Daylight yields to the soft light within the mission

Daylight yields to the soft light within the mission
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The mission and a word about post content.
I have long had my eye on the weathered facade of Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo, popularly known as the Carmel Mission. I have family that lives nearby and have heard about it’s historical and aesthetic value in the past. I had a few days in Monterey for work recently and sneaked away to get a few images, stopping for nearly an hour at the mission. In the past, I’ve posted a single image per day. For a while this was fun, but then I found out that an image per day had a number of unintended consequences. Whenever I was taking photographs, knowing that I was going to post a one per day, I began to think about how many times I needed to come up with something worthy of the blog. Sometimes this meant posting a series of photographs that were very similar or separating photographs that belonged together. Though grabbing 365 interesting images per year isn’t very difficult – this accounting exercise is extremely stifling to one’s creativity – yet it is impossible to understand how limiting it is until you free yourself from this constraint. Some of my readers undoubtedly shoot for a blog or project that requires one image per day. I wonder, do you ever head out with your camera and in the midst of naturally reacting to what you see – say to yourself, "I need a few more," even when you’ve grabbed your best images? Do you photograph things you don’t value or love, just to get images? Maybe I’m alone here, but I doubt it. Today’s post features many images, as will most future posts, so I hope you enjoy (and can wait out posts that are spaced more liberally)!
Ancient history by our standards.
The Mission proper, that is a Christian congregation run by its founder, Father Junípero Serra was first established in Monterey in 1770. Serra, with permission of the Viceroy of New Spain, Carlos Francisco de Croix, marqués de Croix, then moved the Mission to what is now the city of Carmel-by-the-Sea in 1771 because of a power struggle with the military enclave. Depending on the source (either the official Mission website or the various historical brevia available online) this struggle is framed either as a desire to control the direction of New Spanish colonialism or as a battle over the mistreatment of the natives by the governor and his soldiers. The mission Serra founded in Monterey eventually became the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo, a.k.a. the Royal Presidio Chapel and still stands as a National Historical Landmark in Monterey. The edifice you see in the photographs below was built by later mission leaders in what is now Carmel-by-the-Sea, the neophytes being served from a smaller, make-shift structure during the first decades of its existence. Typically, I take one or two record shots of information that is available at the site while photographing so that I can retain the information on dates and places that I sometimes have trouble remembering properly. This time I found precious little information in the Basilica and instead had to find as much out online as I could. Interestingly, there is no readily available information online about the interesting statues, curios and relics that are located throughout this beautifully restored mission. Much of what I learned after the fact was about the history of what some call the most beautifully preserved of the California mission chain.
Here is a link to the Wikipedia article on the mission, which contains some information about Father Junípero Serra and his efforts related to this mission, but is woefully short on a number of accounts. I am not a religious person by any stretch of imagination. In fact, I find myself securely camped in the opposite extreme, but this is not the place or the time for a discussion about God or faith, etc. Instead, I am interested in the mission as it relates to human history and the early history of California. Furthermore, I have an interest in how we connect to the narrative thread of historical places like the mission and how I can use my camera to capture moments of beauty within these places.
The story of the Camel Mission is but one fascinating chapter in the story of the Spanish colonization of Mexico and the Americas. At the time, these missions and the nearby Presidios (military outposts) represented the first formal European establishments focused on colonizing the west coast. The Viceroys sent explorers, soldiers and members of the Franciscan Order to bring "civilization" (and it’s attendant religious trappings) to the native Americans. Within this post I will refrain from considering what benefits, if any, were brought to the native peoples by the introduction of the mission chain into Alta California. New Spain was an empire whose lifespan is still longer than the American timeline, with aristocratic titles originating in the 16th century. The trail of European devastation through native populations begins at about the same time and includes names of these original dignitaries – Cortés and Pizarro. Although Christians may feel differently, it isn’t clear to me that Serra and the mission movement brought anything to the Indians besides an acceleration of destructive European influence. Yet, some readers will note that waves of devastation had damaged native populations throughout the Americas both before and after the arrival of Europeans, and that by all accounts the Father Serra was a truly dedicated missionary and cared deeply about fulfilling his oaths and tending his flock. The magnitude of devastation both natural, domestically made and of European origin are topics I do not pretend to fully comprehend. How the mission system fits into the tragic backdrop of these events is something I think is best left to the historians. Serra, true to his word, worked until death building the mission and died with nothing more than a cot, his habit and a few other daily trappings – having worked continually to do what he thought was best for the native members of his congregation. There was, and still is, a chain of 21 missions extending from San Diego to Sonoma, north of San Francisco, and the Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo is widely accepted as one of the most faithfully restored/preserved.
