Discovered in a box in the Church of Santa Clara de Asís, California, a group of about one hundred pieces including liturgical vestments and related items from the Mission era, today represents the most important part of the historical collection in the de Saisset Museum next to the Mission Church on the campus of Santa Clara University. As in similar collections in the other Missions (twenty one in total) in California, the liturgical vestments encompass different styles, mainly 18th-19th century French, Italian, Spanish, and also Chinese.
These collections are composed of various textile compounds, sometimes mixed together, and many of the vestments betray non-European origin. The Informes (Annual Reports) from 1777-1840 of the church mention the provenance of most of the artifacts imported or made in situ since the establishment of the first Mission. Santa Clara de Asís was moved and rebuilt many times over the centuries from the original location on the bank of the Guadalupe River in 1777, when the Spaniards established the first outpost in the valley.
Among the most interesting pieces in the collection, the vestments with Chinese embroidery stand out. The satin stitches that exquisitely compose flowers and butterflies on plain monochrome silk satin (often red) are easily recognizable. Indeed, these vestments recall Chinese noble and imperial robes of the Qing period (1644-1912).
Each vestment matches with other identical liturgical items that together create sets for the sacred mass. Although in the informes we can find a few notes regarding Chinese dish’s wares and fabrics in the Mission, there is no information related to these specific vestments. One of the earlier documents, dated to the end of the 18th century, however, informs us about the lining of the vestments made with “Canton pink cloth.”
This cloth can be only identified with a type of translucent pink tabby that was used to line the majority of the vestments, including those made with French and Spanish compounds (lampas and brocade).
Many Chinese vestments were made in the Philippines and imported into the Americas via the Manila Galleons; nevertheless, those in Santa Clara, do not appear as refined as the finished products made for export. The visible evidence of ink on the surface (which was used to draw the pattern on the textile) and the presence of the golden trim, most likely a Spanish filé, suggest a local production. It is possible that once they arrived in Baja, the unfinished Chinese product was completed with European material and decorations.
The presence of Chinese and other peoples of Asian origin in Mexico and Alta California in the last three centuries, created a complete new style in art that today would require a much deeper study and expertise. The research on these “Chinese” liturgical vestments in Santa Clara and other Missions in California is still at a very early stage. A better historical and artistic contextualization may be released in the next year.