But What Does the Statue Mean?

The Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo statue is a focal point of Cabrillo National Monument. Most visitors take the short path to the statue and gaze at the incredible view. The statue itself is quite incredible as well, not only for its sheer size and presence, but for the symbolism it contains. Following is an article written by Fred Andrews about some of the symbols on our beloved statue.

Statue Plaza

The statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was created in Portugal in 1939 by sculptor Alvaro De Bree. Close examination of the statue reveals many different meanings. The statue, a gift of the Portuguese government to the people of California, commemorates Cabrillo’s 1542 voyage of exploration along the West Coast of North America. In 1988, a copy of the statue replaced the original on display at Cabrillo National Monument.

The top of the statue represents a padrāo, a 15th century monument. Portuguese explorers along the African coast erected a dozen of these narrow stone columns. They were usually carved with the royal coat of arms and an inscription announcing that the sovereign had ordered this land to be discovered. Crosses topped some of these monuments, symbolizing the power of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1486, Portuguese explorer Diogo Cāo placed one such padrāo at Cape Cross along the African coast.

The padrāo the Cabrillo statue contains elements similar to those found on the 16th century sculpture Herald Angel found in the platband of the Holy Cross Church of Coimbra, Portugal. Perhaps De Bree was inspired by this piece. Portuguese sculptor Diogo Pires the Younger created the Herald Angel between 1518 and 1520. It depicts an angel overlooking the arms of Portugal and an armillary sphere. The Portuguese coat of arms is very similar to one on the front of the Cabrillo statue. The coast of arms is also found on the covers of 16th century Portuguese documents.

The armillary sphere on the Herald Angel closely resembles the sphere found on the reverse of the Cabrillo statue. Armillary comes from the Greek “armilla” meaning bracelets or rings. The rings represent the movements of celestial objects in relationship to the center sphere. The entire apparatus revolved with the rings symbolizing the horizon, the celestial equator, and other celestial spheres. The medieval view put the earth at the center of the universe.

The statue portrays Cabrillo wearing armor and holding a sword. Spanish explorers in the New World of the middle 1500s sometimes wore this type of metal armor. It includes a breastplate, chain mail, and a tasset. A tasset was attached at the bottom of the breastplate, wrapping around the hips. Cabrillo holds a large broadsword in hi right hand. Broadswords probably originated in Scotland or England. Spanish explorers in the Americas are known to have preferred using rapier swords, small and lighter than broadswords.

In Cabrillo’s left hand are seen a quadrant and plotting compass. Quadrants were used by 16th-century navigators to fix their latitude at sea. The name derives from the quarter-circle arc it encompasses. Latitude was determined by using the quadrant to measure the angle above the horizon of Polaris, the North Star. The plotting compass uses two points to chart a straight line on a map. This is “dead-reckoning” navigation, where the ship’s navigator plots a straight-line course between two points along a coastline. Both the plotting compass and the quadrant were probably carried on board Cabrillo’s ships.

What emerges from this look at the Cabrillo statue? The statue symbolizes Cabrillo’s voyage of exploration. But it also speaks to the mystery surrounding who Cabrillo was. Was he Portuguese or Spanish by birth? There is no definitive answer. A Portuguese sculptor created the statue, but Cabrillo was under the Spanish flag when he sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542. He was the commander of an expedition of three ships exploring the West Coast of North America. How we view the Cabrillo statue depends on how we see Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.


  • An Account of the Voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. Cabrillo National Monument Foundation. 1999
  • Blair, Claude. European and American Arms. Bonanza Books. 1962.
  • Bull, Stephen. An Historical Guide to Arms and Armor. Facts on File Inc. 1991.
  • Dines, Glen. Sun, Sand, and Steel: Costumes and Equipment of the Spanish/Mexican Southwest. Longmans Canada Limited. 1972.
  • Fisher, Dennis. Latitude Hooks and Asimuth Rings. International Marine/Rugged Mountain Press.
  • Humble, Richard. The Explorers. Time-Life books. 1978.
  • Portugal and The Discoveries. Commission of Portugal for the Seville Universal Exhibition. 1992.

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