Willa Cather uses excellent descriptions of the landscape to symbolize important aspects of the situation that the Catholic Church faces in its mission to bring God's word to the new world. She effectively uses the wild setting to reflect elements in the story. The landscape characterizes certain aspects of the story so that we can gain a better understanding of the circumstances and atmosphere. She uses this symbolism to explain the current state of the Catholic mission in regards to its old world and new world activities.
The landscape reflects the relationship between the people of the southwest (U.S.) and the Catholic Church in the story. Willa Cather uses some personification in her description of the clouds and mesas to create an extended metaphor. In this metaphor she creates the image of the mesas and makes it represent the different peoples of the southwest. She does this by giving the mesas the same characteristics of the peoples that make up the southwest. They are rugged and sturdy like tables, but spread out with their attendant clouds for each. (Cather 95)
Each of these mesas has its own cloud formation. These formations represent the priests of the Catholic Church. Her description of the cloud formations tells us that they can vary widely and that they play a strong role in influencing the landscape. Just like the priests which can vary widely in their religious dedication and methods and have different effects on the people. Cather tells us that these clouds are "sometimes flat terraces" and "sometimes fantastic domes". The priests are the same way. Sometimes they can be flat like the old miser Padre Marino Lucero and sometimes they can be fantastic domes like the prolific Father Jean Marie Latour, metaphorically speaking.
Another example of how the landscape symbolizes the situation of the Catholic Church in regards to its mission is a little farther down the page from the first example. Cather show's us a landscape divided by the Pecos River. This is important because she shows us how the sky to the west represents the new world and the sky to the east represents the old world. She describes the eastern sky as being a monotonous desert. This correlates well with the idea that the religious zeal for new birth is dead in the old word and is barren like the desert.
On the other hand she describes the western sky as full of activity. About the clouds she says "They powerfully affected the world beneath them." This shows us that the clouds are just like the priests. They too are full of activity west of the Pecos. Some of them were "dark and full of violence", in a sense of motion, like Latour and affected great change around them. Others were "white with luxurious idleness" like Padre Gallegos or Padre Antonio Jose Martinez who don't do anything to further the cause of the Catholic Church in the new world. (Cather 95)
Cather then tells us that "The desert, the mountains and mesas, were continually re-formed and re-coloured by the cloud shadows." This part of the metaphor represents the changes that the priests are making in the new world and how it is a world where everything is changing. She's showing us what it was like for the priests. Everything changed from one day to the next and they had to somehow make changes as well. They also had to find some kind of permanence in such an ever changing landscape. (Cather 95)
These excellent descriptions serve us well in showing us how the landscape symbolizes the struggle of the Catholic Church to take hold in the West. The imagery of the clouds and the mesas accurately symbolizes the priests and the divided sky symbolizes the idea of the outlook of the Church. This depiction of the landscape works well as an extended metaphor to symbolically represent the circumstances that the priests face in trying to spread the word of God.
Cather, Willa (1873-1947). Death Comes for the Archbishop. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.