Mission Architecture

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: September 1, 1995

The architecture of the Spanish missions in Texas is roughly a blend of three unrelated elements: (1) the materials and labor available, (2) the ingenuity of individual monastics, and (3) architectural trends of Spanish America. Spanish American architecture originally was in the Italian Renaissance tradition, to which later were added the trends of both the Spanish and Italian Baroque, and which was finally modified by native techniques and ornamentation as found in Southern Mexico and in Central and South America. This resultant development has been termed "Ultra Baroque" and has been described as "rhythmically symmetrical," "exhuberantly decorated," "pictorally beautiful," possessing "vigorous plastic sentiment coupled with clever and artistic use of polychromic effect." At the peak of this development Spanish monastics undertook mission construction in Texas. Their work was limited by crude materials and crude workmen for which the only compensation was improvisation. The result was something that conforms in some respects to the principal trend in Mexico, yet differs in the direction of simplicity. In general plan Texas missions consisted of a large walled quadrangle, within which usually were Indian jacals, a granary, living quarters for the monastics, and a church. The most common plan of the church was a long nave crossed at its upper end by a shorter one, thus forming a cross (Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña, for example), but the largest and most beautiful of the missions (San José y San Miguel de Aguayo) consisted of a long nave 100 feet by twenty-five feet, uncrossed, with a balcony at the entrance end and an altar and sacristy at the farther end. Franciscan-built churches were usually oriented east and west; the other orders did not hold to a definite plan. Characteristic of all the missions, however, was a belfry façade-a thick wall rising above the church-into one or more openings in which were hung the bells. East Texas missions were constructed of wood, as were some minor missions (San Francisco Xavier de Naxara). The well-known missions were built of stone and lime mortar, adobe and timber, and adobe bricks. While ornamentation was limited by the lack of skilled artisans, the missions compensated by elaborate frescoes for what they lacked in sculptural decoration. A notable exception to this was the carving of the portal and sacristy window (Rose Window) at San José y San Miguel de Aguayo Mission.

Cleve Hallenbeck, Spanish Missions of the Old Southwest (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page, 1926). Walter F. McCaleb, Spanish Missions of Texas (San Antonio: Naylor, 1954).


  • Architecture
  • Styles, Methods, and Technological Innovations

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Anonymous, “Mission Architecture,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 24, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/mission-architecture.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995