Monday, April 21, 2014


SAN JOSE IS NOW ON FACEBOOK. An antique ivory San Jose found for sale on a facebook group, bought and restored to its full 25" glory, with embroidered vestments, gold-plated metal accessories, and a new gilt base. Personal Collection.

 The social networking site, Facebook, is perhaps the strangest place to find an antique treasure, an ivory santo to be specific. Sure there are facebook groups devoted to processional santos and other religious imageries, but to find an antique ivory San Jose for sale in the site is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

 But thank God for a facebook group called Pinoy Pickers Online—an association of like-minded individuals who like showing off, and selling their thrift shop and second hand store picks. A motley assemblage of stuff are peddled here—mostly refuse from old homes, odds and ends that include Coca Cola items, vintage jewelry to appliance junk, vinyl records, toys and, if one is lucky, old devotional art such as the one I discovered here.

 A Seller had posted a picture of old religious items grouped together, but sold individually. Everyone, it seems, was asking about the Santo Nino, the Virgin Mary and the collectible Bible prominently featured in the foreground. Nobody was paying attention to a rather squat-looking San Jose behind these wooden statuaries.

One look and I knew the face of the midget San Jose, originally described by the Seller as carved from deer horn, was in fact, made of ivory—and that was all that mattered to me.

I quickly contacted the Seller and was glad to learn that the San Jose was available. Upon my request, he sent additional information and photos—which confirmed that, indeed, the head was of whole ivory.

Unfortunately, the hands were wooden, but this did not bother me at all, as the heft and size of the ivory head (2.5 inches) more than made up for its flaws—which also include a disproportionately short wooden body, wire armature arms, a wig made of wiry abaca, and a halo fashioned from a twisted copper wire.

 The image was wearing its original green satin vestment that was beyond repair, and it stood on an ordinary box base stained to simulate wood grain. In all, the image stood only 16 inches, inclusive of the base. After a few phone calls, a deal was sealed between us and the image was mine!

The Seller was kind enough to make a bus trip from Laguna to Makati, just so he could personally deliver the antique ivory San Jose to me. The face of San Jose was beautifully carved, and the details of the facial features were outstanding. I lost no time in contracting the services of my santero for the repair and restoration of this fine San Jose.

 Major restoration began with elongating the manikin body of the saint through wooden augmentations done on both the torso and the leg area.

 A tall lotus base, gilded in gold, was commissioned separately to replace the boxy platform on where the image originally was mounted. Also, a new pair of ivory hands were ordered in lieu of the wooden ones that visibly didn’t fit the proportion of the image.

As for the vestment, my instructions were for a more elaborate design, which would entail more gold embroidery.

This would up the cost of restoration, but I think the quality of this San Jose warranted a bit more of extravagance!

 I had my first view of the almost-completed santo through a series of texted photos on my phone. 

Completing the ensemble was a jusi wig and the metalworks: a small brass halo and a flowering staff plated in gold, a familiar attribute of San Jose.

The resulting restoration was very dramatic: from 16 inches, San Jose now stands 25 inches, from the tip of the halo to the bottom of the base.

 I have a number of ivory San Joses in my collection, but none as impressive-looking as this latest find. In fact, even my santo restorer asked me to give him priority should I decide to unload it in the near future.

One thing for sure, that is not bound to happen soon! I never had so many “Likes” for an antique ivory santo!

 But that is bound to happen to an ivory treasure that I amazingly, incredibly found—not in an antique shop –but on Facebook! Now that’s what I call santo networking!

Friday, April 11, 2014


One of the leading companies in Manila engaged in the import-export business during the 1920s thru the Commonwealth years, was Levy & Blum, Inc. The founders of Levy & Blum were Jewish entrepreneurs who fled the Franco-Prussian War to settle in the Philippines. The company's headquarters was located in 345 Echague, Quiapo, Manila. The thriving business regularly issued catalogs featuring items of interest to Filipinos. This ca. 1930s catalog features an aseemblage of imported sacred statues, of different sizes, materials and prices to appeal to a diverse market.

The statues of saints ("Estatua de Santos) were made of imitation ivory (imitacion marfil) and were described as having a beautiful appearance (bonita apariencia) with well-finished details (detalle bien acabado).

