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Winter solstice means 'illumination' at California mission

A sunbeam briefly pierces a doorway, bathing the altar in light. A scholar thinks friars built the mission and dozens of other churches to capture such events on days key to Indians, but critics scoff.

December 22, 2011|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
  • A beam of light streams though the double doors and down the aisle at Mission San Juan Bautista just after dawn Wednesday, lighting up the altar.
A beam of light streams though the double doors and down the aisle at Mission… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Juan Bautista, Calif. -- On the darkest day of the year, a hushed crowd in a dim church awaited a few minutes of sheer brilliance.

It was just after dawn Wednesday, the day of the winter solstice. Outside the 200-year-old mission at the heart of tiny San Juan Bautista, Native American drummers sang, urging the sun to rise. Inside, dozens of parishioners rubbed the sleep from their eyes. A woman stood up and sang in cadences haunting and solemn — phrases in no known tongue, she said, but "the language of the heart."

They were gathered for what has come to be known as an "illumination," a brief, breathtaking interval when a sunbeam penetrates the church's front window to bathe the altar and the sacred objects around it in a blazing patch of light. The mission perched at the edge of the San Andreas fault sees it but once a year.

As roosters crowed, a luminous rectangle appeared on the wall just to the left of the altar. Turning gold and then fiery, it slowly moved over the altar. At that moment, someone threw open the church's great double doors and a river of light shot down the 188-foot-long main aisle. One by one, parishioners were led to the altar for their moment in the sun.

It was a spectacular moment — but what it means is an open question. Some researchers say the illuminations at San Juan Bautista and other missions are nothing more than great special effects.

But for Ruben Mendoza, an archaeologist who teaches at Cal State Monterey Bay, they're more significant. According to Mendoza, Franciscan architects carefully engineered the luminous event for the sun-worshiping local Indians they sought to convert.

"For many Native American groups," he said, "the solstice was the most dreaded day of the year. They believed the sun was dying and only its rebirth could ensure their survival."

Mendoza has been researching illuminations for years. He saw his first one 11 years ago, and it moved him deeply. At the time, he was both a worshiper at San Juan Bautista and a researcher supervising an archaeological dig on the mission's grounds.

In 1997, the mission's priest spotted an illumination while opening the church for a small group of post-dawn pilgrims. After that, he held a number of solstice observances, hoping the Central Coast's morning fog wouldn't seal out the sun.

Both as a Catholic and as a scientist, Mendoza was eager to see it.

The son of a Spanish-language radio announcer, he grew up in Fresno but fell in love with history on a fourth-grade field trip to San Juan Bautista. As a student and then as head of his university's Institute of Archaeology, he poured himself into Aztec cosmology, archaeoastronomy and, most recently, the solar geometry of California's missions.

On that morning in 2000, Mendoza saw the light.

"As I approached the altar-borne tabernacle with camera at the ready, I was smitten by the most unusual sensation that I was soon to share two centuries of a most esoteric and spiritual experience," he later wrote in the mission's newsletter. "I couldn't help but feel what many describe when in the course of a near-death experience — they see the light of the great beyond."

Since then, he has toted his cameras, compasses and computers throughout the West, chasing sunbeams into California's 21 missions, as well as dozens of other churches built by early Spanish friars throughout the Southwest and Mexico.

So far, he says, he has found "solstice, equinox and feast day solar illuminations of main altar tabernacles" at 60 sites.

In California, Old World diseases devastated the Native Americans who lived and toiled at the missions. Native languages and cultures died as well. But Junipero Serra's Franciscan monks were so intent on winning new souls that, according to Mendoza, they precisely oriented at least 13 missions and an old Spanish chapel to capture illuminations — some on days that would have been sacred in Native American faiths.

The buildings functioned as "ecclesiastical computers," he said — much like cathedrals built in Europe centuries before the missions. Those great, vaulted, dark spaces also served as observatories, with astronomers focusing sunbeams through strategically carved openings to make a variety of calculations — from the date of Easter Sunday to the diameter of the sun.

At San Juan Bautista, the science was focused on the solstice, according to Mendoza. With ancient building techniques and the kind of instruments mariners had been using for centuries, the friars, he said, created the kind of solar spectacle that wouldn't have been out of place at Stonehenge or in ancient Rome.

Over the last decade, Mendoza has seen other such moments. At Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, it's on the summer solstice. At Mission San Miguel, statues of saints are illuminated on a series of their feast days in October. In San Jose, the illumination occurs at sunset on the spring and fall equinoxes.

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