An Indian attack on a mission in New Spain thwarts colonial aspirations and inspires a fantastical piece of art.
New Spain held uncertain control over the frontier region of eastern Texas in the mid- 18th century. While French incursions over the border of nearby Louisiana were a constant concern to the Spanish, raiding Apache tribes, pushed into the area of San Antonio by the Comanches, posed a more immediate threat. From the Spanish crown’s perspective, establishing a string of missions and small presidios—forts—across Texas was a low-cost way to stabilize the region.
In the spring of 1757 a group of Franciscans led by Friar Alonso Giraldo de Terreros built a new mission for the Lipan Apaches on the San Sabá River in central Texas. The Apaches had requested such a mission, but many Spanish officials had dismissed the request as a ploy to enlist Spanish aid against the Comanches. They were soon proved correct. The local tribes showed little interest in the mission or in Christian religious instruction.
For their part, the Comanches saw the mission as proof of a Spanish-Apache alliance and a danger to be eliminated. In early 1758 rumors of a planned Comanche attack reached Colonel Diego Ortiz Parrilla, the commander of the nearby presidio. The presidio was three miles from the mission—too far away to launch a quick defense, should the Indians attack it—so Parrilla sent two additional soldiers to join the five already assigned to protect the mission. He also tried to convince the friars to shelter at the presidio, but Terreros refused.
On March 16 a force of 2,000 Comanche warriors and their allies from the Bidai, Tejas, and Tonakawa tribes, all traditional enemies of the Apaches, arrived at the mission and were soon inside its gate. As they ransacked the mission, Terreros tried to negotiate with their leaders and agreed to accompany the Comanches to the presidio with one of the mission’s soldiers. The two Spaniards had ridden only a few paces when they were shot from their saddles. Friar Terreros was shot twice in the chest then stabbed with a lance and scalped.
Two more Spaniards died in the combat, and at some point Indians beheaded Friar José Santiesteban. Instead of killing the remaining Spaniards, the Indians set fire to the buildings, killed the livestock, and destroyed the mission’s religious icons—making it clear the attack was not a simple raid for supplies and horses. They lingered in the area for four days but did not attack the presidio, though they outnumbered the Spanish by as much as 20 to 1.
Miguel Molina, the only friar who survived the attack, returned to Mexico City and wrote a dramatic account of the events. It provided the background for a painting commissioned around 1762 by silver- mining magnate Don Pedro Romero de Terreros, who was the mission’s financial patron and Friar Terreros’s cousin. The Destruction of Mission San Sabá in the Province of Texas and the Martyrdom of the Fathers Alonso Giraldo de Terreros, José Santiesteban, the earliest known art depicting an event in Texas history, portrays the incident as both Christian martyrdom and colonial encounter.
Generally attributed to José de Páez, a popular and prolific painter from Mexico City known for his religious paintings and portraits, The Destruction of the San Sabá Mission is often compared to Benjamin West’s groundbreaking painting, The Death of General Wolfe (1770), an incident from the 1759 Battle of Quebec. Both works present events and dress from the artists’ time, but they draw on different artistic traditions. West transformed the genre known as history painting by using artistic conventions that had previously been reserved for events from classical or biblical history to represent contemporary events. Páez’s Destruction draws on a uniquely Spanish artistic tradition—portraying murdered missionaries as Christian martyrs. The genre began in the 17th century, when Catholic missionaries and their converts were executed in Japan. In those works, artists painted details from the deaths of Spanish friars in Nagasaki in the familiar composition of crucifixion scenes, showing the martyrs on crosses.
In 18th-century New Spain the deaths of another generation of Franciscan friars at the hands of the unconverted were commemorated in similar martyr paintings. These New World paintings were starker than those devoted to the martyrs in Japan—and more powerful to the modern eye. In each canvas the monumental, somber figure of one or two murdered friars dominates the foreground, shown with the instruments and wounds of his martyrdom. A small-scale scene in the background depicts the murder of the friar by faceless Indians.
The Destruction of San Sabá is large for the genre on which it draws, both physically—at 83 by 115 inches it is almost twice the size of other such paintings— and thematically. As the title makes clear, the artist uses the conventions of martyr paintings to chronicle not only the deaths of the two friars but the destruction of the mission.
As in earlier martyr paintings, the two murdered friars stand in the foreground. On the left, blood runs down Friar Terreros’s robes from an arrow, two lances, and two bullet wounds in his chest. A red line of blood around his head reminds the viewer that he was scalped. To the right, Friar José Santiesteban stands with three bullet wounds in his torso and a knife thrust in his bleeding throat, an emblem of his beheading. Although presented on a larger scale than the other events in the canvas, the friars do not dominate the painting. Instead they are pushed to the sides of the canvas and turn toward the center, drawing the eye to the attack on the mission. The frame formed by the friars is completed by three shields across the bottom of the canvas—two containing brief biographies of the friars and a larger central shield that summarizes the mission’s purpose, honors Don Pedro as its patron, and provides a key to the events in the painting.
Located in the middle ground of the canvas, the attack on the mission is the heart of the painting. Eighteen separate events are compressed into a single scene as if they had happened concurrently; however, identifying red letters marking each event also allow the viewer to unravel them from the whole and follow the action through time, with the help of the key on the main shield. Based in large part on Friar Molina’s account of the raid, each scene is portrayed in careful detail, from the moment a guard allows the Indians into the mission to the final escape of the survivors under cover of darkness.
The treatment of the Indian attackers highlights the aspect of the attack that Spanish officials found most troubling: the possibility of French involvement. Puffs of smoke draw attention to the fact that some of the Comanches carry what would have been French-supplied muskets. In addition, their leader, mounted on horseback in a prominent position on the right of the canvas, wears a French dress coat—an overt reference to the Spanish belief that the French not only armed the Comanches but encouraged their attack on the mission.
By shifting focus from the death of the friars to the destruction of the mission as a whole, the artist calls attention to the unstable conditions under which the missions existed, straddling the religious and the political in service of Spain’s efforts to defend an indefensible frontier.
The destruction of the San Sabá mission and the subsequent failure of Spain’s Red River campaign, along with Parrilla’s punitive expedition against the Comanches the following year, transformed Spanish policies on settlement in Texas. Spain stopped its expansion into the regions north and west of San Antonio. The area would remain part of the so-called despoblado—literally, the uninhabited—until Mexico gained its independence in 1821.
Pamela D. Toler frequently contributes to MHQ’s Artists department.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.