Smalltown baroque

This wonderfully bold decoration comes from the Mission San Xavier del Bac, just outside Tucson, rising from a patch of desert as though it had once expected a community to form around it, as I imagine it did, although what kind of community it might have wanted is hard to envisage with charity. The interior is probably typical of churches of this type, relying heavily on paint and plaster and memories of the old world to make up for the lack of more precious materials and models closer to hand. It reminds me very much of the chunky flamboyant provincial baroque of a couple of churches I saw some years ago in the small Sardinian town of Tempio Pausania, which also sticks in my memory for having as one of its local delicacies the nearest thing I’ve ever seen outside Britain to a Melton Mowbray pork pie.

The world the missionaries found here doesn’t get much of a look in, which isn’t surprising. Tyla pointed out the sad juxtaposition in the right transept (see below) of an admonishing saint, maybe Xavier himself, and the devout, rather cowed figure of a native American, hands clasped before him in a posture that might be called the missionaried position. The sculpted and painted column that separates them has more life than either figure and I can’t help wondering whether local help might not have been called in to do some of the purely decorative stuff. I’d like to think so.

And talking of cultural contamination, what about this curious little artefact, spotted in a gift store in the historic section of Tucson, squeezed in between feathered headdresses, tomahawks and gilded shells for holy water. It combines the Renaissance trope of the winged head of a putto with some distinctly native American features. As if that weren’t enough, it also manages to look remarkably like John Travolta in Hairspray, another challenging example of aesthetic syncretism (or maybe not).

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