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A Jewel in the Baja desert - San Ignacio Kadakaamán

Many Mexican missions changed hands between the various religious orders during the colonial period. San Ignacio Kadakaamán in central Baja California is a prime example. The mission and village of San Ignacio is located in mid-peninsula, where Highway One crosses from west to east (see map).

Founded by the Jesuits in 1728 the palm-fringed lakeside mission site, fed by a year round creek or arroyo, was a true oasis, set in rugged desert terrain strewn with volcanic boulders and scarred by deep ravines. Along with several other missions, it was assigned to the Franciscans after the Jesuits were summarily expelled in 1767. Preoccupied with their missionizing of Sonora and Alta California, the Franciscans were only too happy in 1773 to hand over responsibility for the mission to the Dominicans, who were eager to establish their presence in the region.

At the time of their departure the Jesuits had established a flourishing agricultural community at Kadakaamán ("Creek of the Reeds" in the native Cochimí language - a reference to the precious local water source) although only a rude adobe mission had been erected on a stone foundation. It was left to the incoming Dominicans to build a permanent masonry church and convento - today the finest Dominican mission still standing in Baja California.

Construction of the fortress-like mission was essentially complete by 1786. Abundant local volcanic stone was the basic building material, while the great wooden beams that span the church and conventual quarters were hewn from forests in the local sierra. According to legend, funds for this ambitious project were provided in part by the Queen of Spain.

With Mexican independence and especially following the anti-clerical Reform in the 1800s, the community shrank and the mission fell into disuse and suffered neglect. By the mid-1970s, however, San Ignacio had revived and the mission was carefully restored.

The Church

Despite its isolated situation - hidden in the remote Baja desert far from other centers of Dominican activity in southern Mexico - the church of San Ignacio nevertheless bears a family resemblance to provincial Dominican buildings in Oaxaca and Chiapas.

The broad church front takes the form of a "retablo-facade", divided into two tiers by a grid of plain pilasters and cornices with sawtooth moldings. These elements frame slender sculpture niches on either side of the doorway and choir window that retain simple statues of saints and angels. The facade is conspicuously punctuated with round, "bullseye" windows on both levels, further accented with diamond motifs.

< The main doorway is capped by an ornamental moorish arch, reminiscent of earlier Dominican churches in rural Oaxaca, and is surmounted by a relief medallion of the Dominican insignia - an eight-pointed cross with fleurs-de-lis.

Slim colonettes with outsize, tassel-like pendants also form a moorish inspired alfiz around the choir window. A row of large, urn-like pinnacles caps the facade, along with a squat belfry sitting atop the south tower.

The Escutcheons

Of particular interest are the heraldic reliefs emblazoned above the lower bullseye windows.

The lions and castles of Imperial Spain appear on the left beneath a large crown in outline. On the right, overlapping globes of the Old World and the New World are flanked by crowned pillars that symbolize the strength and unity of the Spanish empire across the oceans.


The Altarpiece

But the finest, and surely the most surprising feature at San Ignacio is its glorious gilded retablo occupying the east end of the nave.

Designed in the highly refined anástilo manner of the terminal Mexican baroque, the emphasis is on ornament and content at the expense of traditional structure. The tabernacle in the lower center is especially ornate, framed by a complex tapestry of scrolls, strapwork and rocaille decoration of consummate craftsmanship.

Although the sole statue of St Ignatius Loyola - the Jesuit founder for whom the mission was named - retains a dominant position in the center niche, the main focus of the retablo is a series of large, oval shaped painted panels.

In addition to a scene portraying the Virgin of Pilar at the top, these panels show St. Joseph and John the Baptist on the upper level, and below, the Dominican saints St. Dominic and a winged St. Vincent Ferrer, the Dominican preacher and missionary.

This superb altarpiece, probably dating from the 1780s, must have been commissioned, executed and shipped from Mexico City or possibly Querétaro, and assembled locally under the supervision of knowledgeable artisans - an extraordinarily sophisticated and expensive work of art to find its way to this remote frontier settlement of New Spain, not to mention its miraculous survival after more than 200 years of turmoil and neglect!


The Mission

Other points of interest at San Ignacio include the fortress-like convento and mission outbuildings all constructed of dark volcanic stone blocks.

Between the village and the highway, remains are still in evidence of the massive dike or levee, built in late colonial times of sand, dirt and lavastone boulders, to protect the mission from seasonal flooding of the arroyo.

San Ignacio is also a good base for exploring the prehistoric cave paintings in the nearby Sierra de San Francisco (permit needed).

  • Text by Richard D. Perry ©2003.
  • Pictures and map by courtesy of Edward W. Vernon ©2002 (not to be reproduced without permission)
  • For more complete information and pictures on San Ignacio Kadakaamán and all the other Spanish Missions of Baja California see Las Misiones Antiguas by Edward Vernon, available through Espadaña Press and online through this website.
  • an alternative informational website on San Ignacio Kadakaamán (external link)
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