“La Madre Santisima de la Luz” by Luis Mena


OLL5Thanks in part to a generous gift from the Native Daughters of the Golden West, Mission San Diego de Alcalá commissioned a photographic reproduction of “La Madre Santisima de la Luz” by Luis Mena. The original painting was one of the earliest devotional images to be installed in Mission San Diego de Alcalá after its founding in 1769, and only one of two paintings that survived the burning of the Mission during the Indian revolt in 1775.

This painting of “La Madre Santisima de la Luz” is especially significant because unlike earlier works with this theme, the saved soul and several of the surrounding figures are indigenous people from Mexico. The inclusion of native people was a powerful aid for Spanish missionaries as they invited the indigenous people in the San Diego area to embrace the Christian faith.

This painting is first mentioned in the report of 1776 and appears in an inventory of 1777, as well as those of 1783 and 1834. A second small painting of the same subject is mentioned in the 1783 inventory, but it has since disappeared. The surviving painting was in the adobe chapel of the Immaculate Conception where it would have been brought when that chapel was dedicated in 1858. The chapel remained in use until 1916, when the new parish church was built in Old Town. The Franciscans were in charge there until 1945 when the new church was turned over to the diocesan clergy and the art works were returned to Mission San Luis Rey.

The uniqueness of this painting is found in its details. First of all, the soul is represented as an Indian, and then, there are additional figures in the corners. These include at the top, Saint Joseph and a redeemed soul to the left, two persons of the Trinity (Father and Son) in the center, and Saint Francis of Assisi and a redeemed soul on the right, while kneeling Indian chiefs are in the lower corners with the artist’s signature (Luis Mena) very prominently displayed in the center rather than down in a corner.

For a complete history of this painting, please refer to Norman Neuerburg’s article “La Madre Santisima de la Luz” in The Journal of San Diego History, Spring 1995 (Volume 41, Number 22):