by Gloria T. Leonardo
(Source: ARCHIPELAGO, The International Magazine of the Philippines, 1975 A-22, Vol, II. pp. 28-31.)
Next to wood, ivory was most frequently used in making religious statues for Philippine Catholic churches and home altars from the earliest days of the colony in the seventeenth century and into the nineteenth. A relatively plentiful supply of ivory came to Manila from China, principally from nearby Canton which h was second only to Peking as an ivory carving center.
In fact, most of the religious statues were made in southern China for export to the Philippines—to such an extent that, it was believed until recently, that all ivory statues came from China. This was not so. Investigative studies have shown that some ivory statues were carved in Manila or in Paete, a traditional center for carving in the hills of Laguna, by anonymous artisans. Some of these craftsmen were Filipinos; some were Chinese, which further added to the Chinese identity of the statues even if they were carved and commissioned right in the Philippines. Setting the obscurity even more deeply was the tendency at that time for people to adopt Spanish names; if ever an artisan signed his work, as was the practice with engravings, he invariably used a Hispanized name that masked his origin.
Statues for home altars, in fact, accounted for much of the commissioned work. And what abundant work. Since the early Fifties, when interest in santos, as they are familiarly called, arose in appreciation of their beauty as samples of early indigenous popular sculpture, hundreds of statues—from miniatures to five foot tall carvings—have been brought to light and continue to be discovered. The bigger pieces were from churches. But the greater bulk of the discoveries, the smaller, more portable santos, clearly belonged to home altars.
Great ivory statues for the churches were usually of the patron saints in whose honor, the edifices were built and dedicated. Today, the most famous of these ivory icons is that of Our Lady of the Rosary in Santo Domingo Church, Quezon City. Known as La Naval de Manila to commemorate the sea victory of the Spanish colonial navy over the Dutch invaders in 1654, the statue was commissioned by Governor Luis Perez Dasmariñas from a Chinese artisan who was a catechumen or a convert studying Catholic doctrine in order to be baptized. Only the faces and hands of the Virgin and Child, now sheened by the years into lifelike olive skin tones, are ivory; the body frames are of wood, fully clothes in robe of woven gold.
Nearly every important church has a crucifix with the Corpus carved in full from ivory. This is usually the crucifix used for veneration during Good Friday and is considered in many churches as a true ecclesiastical heritage as well as art treasure.
If ivory santos for home altars are particularly exquisite as works of art, their size is certainly a contributing factor. As a whole, these statues are small; from eight to sixteen inches in height. The features therefore are small and, in some of the best classical examples, are carved in delicate fidelity.
Connoisseurs of small ivory santos single out—with awe and delight—the perfection in details, such as the fingernails carved in hands measuring no more than half or three-quarters of an inch. Or they point to the eyelidfolds on carved eyes as small as fourth of an inch, even less. The eyes in many ivory santos are high points of craftsmanship. Small, finely painted glass was inserted to make the orbs; not only that, eyelashes were also painstakingly glued on—within millimeter spaces.
Moreover, ornamentations were frequently added to the ivory statuettes. When the figure did not include carved garments or even if it did, rich ornate robes of satin or gold weave were fashioned. Halos of gold or silver, encrusted with jewels, were added; sometimes there were even crowns and diadems. Items of jewelry were also added, such as pendants, rings, brooches. It was as if to say that since God is the Creator of the wealth of the earth, nothing is to be spared to His glory, nothing denied that would add to the conviction that His alone is the earth and its fullness.
Just like the religious images made of wood, the ivory santos eventually came to be classified into three types: the popular, the classical and the ornate.
Most of the extant religious images today, particularly those made of wood, are in popular style: a distinctly naïve, unsophisticated style, much like simple line drawings. These images were intended for home altars. While they are simple, they have enormous appeal and charm and are highly prized as folk art. No one of the sculptors who made these popular santos is known by name today. It is, as it should be, for folk art is never signed except by its character.
Few ivory religious images are in the popular style. The material is too precious and expensive to be left in the hands of folk artists, it seemed. This must not be taken as a norm, however.
On the other hand, many ivory statuettes are in the classical style. This is a style distinctively baroque. A classical santo was created as a fully sculptured piece, faithfully carved to include robes and hair. No added-on elements (such as wigs) or other ornamentations (such as garments) are necessary to make it a complete statue.
Classical ivory statues are much valued. To begin with, statues carve dout of a single piece of ivory are rare—since ivory does not often come in adequate enough sizes. Usually, the head and hands were pegged on and joints are easily detected as thin brown lines.
Finally, the ornate style of statues is the elaboration of the classical by a rich, multiplicity of details and by the addition of garments and other ornamentations. Some ornate ivory statues consist of a plain wood body frames to which are pegged the head and hands. Other ornate statues are classical pieces of sculpture, complete with carved garments and hairs, but to which were added extra ornamentations.
The art of religious statuary in the Philippines bears two distinct influences: Spanish and Chinese. To these is added another distinct style, a way of elaboration and detail, a way of workmanship, which is markedly Filipino.
Precious because pure ivory from elephant tusks is never in plentiful supply, elegant because of its sheen, texture and incomparable grain, outstanding because of its durability (it does not burn or rot in water), ivory is nevertheless, easy to carve. An ax, an adz, a chisel, a saw, perhaps a lathe or a dentist’s drill; these are all the tools necessary in the deft and sure hands of an ivory carver. In the past, as it is today, the most proximate source of ivory for the Philippines is China; the only other source is Africa from where the Spanish artisans of old obtained the ivory they crafted into the exquisite santos that began the tradition of religious imagery in the Philippines.