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California and the West

Restoring a Bit of Hidden History

Landmarks: Work is underway to protect paintings at Mission San Juan Capistrano church.


SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — The original painted decorations inside the dome of the Great Stone Church at Mission San Juan Capistrano, seen by few people since an 1812 earthquake, are finally being studied and preserved.

Mission officials have taken samples of the paint from the 13 decorations to the University of Pennsylvania for analysis. They plan to treat the decorations with chemicals to bring out their colors and preserve them.

The paintings, showing fruit, vegetables and other designs, are believed to have been done between 1806 and the time a powerful quake rocked the church, killing two children and 38 adults. The paintings were hidden by grime and fungus until rediscovered about 10 years ago.

But the art hasn't been closely examined until now, as efforts to restore the west wall of the crumbling four-story church allowed preservationists to reach the paintings, 42 feet off the ground.

"We knew paintings were there, but like the Sistine Chapel, we couldn't see them very well because they were [so high up] and were covered in dirt and dust," said Jerry Miller, mission administrator.

Since the $7-million church restoration project began three years ago, mission officials have raised $1.8 million for repairs to keep the Great Stone Church from collapsing. An additional $3 million was raised to retrofit other structures at the 221-year-old mission.

The decorations include a rosette-shaped design outlined in black paint in the center of the dome, and pineapple and artichoke-shaped illustrations in the center stone of the main archway to the dome and in nooks around the dome.

Since the 1812 earthquake, most of the interior walls of the church have been exposed to the ravages of rain and sunlight. The designs have remained intact because they were nestled beneath the protection of the circular dome.

"There used to be more decoration in other parts of the church," said Elisa Del Bono, site conservator. "But the reason why these are still visible is because it's the only area where we have a roof and the roof is in good condition."

The mission is the crown jewel of those founded by Father Junipero Serra and the most popular among tourists.

Conservationists are unsure whether the designs were the work of Juaneno Indians, the Spanish or if padres were involved.

"Whoever it was had a natural talent and knew what they were doing," said John Loomis of Thirtieth Street Architects in Newport Beach, who is project manager for the mission's conservation project.

Under the direction of archeologist Frank Matero of the University of Pennsylvania, several teams of students have been repairing the church for the past two years.

Paint expert Rynta Fourie has taken samples to determine what pigments and binders were used so that the process can be used in restoration treatments.

Fourie believes the Indian or Spanish artists who painted these decorations used eight colors of paint and two techniques, secco and fresco. Secco is a paint technique that is applied to dry plaster and fresco-style painting is applied to wet plaster.

Mission administrator Miller said the church restoration could be completed over the next three years, but an additional $5 million is needed to finish the project.

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