This week we stop off in once-sleepy San Miguel, a spot in the road just north of Paso Robles, not quite so sleepy now that Central Coast wineries have attracted fame, fortunes, and the fortunate.
Centerpiece of the tiny town is Mission San Miguel Arcàngel, 16th of California’s 21 missions, originally built in 1797 and still an active parish church. The mission has been brought low before, by fire or earthquakes and their aftermath—and early on, first in 1806. The rebuilt church, with tiled, not thatched roofs this time, rising again in 1821. As an agricultural enterprise Mission San Miguel was immensely successful, like others in the area. Its holdings extended 18 miles to the south, 18 miles to the north, 66 miles to the east, into and across the great Central Valley, and 35 miles west, to the Pacific Ocean.
After Mexican independence, when Spain ceded California to its former colonies just south, the mission system fell apart and lands were sold to friends of the new regime. For a time, Mission San Miguel was in private hands, but by 1928 the Franciscans had returned, and quiet parish life continued as it had, decade after decade—until December 2003 and the San Simeon Earthquake, its epicenter just 34 miles away. Almost overnight Mission San Miguel became the most endangered historic building in California. Without massive, fast, and very expensive repairs, it would close for good.
So, thank heavens for California’s Central Coast winery boom and all the affluence that has come with it. Money was gathered, and most of the mission complex was restored—at a cost of well over $10 million, and counting—and then reopened. If you’re flush: The mission’s inner quadrangle still needs repairs.
Most astonishing at Mission San Miguel is the fact that the one thing people come here to see was never damaged in the first place, and has not been touched—or touched up—since. The thing people come to see, the unique murals inside the church, were handpainted by the native Californian mission neophytes, using natural watercolor dyes and paints, under the direction of Estévan Munras, an artist from Monterey up the coast.
These painted interior walls are generally called frescos, which means paints and dyes applied directly to fresh lime plaster. But the proper term, in this case, would be seccos, seco meaning dry in Italian (secco) as well as Español, because the native Salinan artists applied watercolor paints to dry plaster. Their style is considered neoclassical, or trompe l’oeil (trump-loy) or “fool the eye,” giving the illusion of three dimensions.
The colors in these seccos are truly natural, created by mixing finely ground minerals with cactus juice. See how this was done on the self-guided tour. Another fascinating fact: Because the missions had to make whatever they needed, the translucent original window panes at the mission were oiled parchment, made from goat or sheep skin.
One very unusual feature of this mission church: It doesn’t feature an original cross or crucifix of any kind, though a few were added later. The original imagery you do see is striking, particularly the All-Seeing Eye of God, like a sunburst, over the altar. What an arresting world view.