American ruinsSan Juan Capistrano, CA

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

This is the third installment of my Mission Mondays series, exploring all 21 Spanish Missions along the California coast. You can read more about this series, and see a sketch map of all the missions, at this post.

San Juan Capistrano is the jewel of the missions—seriously, it’s hard to think of a more beautiful place in all of California. I ended up finishing off the whole rest of my sketchbook there, because every time I blocked out a rough composition, I’d look in another direction and see something else I just had to draw.

Detail of California Missions map sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Founded in 1776, Mission San Juan Capistrano contains the oldest building in California still in use. But the thing everyone comes to see is the large portion of the complex that lies in ruin.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

If you come to the mission from the north, the first thing you’ll see is the relatively brand-new mission basilica. The building is gorgeous, but was only built in 1986. Still, it follows the design of the original mission church—

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

—which is on the the other end of the property, and looks like this. The church was built in 1806, and flattened six years later by an earthquake. The ruins are where the famous swallows nest and return each year—though these days, that’s not so true anymore. I was there a month too soon anyway, so I saw a grand total of one swallow. But thanks to recent factors like increased development in the town and possibly climate change, the huge flocks just aren’t coming anymore. In the past 20 years or so, only a few birds have been coming home to roost each spring.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Hearing about the swallows was certainly a disappointment, but I was too enamored of the buildings themselves to be sad for long. What they most reminded me of was my time living in Italy. The cloister archways were one thing, but seeing the ruined stone church transported me right back to the Roman Forum.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The other thing that reminded me of Rome was the light—it was the kind of place where the “magic hour” seemed to last all afternoon.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I picked a good day to visit, too—despite the perfect weather, I was there in the off-season.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So even though I’m sure the place is packed to the gills during swallow season, there were only a handful of visitors there with me that day.

Mission San Juan Capistrano sketch by Chandler O'Leary

So that allowed me to choose whatever vantage point I wanted, and spent plenty of uninterrupted time sketching—just me, the mission, and all that Mediterranean light.

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