Ideal for home chapels, these images ranged in sizes from 60 cm. ( at Php 6.00) to as small as 12 cm. ( at a more affordable 80 centavos). They represented saintly figures as Sta. Teresita del Nino Jesus, Virgen de Lourdes, Milagrosa, Sagrada Familia, San Jose, Sagrado Corazon, Sto. Nino, Virgen del Carmen, Angel de la Guardia, San Antonio, Virgen Antipolo, Cristo Rey, San Cristobal,  San Juan, San Ignacio, San Francisco and Inmaculada Concepcion.

Related sacred items were also sold, including lockets and rosaries, with embossed figures of saints, at Php 1.10 per piece.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


SAINT JOHN VIANNEY. A rarely seen vintage santo of the Cure of Ars, patron of priests. Carved locally, the all-wood santo dates from the 50s and once belonged to a Manila family.

St. John Baptiste-Marie Vianney, (b. 1786/ d. 1859) is known as the Cure of Ars, the patron saint of priests. Ordained in 1815, he was known for his pastoral works and ministry in the community, thus his patronage. As a parish priest of Ars, a remote French hamlet, he gained a reputation as a confessor and director of souls.

St. John's life was marked with extreme mortifications.  He demonstrated utmost patience in a life characterized by abject austerities. It was said that he was besieged by the devil but this great mystic ward him off with his acts of holiness, remaining to this day the living image of the priest after the heart of Christ.

St. John was beatified only in 1905 and canonized in 1925,  and so, there are very few sculpted representations of him. That is why, I was delighted to see this wooden image of the saint that was found for sale, in a Manila home, which led me to thin--could a family member have been a religious? Was this a commissioned work for his private devotion?

I will never know--but I do know that this was done in the late 50s, judging from the carving style of the figure. Most St. John statues are carved in the round (de tallado),and I still have yet to see one in the manikin style.

As in all his representations, he is depicted as an oldish priests, with white or greying hair, slight and frail looking. His hands are clasped in prayer.

He wears a surplice with lace trims at the edges. Upon closer inspection, the realistically painted lace trims are actually real fabrics decoupaged or glued onto the wooden statue, then painted over, hence the texture. Around his next is a short stole, also made from real lace material. Around his waist is aloosely-knotted cincture.

In honor of the 150th anniversary of Vianney's death, Pope Benedict XVI declared 2009-2010, a year for priests. St. John Vianney's Feast Day: August 4.

Monday, March 24, 2014


MIRACLE MONK. An almost lifesize image of San Nicolas de Tolentino from a Pampanga town is shown dressed, and ready for his procession, in this ca. 1970s photo,

San Nicolas de Tolentino (St. Nicholas of Tolentine) is a popular patron of many Philippine towns and cities in the Philippines--like San Nicolas (Ilocos Norte, Pangasinan, Batangas), Macabebe (Pampanga), Talisay (Cebu),  Banton (Romblon), Dimlao (Bohol) and Surigao City, among others. The Recollect missionaries, who came to the Philippines in May 1606, are credited with propagating the devotion to this thaumaturgist. The Augustinian Recollect Province in the Philippines is known as the province of San Nicolas de Tolentino.

Born in 1245 in Sant'Angelo, San Nicolas got his name from St. Nicholas of Myra, at whose shrine his parents prayed to have a child. Nicholas became a monk at 18, and was ordained as a priest,  seven years later. He became a well-known preacher and a confessor.

Around 1274, he was sent to Tolentino, near his birthplace. The town suffered from a civil feud between the Guelphs, who supported the pope, and Ghibellines, who supported the Holy Roman Emperor, in their struggle for control of Italy. Nicolas was primarily a pastor to his flock, tending the poor and the criminals.

As a wonder worker, he is said to have cured the sick with bread over which he had prayed to Mary, the mother of God. The "panecillos de saniculas", in the Philippines, is a cookie made from arrowroot, which is often given to sick people, in the belief that it will improve their wellness. The cookies undergo a ritual blessing before they are distributed.

San Nicolas died in 1305 after a long illness and was canonized by Pope Eugene IV in 1446. His iconography shows him wearing the black habit of the Hermits of Saint Augustine, with a star above him or on his breast. Some show his habit studded with stars. His emblems include a cross and a plate on which a roasted partridge was miraculously revived to life.

