Photographs by George V. Cabig
(From: Design & Architecture Magazine, June 1999. p. 74-78)
“The walls of the houses are often covered with the engravings of saints and on the tables are many glass globes and urns containing saints, virgins and little figures of the Divine Child, which generally have the face as well as the hands of ivory, and silver clothes richly embroidered. In well-to-do houses, there are so many that they resemble a storehouse of saints rather than habitation…”
Thus did the Spanish official Sinibaldo de Mas write about the furnishings of 19th c. well-to-do mestizos in 1842. This historical footnote might just as well have described the abode of art collector Dr. Gerard Salgado, whose living quarters in San Juan is a veritable treasure house of antique santos.
The house is a rambling residence and antiques-and-furniture shop owned by the good doctor’s mother-in-law—the well-known Viring de Asis of Jo-Liza Antiques. On the ground floor, showcases of antique furnishings and reproductions—from massive aparadors to crystal chandeliers to bamboo birdcages—merge into a labyrinth redolent of bygone eras.
In this quaint setting, the scattered collection of antique santos take on the mystic aura of their surroundings, their delicate ivory faces seeming to exude a lifelike glow. Protected from the elements in their glass cases, they stretch out their ivory hands in gestures of blessing and solace, or gaze back at onlookers with rewarding, lifelike eyes.
On the landing of the second floor, Christ Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane stands on a base engraved with the name of its carvers, Talleres de Castilla de Villalobos. In the vestibule is a tableau of the Cavalry scene, complete with Mater Dolorosa, Mary Magdalene and St. John gazing at the Crucified Christ.
A dermatologist by profession, Dr. Salgado is a self-confessed late bloomer in the art-collecting scene. He started in 1988 with contemporary paintings (“only those by living artists”, or artists whose paintings he had bought before they dies). The saints came by way of his mother-in-law.
His image of the Immaculate Conception, with attendant angels on a base of light wood, has been dated from the 19th c. It was the same statue sold years ago by Viring de Asis to a Swiss couple. Dr. Salgado had found it on sale at another antique shop. He immediately remembered the base gathering dust in the Jo-Liza bodega and quickly bought the santo to be reunited with its base. Now it stands in the vestibule of the living quarters.
“My mother-in-law has brokered items for the Intramuros Administration, the Central Bank and the Metropolitan Museum collections”, Dr. Salgado relates. “She was always expressing regret that she did not collect this or that item. That gave me the idea to collect these antique santos. Their value increases with time. It’s a good idea to have representatives of Filipino antiques. It’s one way of showing off our cultural heritage. When foreigners visit our store, they’re so amazed at the lovely collection of antiques that we have here”.
He has from 40 to 50 santos at one time in his collection. When a new one catches his fancy, he sometimes “upgrades”, as he calls it, putting an older item from his collection up for sale in his mother-in-law’s shop downstairs.
He shows off some of his favorite pieces: one of Jesus the Carpenter, holding a bucket of tools made of silver (“you can tell what the santo is by its ornaments”). The image is not dressed, showing a wooden body and movable limbs, capped by an ivory head and fitted with ivory hands.
There are several priceless figures of solid ivory; n exquisitely detailed 18th c. crucifix with the body of Christ leaning to the right, following the curve, presumably of the elephant’s tusk from which it was carved; an image of San Antonio de Padua; and a later piece, an early 20th c. San Isidro Labrador. “It’s very hard to get whole ivories”, Salgado comments.
Also among the santos are the 3 most popular Archangels: St. Michael brandishing his dagger and shield over the Devil; St. Raphael, childlike, carrying a fishing rod from which dangles a pure-gold fish; St. Gabriel, holding a book. All have finely worked ivory features and hands.
“Sometimes, it is difficult to place the exact date when each piece was created”, Dr. Salgado tells us. “But the range is most likely between the 17th, the time of the Spanish friars, and the 19th centuries—the latter being the most plentiful because many santos from this period were preserved”.
He shows us a Goanese santo that traces its origin to one of the major centers of religious ivory carving in the olden days. Goa was located on the Indian subcontinent near what is now Pakistan. Together with Spain, Portugal, Mexico, India and China, its artistic style influenced carvers in the Philippines.
The art of ivory carving for religious images was introduced to the islands with the coming of the Spaniards. The islands were converted by the friar orders, each assigned to different provinces. Wherever they went, these missionaries brought with them devotions to the saints for their order, and attendant religious paraphernalia, including ivory santos. As the friars were busy building their churches, they commissioned skilled Chinese artisans to carve replicas of their ivory santos.
In Dr. Salgado’s collection is an example of an early santo, its Chinese origin belied by a set of heavy-lidded eyes slanting upwards at the corners. He also points out a 17th c. Madonna and Child, its features not as refined as the polished faces of 18th and 19th c. santos.
