San Saba Mission Painting

By: Sam D. Ratcliffe

Type: General Entry

Published: January 1, 1996

Updated: February 16, 2019

The Destruction of Mission San Sabá in the Province of Texas and the Martyrdom of the Fathers Alonso Giraldo de Terreros, Joseph Santiesteban, a huge (83" by 115") painting, was commissioned around 1762 by mining magnate Pedro Romero de Terreros, cousin of Father Alonso de Terreros and principal benefactor of Santa Cruz de San Sabá Mission. Its intent was to express both the horror and significance of the massacre as well as to honor the priests' martyrdom. Speculations about the identity of the painter have ranged from indefiniteness to dogmatic certainty. Whoever he was, the artist likely worked in the studio of Miguel Cabrera, the dominant painter of mid-eighteenth-century Mexico. A great deal of evidence suggests but does not prove conclusively that one of Cabrera's artists, José de Páez, executed the painting.

In The Destruction of Mission San Sabá, the placement of the figures of the two slain priests makes their deaths the window through which the viewer interprets the painting on both the actual and figurative level, since these deaths were what invested the massacre with the element of heroic sacrifice. At the foot of each of these large figures is a shield bearing a biographical sketch of the priest, who is depicted in the manner in which he died, complete with weapons and blood in appropriate places. In addition to biographical information, the shields commend the priests' character and sacrifice. The shields bracket a scroll that briefly summarizes the purpose of the mission and praises its major financial supporter, "the illustrious Knight don Pedro Therreros of the order of Calatrava." In the fashion of painters of other historical tableaus, the artist has placed an alphabetized key to the eighteen events depicted in the painting in the lower half of the scroll. These vignettes are illustrated by 300 separate figures, each incident marked by a large red letter.

The painting was the only such work executed in Mexico in the mid-1700s that attempted to document a contemporary historical event; the few other visual depictions of scenes from this period in the nation's history are in the category of "historical views." Just as most American painters of the time took their artistic cues from Great Britain and, to a lesser extent, continental Europe, so colonial Mexican painters followed European artistic precedents, which dictated that "history painting" refer to classical or biblical themes. If an artist wished to portray contemporary historical figures, he dressed them in classical garb and allegorized the incident in which they were involved. Traditionally, American art historians have pointed to Benjamin West's Death of General Wolfe as the painting that started a "revolution" in historical painting toward realism in the portrayal of contemporary historical events (1770). Although The Destruction of Mission San Sabá did not have a similar influence, it was painted at approximately the same time and was one of the first historical paintings to portray its subjects in contemporary dress.

The painting is important primarily as an artifact, as the earliest known painting of a Texas historical scene by a professional artist. Its contents, however, are not intended as a historically reliable account of the attack. Comparison with the deposition of one of the survivors, Father Miguel Molina, indicates that the painter included many of the events mentioned by the priest, although the wording of the alphabetized key is not a literal transcription of his account. But the artist also omitted some events while embellishing others. Certainly, the painting has much to commend it as a piece of visual, documentary evidence of the battle, especially since it was executed shortly after the massacre and a survivor may have advised the artist. Nevertheless, The Destruction was intended primarily as hagiography, with history as a secondary consideration. The canvas was soon famous in Spain as well as Mexico and served beautifully as a piece of "contemporary propaganda and...current morality," celebrated primarily for its ideological overtones rather than for its aesthetic or documentary qualities. In the 1990s it was located at the Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Historia in Mexico City.

Sam D. Ratcliffe, "Escenas de Martirio: Notes on the Destruction of Mission San Sabá," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 94 (April 1991).


  • Religion
  • Catholic
  • Architecture
  • Missions
  • Presidios
  • Pueblos
  • Visual Arts

Time Periods:

  • Spanish Texas

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

Sam D. Ratcliffe, “San Saba Mission Painting,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 19, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1996
February 16, 2019

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