A large step backward in time.
I love visiting places like the mission because they represent such a strong counterpoint to much of the tourist-trap culture in which an out-of-towner like myself might normally find himself. There is a reason you’ll never see a photograph of Disneyworld on this blog. Some places, though commercially successful and valuable for one reason (or person) or another, for me possess no aesthetic or cultural value and will simply not see the business end of my camera. I think all people make this mental calculation when photographing and each person’s calculation will be different from his peers. Here at the mission, outside of the labyrinthian giftshop, I find myself standing in a square flanked by a museum and the stately, aging facade of the capilla of the Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo. The rose window, Moorish bell-tower dome and roughly hewn door are your first clues that stepping inside is stepping back over 200 years in time.
The chapel is no stranger to a camera, but whenever I am in a place like this I am very careful not to disturb the atmosphere of the place or my fellow visitors. I extend my tripod legs outside the building and, if I am taking bracketed images for HDR, wait between taking images so that I don’t create a continual noise of my shutter clacking open and closed.
Just inside the wooden doors the soft white light of Monterey marine-layer-noon drops to zero and the chapel is lit by a single hanging lamp, votive candles and a few recessed windows. A large stoup of holy water is held within an ancient iron basin atop a carved wooden pedestal placed upon an ornate and plush rug. A long center aisle extends beyond the stoup, through the pews to the apse.
The walls are adorned with various oil paintings of religious and historical personages and events. Just past the first set of pews is the entrance to the burial chapel to the left and an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to the right. The air is cool and calm and I was nearly alone here in the nave.
The burial chapel has no external light and is instead lit by a single set of votives and the hanging lamp. I could not find any information on the figure of Our Lady of Bethlehem within glass frame above the altar, but did discover that the previous Pope, John Paul II had visited the mission in September of 1987 and designated it a Minor Basilica. As I took these images, I waited for many other visitors to percolate through the burial chamber. Many of these folks would stop and take a photograph of the plaque you see on the floor commemorating the papal visit. I found this to be a particularly interesting vignette of the sieving capacity of memory. Within the hallowed grounds of this mission there are layers of memory and narrative history to which we connect in different ways. Perhaps more than any other pope I can name, the previous Catholic leader was truly an example of a fascinating individual who used his political influence for good, yet I do not connect to his story as strongly as I do to the historical thread of the California missions. Then again, I’m not a Catholic.
Through the central aisle, up to the altar and then to the left is a claustrophobic and darkened alcove with a small altar and votive. I found this corner of the mission the most interesting to photograph. Here the room is lit by a small gas lamp and a round votive stand, the light flickering and revealing the carefully painted walls and ceilings. The air is richly perfumed by the hanging thurible above the votives. A mirror and door provide all the frames a photographer could possibly need and I played a bit with my position relative to the door to frame both the door to the sacristy and the relic containing the fragments of the Fray Serra’s original coffin. Here we go beyond the literal narratives within the mission and invent our own stories. A penitent or devout missionary shuffles through these halls, observing his duties and escaping the damp cold of a coastal winter. A modern pilgrim stops to say a prayer and light a votive, sharing the same footsteps as his invisible predecessor. Recreating the mood and memory of places like this little alcove by an act as simple as taking a photograph is my favorite pastime.
The beautified Serra is interred just before the altar along with several other figures who feature prominently within the history of the Carmel Mission.