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Ionarts in Santa Fe: San Miguel Mission

On this last trip to Santa Fe, I spent more time in Santa Fe itself, rather than in the surroundings. On Sunday afternoon, that meant visiting the Loretto Chapel, whose beautiful spiral staircase is the subject of Barbara Hershey's movie The Staircase, and another visit to the city's cathedral, which features in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, the best evocation of the mystery of this part of the world. The oldest church in Santa Fe -- and supposedly the oldest surviving church in the United States -- is the Mission of San Miguel, which was first constructed in 1610 by the Tlaxcalan Indians. It has been altered quite a bit since then, although there are wood and adobe vestiges from at least as far back as the 18th century. Behind the altar is a typical New Mexican reredos, brightly colored with statues and paintings in roundels, with St. Michael, the church's patron, at the top and as the statue at the bottom (shown at right).

The most precious artwork in the church, though, are two tapestries painted onto deerskin, a crucifixion (on the left side of the nave) and a John the Baptist (on the right). The images and colors on these have faded since they were made at some point in the 17th century, but like so much in Catholic churches in New Mexico, they are a fascinating mixture of Native American and European. The church has served many different purposes over the years, but it is, unlike the Loretto Chapel, still a functioning church, hosting an austere Mass in Latin (Extraordinary Form) on Sunday at 2 pm, which offers quite a look back into history. At the end of that Mass this past Sunday, the celebrant explained that the new altar in the church is actually the church's old altar, which had been removed to a location across the street. It has just been put back in place, on the wall directly under the reredos -- suitably for Mass said ad orientem.

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