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.
“They manifest themselves in ways that require an incredible amount of planning,” Mendoza says. In San Juan Bautista, builders seeking the perfect alignment for the solstice show even set their church slightly off kilter — about three degrees from the rest of the mission quadrangle.
“It can’t be coincidence,” he says. “It’s too perfect.”
That’s just the problem, according to Mendoza’s critics.
Andrew Galvan, curator of San Francisco’s Mission Dolores, said he doubts that Franciscan friars of the late 18th century would have been so accommodating to native faiths. The illumination of the tabernacle — the receptacle for consecrated bread and wine — would have been an empty display because Indians weren’t allowed to receive Communion until 1808, after most of the missions had been designed.
“This would be considered pagan, not Christian,” he said. “Junipero Serra would have boarded over the windows if he were aware of it.”
Galvan, himself a descendant of the region’s Ohlone Indians, said he believes the illuminations are nothing more than ornament.
“It’s a fluke of nature, a curiosity, a ‘Wowee!’ kind of thing,” he said. “Every single church that has a main window facing east or west will get a light show on some day during the year.”
Others believe the illuminations were far more calculated.
In Santa Barbara, Chumash Indians were accustomed to the magic of their solstice caves, where penetrating sunlight would shine upon painted images. It would have been natural, some scholars say, for the Franciscans to win over sun worshipers with sunbeams.
“Instead of replacing a religion, you’re fulfilling it,” said Tina Foss, director of the museum at Mission Santa Barbara. “It’s a synthesis instead of a conquest.”
According to Mendoza, Mission Santa Barbara’s orientation is “virtually identical” to that of San Juan Bautista. A solstice illumination would have been particularly dazzling in Santa Barbara, he said, where the altar was inlaid with mother of pearl from local abalone shells.
Foss believes he’s right. She and other mission officials are raising funds to remove a wall and renovate an organ that since the 1920s have blocked the window through which sunlight would have poured.
“People lost touch with why the church was built the way it was,” she said. “It’s like inheriting an old house: Your grandma knew who planted the trees out front, but after two or three generations people aren’t necessarily aware of it.”