Times Past

Local authors remind readers of saintly works of art at Hearst Castle

St. George Slaying the Dragon from a chest in the Billiard Room on the cover of Michelle Smithâ™s The Saints of San Simeon on the Central Coast of California.
St. George Slaying the Dragon from a chest in the Billiard Room on the cover of Michelle Smithâ™s The Saints of San Simeon on the Central Coast of California.

In this season of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Bodhi Day commemorating the day of Buddha’s enlightenment and Christmas — each holiday celebrating gratitude — we should remind ourselves of the saints we see every day.

The weary parent who holds a second and sometimes even a third job to support her or his family. Those who offer us aid without any expectation of reward when our vehicle breaks down. Those who care for the hungry and the homeless at countless shelters across our land.

The saints of history are also part of California. You can’t miss them on freeway and street signs. Our county and county seat are named after a St. Louis, the Bishop of Toulouse. Missions San Luis Obispo, San Miguel Arcangel and San Antonio de Padua have many images of these saints from the past.

Hearst Castle at San Simeon is the repository of some of Europe’s finest images.

Michelle Smith, a local historian, former guide at Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument and now a docent at Mission San Luis Obispo, has recently published a handy book titled “The Saints of San Simeon on the Central Coast of California." It’s organized by the tours offered to the public. Michele sets Michael Caro’s (c. 1549) altarpiece, “The Four Holy Fathers of the Church” in historical context. St. Jerome lived in the desert as a hermit while learning Hebrew so that he could translate the Bible into Latin, the language of the western church.

In the process, he set a standard for future translations. The Jewish Testament had to be translated from the original Hebrew, not the 2nd Greek called the Septuagint that earlier translators used.

There is evidence that Jerome’s patron, Paula and her daughter Eustochium, helped him in this task. Jerome was criticized for using women scholars. In reply he said, in effect, “the men did not have the language skills.”

Later, church councils composed only of men dropped Paula and Eustochium’s names from Jerome’s dedication to the Book of Judith.

Michele takes us saint by saint, room by room, through Church Doctors or Fathers Ambrose, Gregory and Augustin to Saint Lucy, the patron saint of light and healing the blind, and Saints Nicolas, Francis of Assisi and Claire.

She focuses on some of the smaller images that are easily missed, like St. George slaying the dragon on a small cabinet in the Billiard Room. St. George reappears on a Majolica tin-glazed inkstand in the Doge’s Suite.

Michele’s small volume gives the visitor to Hearst Castle some special knowledge of what to look for including the saint’s special symbol like the tower in the many versions of Santa Barbara, who appears many times along the tours.

Atascadero author Thomas Brown‘s “The Illustrated History of Hearst Castle” is an easily accessible treat for Central Coast residents. It has numerous images of the construction of Mr. Hearst’s La Cuesta Encantada during the 1920s and life “at the Ranch” in the 1930s and 40s.

Finally, I look forward to the arrival of my copy of Victoria Kastner’s “Hearst Ranch: Family, Land, and Legacy.” Victoria was my student in an internship program that I taught at Hearst-San Simeon State Historical Park from 1975 until 1991. In 2000, she completed “Hearst Castle: The Biography of a Country House.”

Drawing on previously unpublished letters and records, especially those involving Hearst and his architect, Julia Morgan, she became the preeminent historian of “the Hill.” Her 2009 book, “Hearst’s San Simeon: The Gardens and The Land,” accurately details the lifestyle of “the Chief,” Marion Davies and their guests.

“Hearst Ranch: Family, Land, and Legacy” explores the vastness of the Hearst Ranch, which extends dozens of miles beyond La Cuesta Encantada within our beautiful but fragile Central Coast environment.