The first carved santos in the Philippines were created by anonymous hands. Many crude images for altars were carved by untrained town carvers who shall forever be nameless-- whittling available wood from their own backyards— santol, ipil or guava—turning them into folksy figures, painting them with natural dyes, then finally outfitting them with tin wings and halos.
In the 18th century, a few names have come down to us—one Esteban Samson was documented by art historian Enrique Dorta as an ‘escultor Filipino’ who carved a Santo Domingo and a San Juan Tadeo image in Argentina where he worked. French traveler Jean Mallat also noted a proliferation of carvers in his visit to the Philippines in the late 1830s-40s—“they sculpt saints in wood and ivory with a delicateness which make them sought after even in Europe..”.
Non-Christian Chinese carvers also figured in the creation of known images in the country. Foremost among these was the Virgin of La Naval, commissioned for the Dominican monastery in 1593, and carved by a Chinese from Ilocos. Chinese carving influences showed in the chinky eyes of Virgins, the Kwan-Yin pose, the neck folds and the inclusion of scroll-like designs on santo bases. Chinese artisans became very proficient in ivory sculpting, leading author Ramon Gonzales to point out in his 1875 guidebook to the Philippines that--”despite the Filipino’s admirable talent for imitation, they still do not approximate the fineness and delicacy of the works of the Chinese”.
It was only in the mid 1800s that formal training in sculpture was introduced in the country with the founding of the Society of Arts and Trades in Manila. The A (renamed Academia de Dibujo y Pintura Escuela de Dibujo, Pintura y Grabado in 1889) opened in 1850 under the auspices of the government. Sculpture, however, was included late in the school program. Soon, art scholars like sculptor Melecio Figueroa, were sent to Spain on scholarships, and art guilds like the Gremio de Escultores de Sta. Cruz, started holding competitions, livening up the art scene.
Art guilds flourished in Tondo, Binondo, Sta. Cruz and Quiapo, which were soon populated with craftsmen and artisans. Some of those who had their studios there became eminent carvers of santos:
Leon Asuncion (1813-1888), of Sta. Cruz had a shop along Sta. Rosa St., (now Evangelista) and was a master carver who wrought the Tercera Caida de Cristo for the Sta. Cruz Church. He also worked in ivory—a crucifix and a bust of the Sacred Heart of Mary is attributed to him. His son, Hilarion and grandson, Jose Ma., also dabbled in arts.
Also working in the area were Eduvigio de Jesus (1820s-1868) who comes from a family of carvers. His father, Anastasio, and his son, Romualdo, were also carvers of note, creating small ivory pieces to large processional images for churches all over the country.
From Quiapo comes Bonifacio Arevalo (1850-1920), who was actually a dentist by education. He worked mostly in wood.
Isabelo Tampinco (1850-1933) of Binondo had important commissions for several churches in Intramuros, carving the doors and retablos of Sto. Domingo and the decorations of San Ignacio. He is known for integrating native motifs into his design, which has come to be known as “estilo Tampinco”.
Graciano Nepomuceno (1881-1974), also of Trozo, Binondo did both religious and secular works.
In Paete, Mariano Madriñan, who trained under Bonifacio Arevalo, gained fame through his participation in the Amsterdam Exposition in 1882 where his Mater Dolorosa won raves. Also exhibiting abroad was Tomas Valdellon (active 1881-1887), who had a lifesize Dolorosa at the 1887 Madrid Exposition.
In the 20th century, a Tampinco descendant, Angel Tampinco, had a Gran Taller de Escultura, which specialized in carved wooden decors for altars, andas and carrozas.
But perhaps the most successful commercial santero was Maximo Vicente (b. 1885/d. 1964) , who had his one-stop shop Talleres de Pintura, Escultura y Plateria at 812 R. Hidalgo in Quiapo. Maximo was born in Malabon, the only son of Antonina Vicente, a fish vendor, and a Spaniard named Guardamonte, who died before Maximo's birth. Maximo went to the U.P. School of Fine Arts, graduating in 1909.
He set up his first religious statuary shop at Calle Hidalgo in 1908. His half-brothers--Rafael, Felix, Luciano, Roberto and Dionisio, children of Maximo's from her 2nd marriage to a Navotas fisherman named Pablo Santiago--both became expert artisans. They joined Maximo in his talleres, and they contributed much to the sucess of the shop. By the 1930s, the shop was not only known for creating images, but its services have expanded to making andas, altars, pulpits, church ornaments, gold embroidered vestments, even marble monuments and tomb markers. Most of his workers came from Malabon, Navotas and Pampanga like Juan Flores, Jorge Santiago, Rufino Rivera and Alfredo Contreras.
Maximo married Crispina Laxamana from Pampanga. Upon his death, his shop was managed by a daughter-in-law, Soledad Hernandez-Vicente, wife of his son, Maximo Jr., an architect. An only daughter became a nun and founded a religious order in Quiapo that propagated devotion to the Holy Face.
Irineo M. Cristobal had his own Taller de Escultura along Evangelista, which also did religious statuaries and decorations.
In the 1940s, other popular santo makers included: Esteban Sculpture Works along Rizal Ave., El Arte Cristiano of Gerardo Alonzo (Evangelista, Quiapo), Ang Batong Busilak (Hidalgo St.) managed by Cornelio Vicente and Taller de Escultura y Plateria de Feliciano P. Yuson (Evangelista St.).
Today, Quiapo and nearby Tayuman are still top-of-mind when it comes to religious shops selling santos, but as in mass-produced items, the quality of carving remains suspect. Devotees with discriminating taste prefer having images commissioned by well-known santeros in Paete (Laguna), Betis and Bacolor (Pampanga) and Bulacan whose art remains uncompromised.