Hidden Treasures – Two-hour tour offers exclusive look into the Mission art collection

This statue of St. Michael (San Miguel) slaying a devil (or is it just a snake?) is about three feet tall and made of wood, gesso and polychrome. Courtesy photos

This statue of St. Michael (San Miguel) slaying a devil (or is it just a snake?) is about three feet tall and made of wood, gesso and polychrome.
Courtesy photos

When the Franciscans abandoned their missions in 1833 after the Mexican congress passed the secularization act, our own Mission Santa Barbara wound up as the repository of much of the artifacts. By that time, Tina Foss explains, our mission had lost some of its importance, and with the others looted, became an unintentional museum of a historical period. Nearly two centuries later, some of these treasures, along with popular pieces, will be open for viewing for a very brief time.

"Sunset Light" is an oil on canvas by well-known plein air artist Benjamin Brown, probably painted in the first quarter of the 20th century.

“Sunset Light” is an oil on canvas by well-known plein air artist Benjamin Brown, probably painted in the first quarter of the 20th century.

This statue of St Anthony of Padua is about 24" in height from the late 17th century, and made from wood, gesso and polychrome. This was the first statue to come to Mission Santa Barbara, arriving April 1, 1790.

This statue of St Anthony of Padua is about 24″ in height from the late 17th century, and made from wood, gesso and polychrome. This was the first statue to come to Mission Santa Barbara, arriving April 1, 1790.

 This Risen Christ statue is made of wood, but is now devoid of gesso and polychrome (traces evident). Probable date is late 1600s. Recent research indicates an origin in a Jesuit mission or a "Reduccion" in Paraguay.


This Risen Christ statue is made of wood, but is now devoid of gesso and polychrome (traces evident). Probable date is late 1600s. Recent research indicates an origin in a Jesuit mission or a “Reduccion” in Paraguay.

The second annual Mission Art Tour will give two hours to see artworks that have long been in storage. Of the 56 pieces on display, half come from the Provincial Archive in Oakland and the other half from the mission’s storage and permanent collection. Objects include textiles, statues, paintings and religious artifacts like gold chalices. Many date back to the 17th century, and most need some sort of restoration.

But unlike most museums, the mission’s museum operates with a staff of one.

“I’m it,” Tina Foss says, with volunteers and docents helping out. So Foss hopes this tour will help raise money to preserve these works. Fortunately, the National Park Service has stepped in and offered up an American Treasures Grant in the form of a matching fund that will double any amount raised in the next two years, up to $650,000. The tour will give a glimpse of what is worth saving.

A statue of the risen Christ dates back to the late 1600s or early 1700s, and though once thought to be Mexican, its style has been confirmed as Paraguayan. The oldest piece in the mission, a statue of St. Anthony, dates to the 1790, when it was brought to Santa Barbara along with other objects from the Baja California region.

One piece from the mid-1700s has a sad story: a statue of Our Lady of the Rosary. The work was on display in the chapel, and still is, but incomplete. About 10 years ago, somebody stole the baby Jesus out of the statue’s arms, and the museum has never had the art returned.

The museum also houses paintings from master painters of the Mexican colonial period, as well as more recent works, like “Sunset Light” by Benjamin Brown.

Guests will be able to go behind the altar railing and see the well-known statues up close, then will move to another room to see more treasures. But here’s the deal, and here’s why the tour can only be for two hours on one day. The room is used for many other functions and cannot house such valuable works of art. The exhibition, Foss explains, must be assembled that morning by volunteers and taken down before the evening.

“It’s a huge logistical nightmare,” Foss says.

Still, the alternative is letting these piece sit in storage for nobody to see or appreciate, while they slowly succumb to age. And some sit near Foss.

“The treasures, as they await conservation, sit in my office where only I get to enjoy them,” she says. “And I feel greedy and selfish and feel that the rest of the world should get a view.”

That time is now.

HIDDEN TREASURES OF MISSION SANTA BARBARA ART TOUR
When: 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Mission Santa Barbara, 2201 Laguna St.
Cost: $25 per person, $40 per couple and $5 per child 15 and under
Information: 682-4713, ext. 166 or santabarbaramission.org

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