The restoration of a Mission-era painting reveals more than subtle colors and artistic workmanship—it also uncovers a decades-old case of mistaken identity.
The youth’s gaze focuses intently upward, one hand clutching a white lily to his breast, but little else could be distinguished. The Mission-era portrait hanging in a side chapel of the Mission Santa Clara de Asís since 1929 was too obscured by grime to make out details.
“It’s a painting that I originally thought was ugly and nondescript and of little interest,” says Charles White, director of the Mission Church. “But the conservators kept arguing that it was a diamond in the rough. They said, ‘You don't realize this is a beautiful picture, you just have to get through all the soot and the grime.’”
Thanks to a grant from the California Missions Foundation, dedicated to the preservation and restoration of California’s 21 missions, those conservators got the chance to restore the painting in 2012. They carefully removed layers of severely darkened varnishes mixed with dust and soot. Their work revealed the subtle colors and exquisite details of the original artwork, most likely painted in Mexico in the early or mid-19th century. They also uncovered a mystery: The saint was not who everyone thought he was.
The patron saint of job seekers
|Revelation: The painting as it looked before restoration (right half) and after (left half). Photos courtesy Charles White
“Our earliest Mission guidebook, written in the late 1930s by Fr. James Walsh and based on the notes of SCU historian Arthur Spearman, S.J., believed the painting depicted St. Aloysius Gonzaga, the patron saint of college students,” White says. After the disastrous campus fire of 1926, alumnus Luis Fatjo 1893 made a donation for a side altar in the newly rebuilt Mission. It is here where the painting was hung.
St. Aloysius is often shown with a lily in his hand, signifying purity. The patron saint of students, he is usually portrayed as a beardless youth in an unadorned cassock. “The conservation revealed a slightly older figure with a mature man’s beard, adorned with richly gilded necklaces and matching belt,” White says. SCU President Michael Engh, S.J., a scholar of religious history, and longtime campus historian Gerald McKevitt, S.J., quickly realized the portrait was of someone other than Aloysius.
In his free time, Fr. Engh began checking books of Spanish colonial-era religious art for a match. He found paintings of San Cayetano—or, in English, St. Cajetan—a likely fit. In the early 16th century, Cajetan, an Italian diplomat, became a Catholic priest and Church reformer, drawing on his personal family fortune to build hospitals and loan agencies serving the poor. Known as the patron saint of job seekers, Cajetan is often depicted with a jeweled necklace instead of a simple black cassock. After viewing a variety of images of St. Cajetan, Frs. Engh and McKevitt became convinced he was the subject of the portrait.
The painting is among the last of the Mission’s artifacts that stood in need of restoration. “The statues and paintings are part of the Catholic religious heritage of our campus—and the state of California,” Fr. Engh says. “Charlie’s care of our patrimony deserves accolades from all who come to the Mission, from Santa Clara students at Mass to fourth-graders who visit to study California history for their classes.”
As graduation draws near, students picking up their sheepskins might also want to express some gratitude to White and the restorers. And perhaps they’ll pay a visit to the patron saint of job seekers in all his newly brilliant colors.