by Katie Sorensen
Saint Barbara tile by Armando de la Rocha. Photo courtesy of Armando de la Rocha.
The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation has a long running relationship working with local ceramic artist Armando de la Rocha and this year we are pleased to be presenting a unique tile of Saint Barbara he created to sell in our gift shop at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park. Armando is a local resident of Santa Barbara and a third and fourth grade ceramics teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School. Born in Sinaloa, Mexico in 1971, he arrived in Santa Barbara in 1993. He began working with clay in 1994 and after completing Santa Barbara City College courses in 2001, participated in his first solo show at the City College gallery for the annual Dia de Los Muertos celebration. Over the years he has established a reputation as a gifted potter, dedicated to preserving traditional Mexican folk art, in particular Dia De los Muertos imagery. Often his work features skeletons and skulls, symbolizing themes of mythology and Hispanic history. Creating the Saint Barbara tile this year for the Presidio adds a different theme to Armando’s repertoire of work and is a way for him to honor his Catholic heritage. He sells his work locally at the Arts and Crafts show on Cabrillo Boulevard on Sundays and participates in festivals throughout California. We are pleased to carry Armando’s work in our gift shop.
Armando’s depiction of Saint Barbara is based on a painting that can be viewed inside the Presidio’s Chapel. In 1783, José de Alcibar painted a portrait, approximately 9’ by 5’, of Saint Barbara in Mexico and later it was brought to Santa Barbara where it hung in the Presidio chapel until it was removed in the 1850’s. In the 1980’s the painting was discovered in Our Lady of Sorrows Church, to which many of the contents of the Presidio chapel had been moved in the mid-19th century. The church returned on a permanent loan to the Presidio Chapel, where it hangs today.
Saint Barbara by Jose de Alcibar, 1787. From the collections of Our Lady Of Sorrows Church, on display in the Santa Barbara Presidio Chapel.
Armando’s Saint Barbara tile incorporates the tower Saint Barbara was banished to by her father. According to the legend of Saint Barbara, she was a beautiful maiden with noble goals. Barbara’s father followed a Greco-Roman religion and did not want his daughter attracting unworthy suitors. Locking her in a tower for years, she received food, water and clean laundry by means of a basket tied to a rope. While living in isolation Barbara’s devotion to Christianity grew after reading a book that a stranger sent to her with her food supplies. In time, her father sent suitors but Barbara’s interest in marriage had waned as she began to contemplate Christian theology. While her father was away for many months on a journey, a private bath house was to be built for her. During construction, Barbara had three windows built to symbolize the Holy Trinity, instead of two that were originally specified. When Barbara’s father returned, her conversion to Christianity was revealed, whereby her father threatened to kill her. Myths depict Barbara’s fate in different ways and because she held true to her faith, despite torture, she was able to heal miraculously. Eventually she was condemned to death by beheading and her father, after completing the death sentence himself, was struck by lighting and perished in the flames. Barbara was later buried as a Christian and her burial tomb was believed to become a site of miracles. As a result of the events surrounding her death, she is often regarded as Saint for artillery, and is invoked for protection against mine explosions, fires and war. She is often depicted with a chalice and symbolizes faith in the Holy Spirit.
Saint Barbara first became connected to our area in 1602 when Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino sailed through the channel on an expedition. A priest aboard ship named the channel after Saint Barbara as they traveled through on her feast day, December 4. Later the Presidio founded on the coast in 1782 took on the same name, as did the Mission founded four years later, and in 1850 Santa Barbara became a city in the new U.S. State of California.
We are looking forward to carrying Armando’s de la Rocha Saint Barbara tile to honor our city’s patron saint. To purchase an Armando de la Rocha tile, please stop by the Presidio’s holiday sale this Saturday on December 14th. The sale is scheduled from 12:00 to 3:00 and will be located on the front porch of the Visitor Center at El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Historic Park. Unique gifts, books and stocking stuffers will be sold as well as a book signing for local author Cherie Rae, on her new book about Pearl Chase. Save time to tour the Presidio and view holiday decorations and José de Alcibar’s Saint Barbara painting inside the chapel. We are looking forward to the event and hope you will join us.
Katie Sorensen is the shop manager at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation.