Sunday, April 18, 2010


When Spanish missionaries came to Christianize our islands, they brought with them religious pictures and images of saints which became potent instruments of evangelization. These artful images were used to demonstrate the power of the new religion over paganism and Islam. Soon, carved “santos” were replacing primitive anitos in home altars, becoming the new focus of household devotion.

Thus began a a tradition of santo-making in the country, and, from Manila to the Visayas, from Paete to Pampanga—local santeros practiced their craft by carving thousands of holy images, copied from estampas and holy pictures and personally styled by their imagination.

In the pioneering book, “Philippine Religious Imagery”, Fernando Zobel de Ayala classified Philippine santos according to style: Popular, Classical, Ornate.

Popular style santos are those made by unschooled hands, thus characterized hy native elements such as disproportionately-size limbs, primitive-looking faces and the inclusion of native details as replacements of unfamiliar iconographic symbols (for instance, San Isidro’s ox is replaced by a carabao, San Roque’s dog becomes an “askal”—or asong kalye, a street mongrel).

Santos of the Classical style are more realistic and refined, adhering to iconographic disciplines and showing a higher level of skill. Ornate santos show a profusion of decorative embellishments—silver, gold, gems, metallic threads, heavy embroidery—a style associated often with ivories.

Most early santos were wrought by anonymous hands, although we know of a few like Juan de los Santos, an 18th century carver and a silversmith of note from Laguna, whose retablos and works in ivory can be found in San Agustin. By the 19th century, Quiapo in Manila and Paete were the seats of the country’s carving industry.

Traveler and writer Sinibaldo de Mas took note of the many over-decorated images of santos and virgins carved in Manila, with head and hands in ivory, richly dressed and kept in gilded cases. Binondo-born Isabelo Tampingco, a descendant of Rajah Lakandula, was another eminent carver who set up shop along R. Hidalgo St. with Graciano Nepomuceno. He was responsible for carving the magnificent San Ignacio enshrined in the altar of the Church of St. Ignatius, which, unfortunately was destroyed by fire in 1945. Tampingco was the first to incorporate native plant motifs in his carvings like anahaw and banana leaves.

In Pampanga, Betis was the province’s woodcarving center. For generations, the Flores family were known as master carvers of this town, a reputation the descendants uphold to this day. Because of the many hardwood trees in the province, narra and molave trees were favored for carving by local santeros.

Wooden santos were carved wither in-the-round (“de bulto”/ talyado) or were made with articulated joints for easy posing (‘de gonce”/ manikin). Santos de vestir were eant to be dressed with real fabrics and so some were made “de bastidor”, in which a conical framework of wooden staves was attached to the waist, over which rich fabrics were draped.

After carving, the santo was primed with gesso, a mix of glue (kola) and plaster of Paris (eskayola). The actual painting of the santo was called “encarnacion”, done by an encarnador, in which natural or commercial paints and dyes were applied on the image with fine brushes.

Some artisans swear that mixing kesong puti (white cheese) with paint improves the texture and adhesive quality of the ‘encarna’. For special visual effect, a layer of gold leaf is first applied and then painted over. The paint is then scratched or incised with designs, allowing the gold to show through. The result is a stunning gold-embroidered simulation on the dress—estofado, as the process is called.

For dressed saints, expensive fabrics like damask. Satin or velvet is transformed into a visual “tisu de oro” with raised metallic embroidery using gold and silver threads. The santo is then ioutfitted with glass eyes, human ahir wigs (cabelleras), eyelashes and a host of gem-encrusted metal fittings like facial aureoles (rostrillos), rays (potencias) diadems, crowns, earrings (zarcillos) and chokers (gargantillas).

Santo collecting came into vogue in the 1930s, although even earlier, Trinidad Pardo de Tavera raised eyebrows when he started using santos as decorative accents for his house, rather than for the originally intended purpose of veneration. Other early collectors include Felix Resurrecion Hidalgo, Arturo de Santos, Jose Bantug and Don Luis Araneta. The antique trade boom in the 1960s-70s hastened the demolition of church altars, giving rise to criminal syndicates sometimes in cahoots with greedy antique traders. Many a precious santo have been lost in this unscrupulous fashion, like the 1984 disappearance of Cavite’s Soledad de Porta Vaga and the Nino of Virgen del Carmen in Intramuros.

The devotional art of Filipino santeros continues to this day, existing side-by-side with furniture and other cottage industries for practical reasons. Around the country, santero shops still keep business, producing not just religious statuaries of wood , but also of modern fiberglass, cast cement and resin.

Just as crucial to the continuance of our santo tradition is the preservation of what is left of our santos, now handful in number, hauled down from ancient altars, defaced by time to become fodder for termites in some forgotten church bodegas. After all, these precious images, in all their scarred and disfigured beauty, are not just artful testaments to our skill, but also sublime expressions of a person’s devotion to the Almighty, in the days when our faith was more unwavering, more profound.


  1. Congratulations on the new blog!!!
    Another blog to pore through this summer.
    Great examples to illustrate Zobel's classifications, specially that San Jose.

    Saw that crucifix on ebay, a bit steep in price , i think.

  2. Thanks, Victor. I must send you materials for your nativity

  3. wow sir alex... i love this blog...
    thanks for adding me..
    santo curiosity raised on an all new level...
    profound... keep it coming sir alex...

  4. Do you happen to know any sto. nino maker here in Manila? I badly need it for my project :( :) Thanks!

  5. Thank you for a wonderful erudite blog I had not realized this level of "Santos devotion etc existed in the Phillipines.

  6. You are most welcome, So sorry for the late, late,late reply. I was away for so long.