Thursday, April 22, 2010


Saintly images, or santos, make up the unique art form of colonial Philippines—from a period (1565-1898) that imprinted Catholicism and its cultural heritage on the Filipinos, In the 16th century, the Spaniards came to the Philippines with, the historian tell us, “a sword in one hand and the Cross in the other”. They made one of their first tasks the destruction of the ‘strange gods’ the slanders were venerating, in their place raising up the imagery of Catholicism.

*This 3-headed image in hardwood is a literal depiction of the Trinity by an artist of the early 1800s.

Soon the Filipino craftsman was fashioning not pagan idols and amulets but the religious artifacts of the new faith. By the 17th century, the works of the native carvers had become distinctly “Filipino”. It was not until the Spaniards were supplanted by the country’s second colonizers—the Americans—that relaigious art in the Philippines declined.

*Images of the Immaculate Conception, a highly venerated deity in the Philippines, whose worship in colonial times fused into animistic rituals from earlier times.

Now a resurgent cultural nationalism, expressed partly in a new appreciation of the past, seeks to revive interest in Philippine religious art. Connoisseurs, both at home and abroad, vie for the small, carved images of Catholic saints—relics of the Spanish period—which are the finest examples of his heritage.

*Popular Philippine patron, San Miguel (St. Michael), subdues a realistically carved devil in carving of 1800s while an 18th c. version reflects influence of Chinese artisans on colonial woodcarving in composition.

The materials most often used in making the images was wood—hard, medium, soft: the choice of wood depended on the artist’s intention: whether he preferred permanence, a smooth finish, or ease of execution. The Spanish painter, Fernando Zobel, classifies santos into three styles: popular, classical and ornate.

*The cherub on the cloud on which the third Virgin stands has a Chinese face. Hands were generally made separately and then inserted into sockets.

Images in the popular style tend to be small and meant for the home. They are generally characterized by Oriental features and proportions, Spanish iconography, a naïve approach, and strikingly original color to produce a unique and surprisingly powerful art form.

The classical style in Philippine imagery, says Zobel, is essentially derivative. It consists of three elements harmoniously combined: Spanish and Latin American models, which range in style from the late Renaissance to the rococo; a strong Chinese influence, particularly in the image’s cast of features, anatomical proportions, use of drapery and human stance, and a Filipino style that is distinctive in its use of color.

“Ornate statues”, says Zobel, “seem more like expensive dolls rather than religious images”.

Collecting santos has become so popular that one Manila collector—a millionaire whose collection by itself constitutes a fortune—admits that the value of each object in his possession has tripled in two years.

(Source: Orientations, December 1970 issue. Pp. 67-73)


  1. that is one amazing sagrada trinidad!

  2. Nicely written! So Alex, when did the suksok (a design where the robe shows a series of folds in the back) style start? Thanks!

  3. @Victor: I was blown away myself by the 3-faced rendition of the Trinity. I wonder what those geometric thingies mean.
    @Gaby: Ricky Jose's book on ivories (Art + Power + Faith) has a whole section devoted to the "suksok" of Philippine virgins, but I have seen them too on some European examples.

  4. the Trinity figure is way awesome. First time to see like that.
    I guess this could answer the geometry thing