.  I look at him and see a Flamenco costume without the exaggeration.  It think of Latin culture and I wonder if this was part of its origin.  His wife, by contrast, seems far more colonial.  White cap, buckle shoes, bodice and skirt, sleeves tied with ribbons at the elbows ending in a long ruffle.

There are other military artifacts are nearby.  At first I think the shriveled, sun-warped leather thing is a breastplate but turns out to be a shield.  Hints of green and red flirt with the tan of the leather, but most of the coloring's long worn off.  A second soldier carries his shield on his horse's neck.  He's older.  He has a mustache and his uniform is colored.  Its dark blue and big at the leg and torso.  Do layers of armor account for the bulge or is this soldier merely fat?  He sports the same black hat as the unhorsed soldier, but his leather vest goes only to mid waist.  He wears a black pouch, some precursor to the fanny pack.  There's red trim on his hat, cuffs, and collar.  There's a giant spur hanging off the foot loops of his saddle.  He carries a long spear horizontal.  A pistol is strapped to the back of the saddle, but it's so small I nearly overlooked it.

"Adelante/ Onward"

A modern portrait of Junipero Serra done in oils, comissioned by the Catholic church, 1988.  Jagged streaks of sunset crimson paint the sky.  It's the same color red as a tiny rose tucked in the corner.  Junipero wears black robes, and his features are dark, but his skin glows golden, as does the crucifix around his neck.  So much red and black and gold makes me think of fire.  Not hellfire, but rather the forest fires that sweep the mountains each summer.  California is burning, but this is a normal thing, a natural thing, a thing necessary for rebirth.

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