A sacred light in the darkness: Winter solstice illuminations at Spanish missions

The 2007 midwinter solstice illumination of the main altar tabernacle of Old Mission San Juan Bautista, California. Photo by Rubén G. Mendoza/Ancient Editions/Creative Commons

(The Conversation) — On Friday, Dec. 21, nations in the Northern Hemisphere will mark the winter solstice – the shortest day and longest night of the year. For thousands of years people have marked this event with rituals and celebrations to signal the rebirth of the sun and its victory over darkness.

At hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of missions stretching from northern California to Peru, the winter solstice sun triggers an extraordinarily rare and fascinating event – something that I discovered by accident and first documented in one California church nearly 20 years ago.

At dawn on Dec. 21, a sunbeam enters each of these churches and bathes an important religious object, altar, crucifix or saint’s statue in brilliant light. On the darkest day of the year, these illuminations conveyed to native converts the rebirth of light, life and hope in the coming of the Messiah. Largely unknown for centuries, this recent discovery has sparked international interest in both religious and scientific circles. At missions that are documented illumination sites, congregants and Amerindian descendants now gather to honor the sun in the church on the holiest days of the Catholic liturgy with songs, chants and drumming.

I have since trekked vast stretches of the U.S. Southwest, Mexico and Central America to document astronomically and liturgically significant solar illuminations in mission churches. These events offer us insights into archaeology, cosmology and Spanish colonial history. As our own December holidays approach, they demonstrate the power of our instincts to guide us through the darkness toward the light.

Winter solstice illumination of the main altar tabernacle of the Spanish Royal Presidio Chapel, Santa Barbara, California. The author first documented this solar illumination of the altar in 2004. Photo by Rubén G. Mendoza/Creative Commons

Spreading the Catholic faith

The 21 California missions were established between 1769 and 1823 by Spanish Franciscans, based in Mexico City, to convert Native Americans to Catholicism. Each mission was a self-sufficient settlement with multiple buildings, including living quarters, storerooms, kitchens, workshops and a church. Native converts provided the labor to build each mission complex, supervised by Spanish friars. The friars then conducted masses at the churches for indigenous communities, sometimes in their native languages.

The horse and mule trail known as El Camino Real as of 1821 and the locations of the 21 Franciscan missions in Alta California. Image by Shruti Mukhtyar/Creative Commons

Spanish friars like Fray Gerónimo Boscana also documented indigenous cosmologies and beliefs. Boscana’s account of his time as a friar describes California Indians’ belief in a supreme deity who was known to the peoples of Mission San Juan Capistrano as Chinigchinich or Quaoar.

As a culture hero, Indian converts identified Chinigchinich with Jesus during the Mission period. His appearance among Takic-speaking peoples coincides with the death of Wiyot, the primeval tyrant of the first peoples, whose murder introduced death into the world. And it was the creator of night who conjured the first tribes and languages, and in so doing, gave birth to the world of light and life.

Hunting and gathering peoples and farmers throughout the Americas recorded the transit of the solstice sun in both rock art and legend. California Indians counted the phases of the moon and the dawning of both the equinox and solstice suns in order to anticipate seasonally available wild plants and animals. For agricultural peoples, counting days between the solstice and equinox was all-important to scheduling the planting and harvesting of crops. In this way, the light of the sun was identified with plant growth, the creator and thereby the giver of life.

Discovering illuminations

I first witnessed an illumination in the church at Mission San Juan Bautista, which straddles the great San Andreas Fault and was founded in 1797. The mission is also located a half-hour drive from the high-tech machinations of San Jose and the Silicon Valley. Fittingly, visiting the Old Mission on a fourth grade field trip many years earlier sparked my interest in archaeology and the history and heritage of my American Indian forebears.

On Dec. 12, 1997, the parish priest at San Juan Bautista informed me that he had observed a spectacular solar illumination of a portion of the main altar in the mission church. A group of pilgrims observing the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe had asked to be admitted to the church early that morning. When the pastor entered the sanctuary, he saw an intense shaft of light traversing the length of the church and illuminating the east half of the altar. I was intrigued, but at the time I was studying the mission’s architectural history and assumed that this episode was unrelated to my work. After all, I thought, windows project light into the darkened sanctuaries of the church throughout the year.

