When art conservators removed the grime from a treasured piece of Mission-era art that had been hanging in a side chapel off the main nave of the church since 1929, they revealed the portrait of a saint—but not the saint Charles White, director of the Mission, and others thought lay under the years of darkened varnish, soot, and dirt.
“Our earliest Mission guidebook written in the late ’30’s by Fr. James Walsh, S.J.—based on the notes of SCU historian Fr. Arthur Spearman, S.J.—believed the painting depicted St. Aloysius Gonzaga, the patron saint of college students. This understanding persisted to this very day until our recent conservation effort proved us wrong,” White explains.
Once the painting was restored, thanks to a $6,100 grant from the California Missions Foundation, it became obvious that the man in the picture was not a beardless youth in an unadorned cassock, as St. Aloysius is usually portrayed. “Instead, the conservation revealed a slightly older figure with a mature man’s beard, adorned with richly gilded necklaces and matching belt,” White says. “Our resident Jesuit historians, Frs. Michael Engh and Gerald McKevitt, quickly became convinced that the saint depicted is not St. Aloysius but rather St. Cajetan, or St. Cayetano in Spanish.”
St. Cajetan, originally an Italian diplomat as well as a contemporary of St. Ignatius of Loyola, eventually became a Catholic priest and Church reformer. He founded an order and drew upon his personal family fortune to build hospitals and loan agencies serving the poor.
One thing that was never in doubt was the painting’s mission-era vintage. “Our conservators reiterated that it was surely painted in Mexico in the early/mid 19th century. They also claim that several restorations had been attempted prior to the 1929 purchase for our newly rebuilt Mission Santa Clara. This, too, suggests great age. Over time, the primitive varnishes severely darkened and mixed with layers of dust and soot largely obscured the details, thus confusing the subject’s true identity,” White says.
Because of its age, the painting is among the last artifacts in the Mission that qualify for the support of the California Missions Foundation, which was founded by the William Randolph Hearst family in 1998 for the preservation and restoration of the 21 missions in the state. Only works from the Mission Era qualify for restoration grants. “They have given us tens of thousands of dollars over the years to renovate the interior artwork, side chapels, and high altar that were damaged after the earthquake of ’89,” White says.
The restoration not only revealed St. Catejan, but the artist’s name as well. “You can finally appreciate the detail, the subtle colors, the workmanship of the artist,” White says. “And near the bottom, we can clearly read the artist’s Latin dedication: Cuentos fecit, or what we believe to translate as ‘Cuentos made this.’