This is the second 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.
I thought my travel itinerary allowed myself plenty of time to tour and sketch each mission—but I was proven wrong almost immediately. They don’t call San Luis Rey de Francia “King of the Missions” for nothing—the place is absolutely huge. And of all the missions, this one might just have the most details, the greatest number of interesting nooks and crannies to explore. So not only did I not sketch everything I wanted to—I didn’t even see it all. Oh, well, it’s an excellent reason to return—and I did get enough sketching in for a very good start.
Mission San Luis Rey (named for King Louis IX of France, who died 500 years before Marie Antoinette’s husband was crowned) is the second mission in geographical order. Chronologically, though, it was one of the last, the 18th of 21 to be built. It’s also one of only a handful of missions located very close to the shore (most of the rest of them are inland by a fair piece); its location brings El Camino Real into nearly overlapping proximity to the Pacific Coast Highway.
It’s the kind of place that brings to mind the quintessential idea of California: white Spanish stucco against a jewel-bright blue sky.
The exterior is stately and beautifully designed, though for the most part it has all the elements you might expect at a mission.
The inside is where most of the surprises are. My sketch here just barely hints at it, but the interior is almost entirely covered with detailed, hand-painted frescoes. Once you step one foot inside, it’s so easy to forget you’re even in the New World.
The Padres who built this place might have been primarily men of the cloth, but they were also incredible designers. Yet they didn’t design everything in this place—there’s one more surprise here that they did not intend. See that little skull-and-crossbones above the cemetery entrance? That little detail was added by Walt Disney, if you can believe it, when his studio filmed the Zorro television series here in the 1950s. It might be something of a cardinal sin to add a Hollywood touch to an historic structure, but I absolutely love that it’s still here!
Mission San Luis Rey has been impeccably maintained, so it’s absolutely gorgeous from every angle. Which makes it hard to choose a vantage point when you’re trying to sketch and you have limited time: to quote a tourist I overheard in a completely different place once, “Everywhere you look there’s a picture!”