One year later, I returned to San Juan Bautista on the same day, again early in the morning. An intensely brilliant shaft of light entered the church through a window at the center of the facade and reached to the altar, illuminating a banner depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe on her Feast Day in an unusual rectangle of light. As I stood in the shaft of light and looked back at the sun framed at the epicenter of the window, 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.

Only afterward did I connect this experience to the church’s unusual orientation, on a bearing of 122 degrees east of north – three degrees offset from the mission quadrangle’s otherwise square footprint. Documentation in subsequent years made it clear that the building’s positioning was not random. The Mutsun Indians of the mission had once revered and feared the dawning of the winter solstice sun. At this time, they and other groups held raucous ceremonies that were intended to make possible the resurrection of the dying winter sun.

Plan of Mission San Juan Bautista showing the church’s off-square orientation. Image courtesy of the California Missions Resource Center

Several years later, while I was working on an archaeological investigation at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, I realized that the church at this site also was skewed off kilter from the square quadrangle around it – in this case, about 12 degrees. I eventually confirmed that the church was aligned to illuminate during the midsummer solstice, which occurs on June 21.

Next I initiated a statewide survey of the California mission sites. The first steps were to review the floor plans of the latest church structures on record, analyze historic maps and conduct field surveys of all 21 missions to identify trajectories of light at each site. Next we established the azimuth so as to determine whether each church building was oriented toward astronomically significant events, using sunrise and sunset data.

The azimuth angle is the compass bearing, relative to true (geographic) north, of a point on the horizon directly beneath an observed object such as a star or planet. Image by Pearson Scott Foresman/Creative Commons

This process revealed that 14 of the 21 California missions were sited to produce illuminations on solstices or equinoxes. We also showed that the missions of San Miguel Arcángel and San José were oriented to illuminate on the Catholic Feast Days of Saint Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4) and Saint Joseph (March 19), respectively.

Soon thereafter, I found that 18 of the 22 mission churches of New Mexico were oriented to the all-important vernal or autumnal equinox, used by the Pueblo Indians to signal the agricultural season. My research now spans the American hemisphere, and recent findings by associates have extended the count of confirmed sites as far south as Lima, Peru. To date, I have identified some 60 illumination sites throughout the western United States, Mexico and South America.

Melding light with faith

It is striking to see how Franciscans were able to site and design structures that would produce illuminations, but an even more interesting question is why they did so. Amerindians, who previously worshiped the sun, identified Jesus with the sun. The friars reinforced this idea via teachings about the cristo helios, or “solar Christ” of early Roman Christianity.

Anthropologist Louise Burkhart’s studies affirm the presence of the “Solar Christ” in indigenous understandings of Franciscan teachings. This conflation of indigenous cosmologies with the teachings of the early Church readily enabled the Franciscans to convert followers across the Americas. Moreover, calibrations of the movable feast days of Easter and Holy Week were anchored to the Hebrew Passover, or the crescent new moon closest to the vernal equinox. Proper observance of Easter and Christ’s martyrdom therefore depended on the Hebrew count of days, which was identified with both the vernal equinox and the solstice calendar.

Schematic of the four successive solar illuminations of the saints of the main altar screen of Mission San Miguel Arcángel, California. Note illumination begins at the left with the Oct. 4 illumination of Saint Francis on his Feast Day. The author first identified and documented this solar array in 2003. Photo by Rubén G. Mendoza/Creative Commons

Orienting mission churches to produce illuminations on the holiest days of the Catholic calendar gave native converts the sense that Jesus was manifest in the divine light. When the sun was positioned to shine on the church altar, neophytes saw its rays illuminate the ornately gilded tabernacle container, where Catholics believe that bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. In effect, they beheld the apparition of the Solar Christ.

The winter solstice, coinciding with both the ancient Roman festival of Sol Invictus (unconquered sun) and the Christian birth of Christ, heralded the shortest and darkest time of the year. For the California Indian, it presaged fears of the impending death of the sun. At no time was the sun in the church more powerful than on that day each year, when the birth of Christ signaled the birth of hope and the coming of new light into the world.The Conversation

(Rubén G. Mendoza is Chairman of the Division of Social, Behavioral & Global Studies at California State University, Monterey Bay.)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Ruben G. Mendoza


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  • When the sun was positioned to shine on the church altar, neophytes saw its rays illuminate the ornately gilded tabernacle container, where Catholics believe that bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ.

    This is not true.