It is believed that Filipino artisans were trained in the art of ivory carving in the early 18th c., when record showed the friars extolling the artistic skills of some “indios and mestizos”. Their images possess European or mestizo features.
Soon, ivory santos from the Philippines became a coveted item, and a brisk and often illicit trade ensued between the islands and Mexico and Spain. They were not listed in ships’ inventories and were often smuggled in the crew’s personal belongings. With this, many large pieces left the country at the height of the ivory carving trade and only a handful of antique santos can be found in the Philippines today.
According to Dr. Salgado: “Most of theses santos were from ancestral homes of old families, some of whom commissioned artists to carve santos for their altars. How they looked was determined by the financial status of the family: rich families have ivory santos of fine workmanship; poorer families have statues made of wood, and the style is less elaborate”.
Church santos, though already rare, can be found all over the archipelago, wherever the Spanish influence has penetrated. Some collectors were even surprised to find santos from Batanes, which is a distant and almost inaccessible province. But Dr. Salgado postulates, the ones from old cities such as Manila, Cebu and Vigan—which used to be a highly urbanized place during Spanish times—are most refined.
There are many types of antique santos, and just as many types of collectors. “Some collect only wooden santos. Others just solid ivory. Still others collect only Virgin Mary, or only Santo Ninos, or the saints after whom they were named”, Dr. Salgado offers. “I, myself, am not too fond of wooden santos. I prefer santos in the ‘ilustrado’ style, those with refined features and fine workmanship”.
Whatever the preference, antique santos display the devotion and care Filipinos lavish on their religious icons. This is most clearly illustrated by the bastidor—santos with plain wooden torsos that were meant to be clothed. The frames were practically engulfed in layers of rich raiment, usually silk, or clothe of gold, embroidered with gold or silver thread, and decorated with precious stones. The Blessed Mary was often given a hooplike frame—all the better to show off the magnificent skirt of her elaborate gown.
Heads of santos were adorned with coronas (crowns) or diademas; some had facial aureoles called rostrillos; others wore wigs known as cabelleras. It is said that the cabelleras of old were the tresses of women who had taken their final vows before entering the nunnery. These images were displayed within glass domes called virinas, and rested on bases that were often intricately carved and gold-leafed.
The doctor points out some of his ‘overdressed” (he describes with an indulgent smile) santos whose robes had become so tarnished as to appear black. The robes are extremely delicate, thus virtually impossible to clean. A statue of St. Peter, clothed in fragile satin and clutching a solid gold key, stands safely in its virina in Dr. Salgado’s bedroom. Elsewhere, a statue of the Blessed Mother in her tattered gold robes overlooks the stairwell.
“One of the thrills of collecting”, he confides, “is preserving the clothes. Another is preserving the virina. Because they are of glass, few have survived and are very expensive.”.
The santo has become an integral part of the Filipino home. Call it superstition. Call it misplaced religious fervor. The fact remains that most Filipinos want to keep a religious artifact in their home. It makes them feel safe—even those who are not so religious. Dr. Salgado admits, “I have an altar in my room where I pray every day. Occasionally, I change the santos I place there. I clean them myself. They make me happy”.
And perhaps the saints are happy, too, protected and cared for by a devoted believer.
1. Agony in the Garden, late 19th c. Provenance: Quezon Prov., Ht. 30 cm. with base. Ivory head and hands, vestment with gold embroidery.
2. Virgin of Mount Carmel, 19th c. Ht. 48 cm. with base. Ivory head and hands, gold ornaments, vestment with gold thread embroidery (restored).
3. Crucifixion tableau with solid ivory Christ, 19th c. Santo Nino the Carpneter, 18th c. Ht. 65 cm. Ivory head and hands.
4. San Antonio de Padua, 18th c. Ht. 26 cm. Solid ivory.
5. L-R. St. Raphael, 18th c. provenance: Batangas. Ht. 64 cm. with base. Ivory head and hands, gold ornaments, vestment with gold thread embroidert. San Miguel, 18th-19th c. Ht. 47 cm. with base. Ivory head and hands, Silver ornaments.
6. San Fernando, 19th c. Ht. 41 cm., with base. Wood, gilded. Virgen Dolorosa, 19th c. Ht. 45 cm. with base. Ivory head and hands, wood, gilded. Crucified Christ, early 18th c. Solid ivory. San Roque, 19th c. Ht. 21 cm. Ivory head and hands.
7. Various ivory santos, 18th-19th c.
8. San Pedro , 18th -19th c, Ht. 66 cm. with base. Provenance: laguna. Gold ornaments, vestment with gold thread embroidery.