One of the more important aspects of my work is to bring to light the ancient religious practice of aligning sacred sites with astronomical events, such as the daily, weekly, monthly and annual movements and phases of the sun, moon and other celestial bodies. This practice dates back thousands of years in countless archaeological sites globally, across a vast diversity of cultures from numerous eras. Astronomically aligned sacred sites can be found in so-called Pagan sites, as well as those of the Abrahamic religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The combination of the astronomical alignments with sacred sites is expressed in what is called “astrotheology,” which is most apparent in the myths of the various cultures who built these monuments.

In the following news item appear yet more examples of this age-old tradition, as found within Christianity in particular. The fact that winter-solstice alignments, for instance, are discovered at Christian sites reflects that their architects and builders were well aware of the significance of that date, originally the “birth” of the year’s new sun but observed for over 1,700 years as “Christmas” or the purported birth of Jesus Christ. It is clear that in marking this date and celebrating this holiday, Christians were merely latching onto a very ancient, astrotheological practice shared by numerous cultures worldwide.

In addition, in some instances the summer-solstice rising sun illuminates a statue or other image or representation of John the Baptist, which is fitting since John’s “birthday” has traditionally been placed at that time, a reflection of his role as the summer-to-winter sun, at which point he is replaced by Christ as the winter-to-summer sun. This transition is reflected in the enigmatic biblical scripture at John 3:30:

“He must increase, but I must decrease.”

This correlation was obviously not lost on those who placed John the Baptist’s birthday on June 24th, the traditional summer-solstice celebration in several cultures, as well as the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere.

Much more about the subject of ancient astrotheology and its relationship to “modern” religions such as Christianity, as well as Judaism and Islam, can be found in my books and articles. The fact is that one simply cannot understand the origins of Christianity or much other religious thought without knowing the archaeoastronomy and astrotheology of the ancients. All efforts to develop a “biography” of Jesus Christ or an early Church history will fail without factoring in this vast and profound context of ancient astrotheology, which permeated the area in which the Christian effort took place, expressed abundantly in the religions of ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and India, to name a few examples. Unfortunately, few biblical scholars are well versed in these important subjects and are therefore missing a huge piece of the puzzle.

Illuminating research: CSU Monterey Bay archaeologist studies rare light effects at missions

Ruben G. Mendoza is on a quest for light.

The 54-year old archaeologist and professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at CSU Monterey Bay is seeking the rarest of lights: Early morning rays of the solstice sun, channeled by a centuries-old alchemy of architecture and astronomy, geometry and awe, into brilliant tabernacle illuminations at California’s missions.

It’s a complex blend of solar geometry and Franciscan cosmology, says Mendoza, in which churches, windows and altars were laid out in relation to the sun’s position on a particular day of the year.

Illuminations occur on solstice, equinox or feast day mornings, says Mendoza, with light entering through a particular window and illuminating the tabernacle or an altar bulto, or statue, of a saint in a brilliant column of light.

At Carmel, Mendoza describes the June 21 phenomenon as an intense beam which crosses the nave, pulses across the altar, then drops at an angle to rest squarely on the Eucharistic tabernacle, the sacred receptacle that holds the host, believed by the faithful to undergo transubstantiation during Mass to become the body of Christ.

“It’s so exciting to see the excitement of the community when they see it,” Mendoza says. “It’s like a rebirth.”

At Mission San Miguel, parishioners moved by the sight of the illumination of St. Francis burst into shouts of “hallelujah,” says Mendoza.

Documenting illuminations

Mendoza has overseen archaeological undertakings at Mission San Juan Bautista and Carmel Mission, headed archaeology and conservation efforts at San Carlos Cathedral in Monterey and is leading archaeological digs at Mission Soledad in hopes of ensuring its eventual restoration. And, so far, he has documented illuminations at 14 of California’s 21 missions.

In 2003, Mendoza captured the summer solstice tabernacle illumination at Carmel Mission after several years of efforts. The winter solstice illumination of the Royal Presidio Chapel of Santa Barbara took four years because of rain, fog, illness and a scheduled out-of-state conference. After a three-day delay because of cloud cover, he finally recorded it in December 2008….

There’s nothing accidental about them: Carmel, San Juan Bautista and the other missions with illuminations were built on a meridian, an architectural orientation to the sunrise of a particular day.

The complex solar geometry of the missions is less surprising, says Mendoza, given that the missions were built in the era of a maritime economy, where celestial navigation was a common skill, and the fact that European churches were often built on meridians.

“If we go back to the medieval era, we know that the churches of Italy would be laid out in such a way that they would plant a post in the ground on the feast of a particular day, wait for the sun to rise and it would cast a shadow,” says Mendoza. “Then the friars would tie a rope and drag it along the shadow and build the church along that alignment.”

Seen in Carmel

The pastor at Mission San Juan Bautista first pointed out an illumination to Mendoza on Dec. 21, 1997, the morning of the winter solstice. Mendoza was skeptical that San Juan Bautista was unique and started searching for similar occurrences at churches across the U.S., Central America and Mexico.

In 2003, when he witnessed the summer solstice illumination at Carmel Mission, he could see the start of a pattern.

“Once I discovered it at Carmel,” he said, “I realized it could not be a coincidence in a diocese with seven missions.”

At Mission San Miguel, illuminations occur as progressions in five-day intervals, beginning with the Oct. 4 illumination of the statue of St. Francis, the illumination of the tabernacle, the statue of St. Michael the Archangel, and the statue of St. Anthony on Oct. 19.

“Significantly, immediately above St. Anthony’s head is the painted image of the stigmata with the five wounds of Christ. The five-day intervals, I believe, bear direct reference to this sacred numerology,” says Mendoza.

The pattern at the mission is reversed at the vernal equinox, says Mendoza, when the illuminations begin with St. Anthony and end with St. Francis.

“That, for me, is one of the most complex solar geometries that I’ve seen at any of the California missions,” says Mendoza.

Spring equinox illuminations at Santa Ines and San Jose missions are repeated Sept. 21, the second equinox of the year. At Mission San Luis Rey, says Mendoza, a lantern affixed to the cupola projects a Trinitarian illumination, where three spears of light project onto the altar.

Mission Santa Clara would also exhibit a summer solstice illumination, he says, if its essential window hadn’t been blocked during reconstruction….

As for Mendoza, a sense of wonder continues, even after years of research.

And he has plenty left to wonder about. More than 100,000 churches were built in Mexico alone during the mission period, says Mendoza, along with countless churches across the Southwest.

“For me, this is an unfinished agenda,” he says. “These sites are fascinating, but we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.”

Mendoza is working on a book on archeoastronomy in the Americas….

Further Reading

What is astrotheology?
Astrotheology at Google Books