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Santa Barbara Mission’s Long Lost Original 1786 Spanish Colonial Backdrop Found and its art restoration


Santa Barbara Mission’s Discovery Of It’s Long Lost Original 1786 Main Chapel Spanish Colonial Backdrop and its art preservation, restoration and conservation

Perhaps California’s oldest, most important artistic historic treasure has been found with great excitement this last year. This is an interesting historic preservation story of earthquake destruction, bizarre reuse, forgotten purgatory, rediscovery and restoration to grace. Read ahead for the odd story about what happened to this important element of the church.


1875 painting (done in site) of the Santa Barbara mission by Henry Chapman Ford


Background and Use Efforts are now underway for the art restoration of the very important historic and exciting decorative element of the original 1786 mission that was rediscovered rolled up and unrecognizable in storage. It was a type of theater curtain at the front of the chapel to give depth and design to the otherwise flat front chapel wall. Noted as “The Lienzo” (Spanish for “canvas” but, in ethnohistory, a lienzo is a sheet of cloth painted with indigenous creativity) by the Franciscan archive, it depicts the architecture of a more formal church with Catholic saints, probably painted with indigenous help.

What a treasure, an original design element and an important part of the original historical Santa Barbara Mission Chapel of great importance also to the history of California!! Cudos to Executive Director Monica Orozco and her team for finding and saving the treasured art feature.


The Santa Barbara Mission by Henry Chapman Ford

The original Santa Barbara Mission is a Franciscan order Spanish mission founded by Padre Fermín Lasuén on December 4, 1786, the feast day of Saint Barbara. It was the tenth California mission completed.

Father Fermín Lasuén, took over the presidency of the California mission chain upon the death of Father Junípero Serra.


Earthquake Damage

The early missionaries in Santa Barbara built three different chapels during the first few years, each larger than the previous one. But, it seems that the early padres were more enthusiastic about the ideas of building than their architectural and structural education was complete. The 1786 adobe mission structure was badly damaged in the 1812 earthquake. In fact, their overzealous construction attempts in San Juan Capistrano, the 7th CA mission

completed, were never completely remedied in the main church and the earthquake damaged vaulted apse still remains, today, open to the sky and never rebuilt after several tries to get it right.

It was only after the Santa Barbara earthquake on December 21, 1812, that the construction on the current SB Mission, as we see it today, was begun. It was completed and then rededicated in 1820.

Another earthquake about 90 years later in 1925 inflicted serious damage to the towers, the façade and the chapel which were subsequently rebuilt by 1927 but the appearance of the inside of the church has not been altered significantly since 1820 (though rebuilt).


1925 Earthquake Damage on Old Mission Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara Mission Museum Emeritus, Kristina Foss suggested, “(The lienzo) may be from the earlier church as the canvas greyed-blue color matches that of the canvas covered altar of 1789. They seem to me to be a set. It was also, apparently, part of the 1820 rebuild design.”

Disaster struck in 1925 with the earthquake that resulted in massive damage to the building and resulted in the lienzo being badly damaged. So what happened afterwards to this important architectural and artistic component of the chapel?


This sweet cherub is from of the original Santa Barbara Mission lienzo made about 1790.

Bizarre Re-use and Forgotten Status

After removal from the church in 1925, several seminarians, unaware of the importance of the now 150 year old historical architectural element, used part of the canvas for a boat sail! The story goes that the boat promptly sank and those sections of the lienzo were lost.

The remaining sections of the rolled up, crushed antique backdrop were then left in storage. When the archive was built, these were placed in the present basement in which they, over the decades, were frequently moved around as Facilities revamped space use from time to time.

Here is a good “take-away” lesson or idea from this story if you are involved with managing a collection of artwork

When something is in bad condition, you may not need to do a complete restoration all at once. For minimal money, perhaps, the item may be stabilized only, saving the total restoration for later when funds are available. Here is what happened next on this project:

A couple of years ago, SBMAL Executive Director Monica Orozco contacted Fine Art Conservation Laboratories to assist in planning the preservation process required for the important artifact. Given the extensive flaking of paint, the many cracks, rips and missing pieces, it was agreed upon to do only emergency services at first to stabilize the condition. In fact, all 5 of the sections of the entire Lienzo were consolidated for only $1,000.00 and then stored in a protective way for secured handling.


Unrolling the Lienzo for examination after “the find.”

Future Plans for the Historic SB Mission Lienzo

Since what remains of the original Lienzo cannot be exhibited in its complete form for many reasons, each of the 5 sections will be preserved and restored in different intervals for use in smaller chapels and venues instead of being placed at the head of the main chapel.

Plans are underway now to place the first section of the Lienzo to be treated together with an original 1785 alter in a small chapel next to the museum. The others sections will be stored safely for future considerations. More to come on this set up.

Mission Santa Barbara is the only mission to remain under the leadership of the Franciscan Friars of California since its founding.

Fine Art Conservation Laboratories is honored to be part of this historic preservation work.

There are a total of five panels in need of conservation, costing close to

$100,000 for the entire project. We are focusing on one panel at a time to make the project manageable and we are currently $3,000 away from raising the funds for the panel that will be installed in the museum to be on display with the original Mission church altar.


If interested in supporting this project, donate today

at and select the Lienzo Conservation Project in the drop down.

Contributions can also be sent to (and make the check out to) “Old Mission Santa Barbara” at 2201 Laguna Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93103. You may also contribute with a credit card by calling (805) 682-4713.


See more about art conservation efforts at

Contact Info

805 564 3438 office

805 570 4140 Scott’s mobile

Scott M. Haskins, President FACL, Inc.

Head of Conservation

Art Conservator (Practicing since 1975)

Gena Dillon, Office Manager and Logistics

Andrew Jacobs, Disaster Response Services Coordinator

Virginia Panizzon, Art Conservator (Practicing since 1995)

Oriana Montemurro, Art Conservator (Practicing since 1999)

Danielle Masters, Conservation Technician, Preparator and Framing, Disaster Response Services

Denver Dillon, Technician Blog post:


Santa Barbara Mission by Henry Chapman Ford abut 1875. “The Queen of the Missions” has been a favorite of travelers, artists and tourists since the end fo the 1800s.


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