Seeing the Missions in a New (Old) Way

l-1424-k (1)
An artist adds finishing touches to a scaled model of Mission San Jose during reconstruction efforts in 1933. (MS 359: L-1424-K) UTSA Library.

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior which sets forth preservation standards for historic resources, restoration is defined as the act or process of accurately depicting the form, features, and character of a property as it appeared at a particular period of time by means of the removal of features from other periods in its history and reconstruction of missing features from the restoration period. When the property’s design, architectural, or historical significance during a particular period of time outweighs the potential loss of extant materials, features, spaces, and finishes that characterize other historical periods, and when there is substantial physical and documentary evidence for the work, restoration may be considered as a treatment.

But to what extent should San Antonio’s Spanish Colonial missions, a World Heritage Site, be restored? Today, we know more about the missions than we ever have before, and it’s enough to say that preservation experts still don’t know exactly what they looked like.

Here’s what we do know:

1.At least two of San Antonio’s missions, Mission Concepcion and Mission San Jose, when completed were likely adorned with colored frescoes in a geometric pattern. The frescoes were extant for a brief moment in history, and quickly faded away as the missions were secularized and no longer maintained.

2.In the 1920’s, San Antonio artist Ernst Schuchard studied the visible remnants of the frescoes on the missions and created scaled depictions based on what was evident at the time.

3.In the past 5 years, conservation experts have performed condition assessments on the exterior stucco of the missions which verify much of Shuchard’s early work. Present-day technology allows for a more accurate understanding of the original pigments. However, much of the original materials are no longer extant or were lost in reconstructions of the mission walls.

Reconstruction of the San Jose Church Façade in color. Painting by Ernst Schuchard,1932. Schuchard collection, The Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library

Even with this information, there is still a feeling that any re-creation of the frescoes would the have a negative impact on the authenticity of the sites. The frescoes themselves could never be 100% true to their original appearance, and the value of a modern-day replication is questionable. But still, there is a need for interpreting the often overlooked finishes of the missions because it give us a much better understanding of the visible impact that the missions had on the South Texas landscape.

That’s where Restored By Light comes in!

OHP partners with the National Park Service to host a community-wide showcase of the intricate and vivid ornamentation that was once visible on the mission facades. The first Restored By Light event was held in 2015 at Mission Concepcion, where there is the most remaining evidence of the frescoes.

Following the successful inscription of the San Antonio Missions as a World Heritage Site, the City of San Antonio has taken major steps to ensure the long-term stewardship of the missions and their surrounding vicinity. A World Heritage Office was established and the City is providing support for an annual World Heritage Festival which invites the community to engage with and better understand our heritage.

In 2016, Restored By Light will be expanded to include the “Queen of the Missions” Mission San Jose.

In a 2016 report by Conservation Associates titled Letter Report on Condition Assessment and Conservation Treatment Planning for the Historic Stucco on the Façades and Exterior Elevations of Mission San Jose and Mission Espada in San Antonio, Texas, the following observations are made:

“Decoration of the stucco included incised geometrical designs, painted in red, yellow, white, and blue/black paints.”

“…the surviving paint fragments indicate that paints were applied al seco, to stucco that was allowed to dry before painting”

“The color palette and technique of combining incising and paint is also similar to Mission Concepcion, where oil-based paints were mixed from pigments that included red and yellow ochres, charcoal black, and calcium carbonate.”

Using this new evidence, and generally referencing the early documentation by Ernst Schuchard, preservation architects at Ford, Powell, and Carson Architects and Planners, Inc. created the image that will be used for the projection at Mission San Jose.

Computer rendering provided by Ford, Powell, and Carson Architects and Planners, Inc.

Some modifications to the created image were necessary in order to provide the best representation for what we see today. For instance, the south bell tower, which was reconstructed following it’s collapse in 1928, appears to have a slightly different dimensions than the Schuchard scaled drawings.

Spectators view the debris of the bell tower that suddenly collapsed on March 9, 1928. This photograph was published the following day with an article stating that Catholic Archbishop Arthur J. Drossaerts had already appointed an architect to plan an immediate reconstruction to be financed by the archdiocese. (MS 359:-L-0282-C) UTSA Library.

The display of the original colored frescoes will also showcase the elaborate sculpted entrance which was carved from natural stone. The sculpted figures on the facade feature traditional Christian iconography and portray the lineage of Jesus Christ:


  • St. Joseph, earthly father of Jesus, holding Christ Child
  • St. Dominic was the founder of the Dominican Order.
  • St. Francis  was the founder of the Franciscan Order.
  • St. Joachim was the husband of Saint Anne and the father of Mary, the maternal grandfather of Jesus.
  • Our Lady of Guadalupe is the Virgin Mary as she appeared to Juan Diego (the first Roman Catholic indigenous saint from the Americas).
  • St. Anne, mother of Mary, holding Child Mary

While artistic representations shed some light on the original appearance of Mission San Jose, nothing compares to the experience of viewing it in person and at full scale.

See if for yourself on Friday, September 9!  Event Link

Reconstruction of the San Jose Church Façade in color. Painting by Ernst Schuchard, 1927. Schuchard collection, The Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library).

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