He is involed against fires and is the patron saint of the dying, sick animals, souls in Purgatory, babies and mothers. His Feast Day is September 10.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


The image of San Mateo (St. Matthew) , one of the 4 Evangelists and one of Jesus's apostles, rarely is seen in home altars of yore in the Philippines. Many that I've seen are usually church images, comprising a collection to represent the 4 Evangelists--Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. So it was a delight to see this small, 15 inch wooden San Mateo, being unloaded by a collector through an antique shop.

San Mateo, author of the first Gospel, was the son of Alpheus and a Roman tax collector by profession at Capernaum. Nothing definite is known about his life, except that he was also known as "Levi". It is also uncertain whether he died from natural causes or was martyred--there are various accounts of his martyrdom, but it is not known whether he was stoned, burned or beheaded.

This santo, adheres to his traditional iconography--San Mateo holds a book to designate his authorship of the Gospel, and a money sack (now missing) in the other hand to denote his former life as a ta collector. A small angel holding an inkwell stands by his side to signify his new life as a messenger of Christ. The santo stands on a squarish damaged base.

Based on the carving and painting style, this stocky San Mateo seems to date from the midcentury. The halo, which  looks original to the piece, looks more contemporary. Sadly, I could not afford this santo which came with a hefty price tag, so I had to look the other way. It was eventually sold to another willing collector.

San Mateo's feast day on the Western calendar is September 21. he is quite predictably, the patron saint of bankers, bookkeepers, accountants, money managers, stockbrokers, financial officers, customs officers, and tax collectors.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

187. STA. INES: From A Virgin Most Pure to a Virgin-Martyr

STA. INES, VIRGEN y MARTIR. Blessedness in Ivory.

There are only a handful of wooden Sta. Ines images in the Philippines, so what more of ivory? In my years of going to antique shops, ancestral houses and heritage sites, I have seen many “santas” rendered in ivory, even those considered minor or not as well-known.

In one shop, I once saw a beautiful ivory Sta. Lucia in a virina, complete with a pair of silver eyes on a dish. I also remember seeing an unusual Sta. Rita holding a crucifix and a skull, flanked by her young sons, all in ivory. Most recently, a large Sta. Filomena, with gold accessories and regally-embroidered vestment surfaced in the market.

With the exception of the processional ivory Sta. Ines in Bulacan, I still have yet to see one for sale, be it from a shop or from a private collector. I’ve always taken a keen personal interest in the virgin-martyr saint, as I come from Barrio Sta. Ines in Mabalacat, known today as the Pampanga exit of the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX).

I like to believe that it’s also more than a coincidence that I was born on the feast of Sta. Ines—January 21—thus further underlining her significance to me. For years, in our small barrio, veneration revolved around a small Sta. Ines image owned by the Dela Cruzes, an old Mabalacat family whose ancestors founded the barangay in the 19th century. I’ve always been fixated on the ancient figure of the young santa, dressed in green with a palm leaf in one hand, and a primitive-looking lamb at her feet.

 When I developed an interest in santo collecting, I told myself that one day, I will have my own antique Sta. Ines in ivory. But after years of waiting in vain, I was ready to give up—until a friend gave me sage advice – “ïf you can’t find one, make one”.

THE ORIGINAL LA PURISIMA. Found in a Fairview antique warehouse, this santa has ivory head and hands. It stood on a globe base and had a dispropotionately stunted body, which made it ideal for conversion into the child-saint, Agnes.

That opportunity presented itself when I found this small La Purisima Concepcion in a dealer’s warehouse, and which I acquired for a reasonable price. One look, and I knew the ivory headed-image with ivory hands was a perfect candidate for transformation into a Sta. Ines.

 It had a young-looking, soulful face on a body that was a bit short—more teenage than adult, just the right size of I were to make a young santa representing a 14 years old. The Virgin had a manikin body, so it was easy for me to pose her in the attitude of Sta. Ines—one arm pressed to her chest to hold the palm of martyrdom, the other, holding a lamb.

There were a few things that needed to be changed—the globe base with the snake had to go. That was the easy part. But the vestments needed to be overhauled totally.

 STATUE OF ST. AGNES, at St. Joseph's Shrine, St. Louis, Missouri USA. From the flickr page of Mr. Mark Scott.