    Christian denominations which believe in transubstantiation, consubstantiation or the real presence, believe that the common elements of bread & wine become the body & blood of Christ during the consecration ritual or liturgy, conducted by the priest at the altar. Leftover consecrated elements that were not consumed during the communion are stored in the Tabernacle for future communing of the elements. When the Tabernacle holds consecrated elements a vigil light (often red) is lit to signify the real presence. No light, no elements in the Tabernacle.

  • The orientation of Christian churches – Catholic, Orthodox, and others – to various astronomical phenomenon is well-documented.

    The most common characteristic is the orientation of the altar/sanctuary to the East to face the rising sun.

    Ruben G. Mendoza would have found a study of these arrangements in the churches of Europe prior to looking at the Spanish Missions in California a worthwhile endeavor, since every orientation he mentions is found in the Spanish churches preceding the establishment of these missions.

    The monks and priests of the churches in Europe played an important role in the creation and maintenance of libraries and were overrepresented in the fields of astronomy and mathematics.

    For example, if you visit the Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris you discover that the church incorporates design features to facilitate astronomical calculations necessary to determine dates in the liturgical calendar.

    In 1727, Jean-Baptiste Languet de Gergy, then priest of Saint-Sulpice, requested the construction of a gnomon in the church as part of its new construction, to help him determine the time of the equinoxes and hence of Easter. A meridian line of brass was inlaid across the floor and ascending a white marble obelisk, nearly eleven meters high, at the top of which is a sphere surmounted by a cross.

    In the south transept window a small opening with a lens was set up, so that a ray of sunlight shines onto the brass line. At noon on the winter solstice the ray of light touches the brass line on the obelisk. At noon on the equinoxes (21 March and 21 September), the ray touches an oval plate of copper in the floor near the altar.

    Constructed by the English clock-maker and astronomer Henry Sully, the gnomon was also used for various scientific measurements. This protected Saint-Sulpice from being destroyed during the French Revolution.

    The theological import of these orientations vary – some like the orientation of the church itself and a window to utilize a natural phenomenon to highlight a theological reflection have fallen out of use.

  • Wonderful! I didn’t know that about St. Sulpice. However, long ago I noticed that even in our old parish church which has the aisle running roughly, North-South, you can see this. Throughout the year the East Windows (Women Saints) and West Windows (Men Saints) are variously illuminated, depending on the season of the year. While it is not as exact as these, you can see the tradition (The general architecture is Romanesque). Along the same note, I was very interested in a book by Hilaire Belloc, The Old Road. He attempted to make the Pilgrimage from Winchester to Canterbury.ending at the Cathedral on the feast of St. Thomas a Becket. As a general rule, the pilgrims followed a dry (relatively for that time of year) road along a ridge looking south. Shrines along the way were generally entered from their south porch. I guess we can blame use of electricity for some of the current trivialization of sacred architecture!

  • The ready availability of light, of calendars, and the resulting distancing of urban populations from nature and natural phenomenon explain part of the change in architecture.

    Of course the sweep of modernist post-Christian theology led to a “modern” church architecture starting largely in Sweden, followed by the post-Vatican II whoopee style led by the Benedictines:


    Fortunately both congregations and smart architects are coming to their senses:


  • The Sun is setting on the RCC and all other religions no matter how many sunbeams light up its altars, mosques and temples!!!!

    The sunlight of the Great Kibosh of all religions shines brightly all over the globe and not subject to quarterly soltices:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • Yes, I was unfamiliar with the astronomical orientation of the Roman Catholic churches in the Americas, especially those of the Spanish missions in what was northern Mexico when they were built.

  • This article reminds me to wish those who accept it at RNS a good Advent Journey to Joy: “Any one thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate (G.K.Chesterton)”

  • An early sunbeam!!

    “The Two Universal Sects

    They all err—Moslems, Jews,
    Christians, and Zoroastrians:

    Humanity follows two world-wide sects:
    One, man intelligent without religion,

    The second, religious without intellect. ”


    , born AD 973 /, died AD 1058 / .

    Al-Ma’arri was a blind Arab philosopher, poet and writer.[1][2] He was a controversial
    rationalist of his time, attacking the dogmas of religion and rejecting the
    claim that Islam possessed any monopoly on truth.”

  • Interesting bit of history and use of architecture. It reminds us how much ancient and medieval man knew about the world around him. I got the same feeling and seeing the astrological observatory from the early 18th century of Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, India