Our Lady of the Angels. The mission of Our Lady of the Angels (Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de Porciúncula) at Pecos has a history that illustrates the vicissitudes of mission building in New Mexico. The magnificent ruins of the current adobe church, the fourth structure on the site, date from the early eighteenth century. Parts of two of the three earlier churches are still visible today, however. Examination of their remains illuminates the history of church building in New Mexico.
First Church. Although Francisco Vásquez de Coronado visited Pecos in 1540–1541, the first church was not built until the early 1600s, with the arrival of Franciscan friars. Like most early-seventeenth-century New Mexican churches, this temporary single-nave structure, situated north of the pueblo, was built of adobe with a dirt floor. The nave is the main vessel of a Christian church, usually long, narrow, and rectangular. Single-nave churches are simple and easy to build and therefore appropriate in frontier areas such as New Mexico. Furthermore, the single-nave vessel was not just functional but also symbolic. In the friars’ minds this simple type seemed to recall the uncomplicated piety of the early Christian church, tö which they endeavored to return. This desire was related to church reform ideals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a period called the Counter-Reformation, or Catholic Reformation.
Second Church. Building began on the second church, located south of the pueblo, in 1622. It has been attributed to friar Andrés Suárez, the head of the mission. Remains of this second church are visible today. In the seventeenth century this was not only the largest church north of the present-day Mexican border but also the largest European structure in North America. One may glean information about the original state of the second church from the ruins as well as from a 1625–1629 report compiled by a visiting friar, Alonso de Benavides. In contrast to the simple first church, the second church was built to a cruciform plan. Two sacristies, or priests’ vestment rooms, formed the crossing. The cruciform plan, which has a long history in Western architecture, is symbolic in nature since the cross shape refers to the central event of Christianity, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The apse, or altar end of the church, was polygonal, or multisided. The polygonal apse, in contrast to the semicircular or flat apse, is more complex in nature and indicates the ambitious nature of this second church. Similarly, instead of packed-dirt floors the Pecos church floors were formed of whitewashed adobe bricks. The nave walls, which were an impressive 133 feet long, measured ten feet thick. According to a 1664 document, the church even had an organ, a luxury in this isolated region of the northern Spanish frontier.
Fortress Church. Seventeenth-century descriptions of the church exterior recall fortress missions in Mexico. The church’s fortresslike structure was probably designed to have a psychological impact on the recent Indian converts. Fortress churches may have also served as bastions of defense in hostile territories. Forty-five-foot, massive rectangular wall buttresses, which transferred the walls’ weight to the ground, propped up the Pecos church’s exterior walls. The parapet, a fortified section on the top of the building, was punctuated by crenellations, or openings, from which to shoot at enemies below. Six towers served as lookout posts. In addition, two bell towers flanked the central portal of the facade, creating an entrance porch, or narthex. Above the main portal the friars constructed an exterior balcony, a type of elevated open chapel, for outdoor preaching. Elevated open chapels were typical features of both New Mexican and Mexican missions. Attached to the church was a large friary, or cloister, a square courtyard consisting of rooms organized around an interior patio marked by arcades. It contained the friars’ living quarters as well as classrooms, a library, a kitchen, storerooms, and stables. The mission burned in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, and today only the foundations are visible.
Third and Fourth Churches. After the Spanish re-conquest of New Mexico in 1692–1693, a third church positioned parallel to the burned second church was built in 1694. Little is known of this church, except that it must have been a temporary structure since a fourth and final church was erected in 1706 on top of the burned foundations of the second church. These are the impressive ruins visible today.
Reading the Ruins. Analysis of the ruins provides today’s viewer with clues to the fourth church’s original state. It was smaller than the monumental second church on the site but more lavishly decorated. The cruciform church had a seventy-six-foot-long nave, shallow transepts or crossing arms, and a polygonal apse. The walls, which partially remain today, were made of adobe brick and measured between five and one-half to seven and one-half feet thick. Further information about the church found in the 1776 report on New Mexican missions authored by friar Atanasio Domínguez reveals that the interior was truly impressive. In imitation of Pueblo architecture, the church had a flat roof held up by squared pine vigas (beams) resting on decorative carved corbels or brackets. The roof of the transept was elevated above the nave roof to allow for the insertion of a window (called a transverse clerestory window) through which light streamed onto the altar. This window provided a hidden source of light, a dramatic effect in tune with the latest developments in seventeenth-century Baroque architecture in Europe. The dramatic light flooding the altar would have also been symbolic in nature, representing the “new light” or “new day” of Christianity. Five wooden steps separated the nave from the restricted sacred altar space in the apse. Two paintings hung above the altar, one of the Assumption of the Virgin, the other of the titular madonna, Our Lady of the Angels, the latter of which survives today in the Pecos church of St. Anthony of Padua. Two buffalo-hide paintings of St. Anthony of Padua and the Virgin of Guadalupe, as well as a wooden pulpit for preaching, were located in the transept. In addition, the Pecos church boasted unique adobe arches near the transept. Arches, curved elements that span space, had been a mainstay of Western architecture since Roman times. They were nonexistent, however, in native adobe architecture and were utilized only rarely in Spanish colonial adobe structures.
Mary Grizzard, Spanish Colonial Art and Architecture of Mexico and the U.S. Southwest (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986);
John L. Kessell, Kiva, Cross, and Crown: The Pecos Indians and New Mexico, 1540–1840 (Tucson: Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, 1987);
George Kubler, The Religious Architecture of New Mexico in the Colonial Period and since the American Occupation (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1990);
Trent Elwood Sanford, The Architecture of the Southwest: Indian, Spanish, American (New York: Norton, 1950).