I took the Purisima to my restorer, bringing with me pictures and estampitas (holy cards) of the saint, for wardrobe color reference.

ESTAMPITAS OF STA. INES, show a consistency in the color depiction of her dress, which guided the restorer in the creations of the santa's vestments.

Most of our visual references assigned her the colors pink and blue green, so my restorer and I decided to work on those shades. Her vestments will only have minimal gold embroidery on the hems, with much draping to be done to simulate the rich folds of St. Agnes statues done in the round.

 Months before, I had the good sense to buy tiny lambs and sheep of white clay, which originally formed part of an antique Nativity crèche. So, that solved what I thought was my biggest problem—tto find the saint’s animal attribute that also bears her name phonetically—Agnus, or lamb.

STA. INES AND HER EMBLEMS. The silver palm is actually a vintage silver brooch picked from a Mabini shop. The lamb is an antique creche animal figure.

The most difficult challenge turned out to be the search for a silver palm leaf—a symbol of the young saint’s martyrdom. I scoured ebay for a silver palm brooch, but came away empty-handed—either they were way too expensive or were not of the right shape and size.

But a week after the start of the transformation project, I dropped by at a Mabini antique shop and found an old but damaged silver brooch, that could pass off as a palm frond, as it had individual leaves. The size was also perfect!

After a month of waiting, my Sta. Ines was done. When delivered, she was wearing a new jusi wig, crowned with an antique silver gothic halo that I found separately, standing on an oval gilded base, specially commissioned for her.

With the addition of the silver “palm” leaf and the tiny lamb on one palm, the santa-formerly-known-as-La Purisima looked every inch a Sta. Ines.

STA. INES, in its glass virina. Personal Collection.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

186. CRISTO MENINO: Steward of All Creation

CHRIST ON A HILL. A Portuguese-made Cristo Menino, made from wood and white clay, mounted on a hill with niches containing small animals, like a rabbit, birds, sheep. Glass eyes, original clothes. 10 in., including the base.19th c., Personal Collection.

When I was new to ebay some 10 years ago, I would occasionally find small antique figures of the Christ Child standing on top of a mound, representing a hill, on which small earthen animals like lambs would rest. I thought the figure represented the Christ Child as a Good Shepherd, but then I wold find examples with other animal forms. “Cristo Menino”, as the South American ebay sellers called them, were soon my objects of desire, and I was determined to get myself an example.

 The cost of shipping from South America (I was dealing with a Uruguayan seller) doubled the cost of the Cristo Menino I was eyeing, so sadly, I had to momentarily give up my quest for this unusual representation of the Christ Child—until another one surfaced for sale in the U.S. I quickly bidded on it, won the santo, and was sent to a N.J. address, and finally to me, thank God for my sister’s regular balikbayan box shipments.

This 8 inch Cristo Menino, which originated from Portugal, had much more detail for its size. It was made from a combination of white terracotta and wood, common materials used in Europe.

The figures was sculpted in the round and the features were painted,with tiny glass inserts for eyes. The clenched left hand once held a staff, now missing, while the other arm, which had broken, was raised in the act of benediction.

Though it had missing pieces and broken parts, it had retained its original vestment—from its lacey undergarment, his pantaloons. to the dress, which was finely embroidered with colourful floral motifs on the bodice and on the flouncy skirt.

A cincture of gold thread with metallic tassels completed the Nino’s outfit.

Also remarkable was the little mound where the Nino’s feet were pegged—it had little niches placed around it, each with a small, sculpted clay animals inside.

There were obviously some missing figures, but the rabbit, a pair of sheep, a pigeon and a duck, were intact.

 It was fairly easy for me to restore this wonderful Cristo Menino—the broken arm was repaired using epoxy clay. The missing fingers will have to be restored at a later time.

Parts of the undergarment were crumbling and beyond repair—like the tunic of tulle, so I just kept what was salvageable—in this case, the pantaloons.

Years after I acquired my Cristo Menino, on January 2014 to be exact, it was lent for a San Beda exhibit of Santo Niños, entitled, Fides: The Sto. Nino and the Value of Faith,  curated by Dino Carlo Santos. There, in his little urna, my Cristo Menino stood on his little mound, presiding over a menagerie of God’s creatures, the Steward of All Creation.