Deposited by Angels

Bernard Fontana and Edward McCain show off the wonders of Mission San Xavier

Tucson's exquisite San Xavier is such an unexpected apparition in the Arizona outback that Bernard "Bunny" Fontana likes to imagine it was brought here by heavenly messengers.

"There is no tradition—yet—of Mission San Xavier del Bac's having been deposited in the desert by angels, carried from some unknown place," he writes in the opening pages of A Gift of Angels: The Art of Mission San Xavier del Bac, a sumptuous volume with more than 200 full-color photos by Edward McCain. "But it would be fitting were that the case."

After all, the 213-year-old baroque church has no fewer than 171 angels, painted in radiant color on the walls or carved in wood or plaster. And maybe, Fontana goes on fancifully, those winged creatures stayed on after they gave us the church, because they are still there, engaged in myriad charming tasks, "pulling back plaster drapes from niches and ceilings; holding candlesticks; playing musical instruments, supporting niches; swinging censers, lifting banners ... or simply looking on, a kind of joyous cheering section for the mysteries of the Christian faith."

For decades, Fontana has lived a mile away from San Xavier, the exuberant mission church that he quite rightly calls a "treasure of the Spanish New World," not only for its architecture but for its art. He has a deeply personal connection to the church: His three children made their First Communion in its elaborately painted nave, and last year, his wife, Hazel, to whom he dedicates this volume, was laid to rest under its angels' gaze. A son, too, was memorialized there.

But Fontana is also a scholar, a retired UA anthropologist who has spent a lifetime studying the Tohono O'odham, the Pimería Alta and San Xavier itself. And despite his wistful longing for angelic intervention in the church's creation, he rigorously documents not only the real-life story of how it came to be built, but tracks down sources and meanings for its astonishing array of artworks.

Fontana counts some 77 sculptures inside and out, with 49 major paintings on the walls, and tells us how they were made, and out of what materials (wood, plaster and brick for the sculptures; pigment in aqueous tempera solution for the paintings). Local Tohono O'odham laborers get credit for its construction, begun in 1783 under the direction of Basque architect Ignacio Gaona, he reports. But the painters and sculptors likely were brought up from Querétero, a conservative Catholic outpost in Central Mexico.

Their religious artworks were "theological texts," Fontana writes, meant to instruct the local Indians, then illiterate, in the mysteries of the Christian faith. "It is as if the Franciscans used the church as the blank pages of a book and art as words written on the pages to express the mysteries and joys of the good news of Christ."

The work of 15 years of research and writing, Fontana's 8 1/2-pound book marks the first time that anyone has compiled a complete catalog of San Xavier's art, from its endearing faux painted tiles, to its painted wooden portrait of a thoughtful St. Ignatius of Loyola, to its delightful painting of the child Mary learning to read in "The Education of the Virgin Mary."

McCain is Fontana's able partner in this gigantic enterprise. A Tucson photographer who has his own history with the church—he and his wife, Rosemary, were married there—McCain signed on to the project 12 years ago.

Ever since, he has spent hours working inside and outside the church, hiring an array of assistants, erecting scaffolding and haunting its arches and transepts in hours early and late. His full-color photos, liberally distributed throughout, are more than equal to their daunting subject.

His architectural shots are lovely, from his golden-hued façade in the late-afternoon sun to his cupola at sunrise, blue in the morning light. A two-page spread of the interior, shot from the altar, is a small masterpiece of form, space and color, mingling art with architecture.

His photos of the paintings and sculptures are highly detailed, even in the far reaches of the choir loft, where his camera captures four painted evangelists hard at work on their Gospels, three of them aided by animal helpers. (Architect Bob Vint's diagrams provide a road map to the art.)

McCain's mission imagery, some of it previously exhibited at Etherton Gallery, is so superb that it threatens to overwhelm the text. But it would be a mistake to look only at the pictures. I've loved this church for 24 years, and I learned immensely from this Gift. For one, Fontana explains that there's no mystery to the unfinished bell tower on the east: The Franciscans simply ran out of money and called a halt to construction.

For another, Fontana tells the chilling story of how San Xavier escaped modernization. Already old-fashioned by the time it was built in the late 18th century, the church was one the last expressions of the ultrabaroque. This lavish style was born in the Counter-Reformation several centuries earlier, and its unabashed ornamentation was meant to repudiate Protestantism and its austerities.

"Baroque churches became theaters for the promulgation of (the Catholic) religion," Fontana writes. The more gilded saints, the better.

Accordingly, Catholic artists from conservative Querétero made San Xavier a joyous theater "alive with color and motion, clouds, rays of lights (and) angels."

But in the sophisticated capital of Mexico City, architects influenced by the Enlightenment were already favoring a more restrained classicism. Similarly flamboyant churches all over Mexico were remodeled to fit the new ideas, their artworks "painted over, removed and even destroyed in a rush to modernity. San Xavier, a remote outpost, was spared that terrible fate."

Amen to that.

And amen to this book. Angels, alas, may not have given us this church, but Fontana's life and work—and its crowning achievement, this monumental book—have been a gift to Tucson.