Thursday, September 2, 2010


Philippine churches of the Spanish colonial period held a wealth of beaten silver, guidons, crucifixes, candle holdrs, sanctuary lamps, censers. But it was on the santos that Filipinos lavished their devotion. Cults to the favorite saints grew so large that even the friars grumbled about the people’s “excessive” veneration of images. A pre-Conquest parallel to this is found in the ritual devotion to the representation of ancestor spirits called anito.

The Spaniards have left few description of these ancient idols,whose cults the missionaries extirpated. Pigafetta, the Italian chronicler of Magellan’s voyage, saw idols of wood “hollow and lacking back parts’. Their arms were “open and their feet turned up under them with the legs open. They have a large face with four huge tusks like those of wild boars and are painted all over.”

Folk invoking a spirit for the “recovery of a sick person, a prosperous voyage of those embarking on the sea, a good harvest in the sown lands, propitious results in wars, successful delivery in childbirth, and a happy outcome in married life,” anointed the idol with musk and civet, fragrant gums or scented wood, while an officiating priest praised it in a poetic song. These supplications are the very ones that Filipinos, till today make to their favorite saints—whose hems they kiss, whose holy feet they rub white with their handkerchiefs, to take home some of their power and protection.

But most of the santos were carved in the Philippines, since importation could never keep up with the growing number of churches and chapels—not to mention the home altars of the new Christians.

The first image carvers—indios and Chinese—were simple copysts, working from prints or from a priest’s instructions and iconographic identity, which dictates an image’s attitude or posture and its accompanying symbols or attributes. Many of the inconsistencies in Philippine santos stem from these reasons, and from the fact that the early craftsmen were primitives, “in the artistic sense of being direct and naïve.” Purpose, not aesthetics, was what mattered. Often enough, the artist detailed only the “façade” of the hairpiece or garment—neglecting to finish below would not see, as he gazed it from below a retablo, a high altar or a church wall.

The emotional charge of Philippine santo sculpture comes from the artist’s naivete: his unquestioning mind translates into form what his feeling perceives and not what his eyes actually see. By contrast, the Spanish sculptors aspired to a “theatrical realism” demanded by the tableau-like effect of religious processions. The object was to sustain lifelike illusion: the baroque impulse that led to wigs, glass eyes, eyelashes, and a painting technique called encarnado, whose ideal was to achieve the hue of the living human skin.

History has traditionally assigned the role of artisans and craftsmen to the Chinese in the Philippine colony. But a close examination of historical data reveals that, given the regular pogrom and expulsions of Philippine Chinese, there could not have been that many Chinese artisans to carve all those santos attributed to them. Even our too-ready interpretation of the stylized cloud in relief sculpture as a telltale sign of Chinese influence might merely be a misreading of the religious carver’s hieroglyphics. The cloud scrolls or series of sinuous concentric lines were a conventional symbol of heaven or sky. Mexican and European paintings show the same patterns.

Not only did indio woodworkers compete on even terms with the Chinese. Their “careful craftsmanship” was recognized, even preferred by customers. In fact, their santos and church decorations seem to have been exported in modest quantities to Latin America and Spain itself. The Mission Dolores in California, for instance, is furnished with three tabernacles, a small sculpture of Our Lady of Sorrows, a polychrome Crucifix and many carved wooden tablets sent from the Philippines in 1780.

Today, santos have gained a new status. Over the last 15 years, they have become the passion of collectors, who pay as much as thousands of pesos for an image. Antique dealers only willingly oblige a growing and fiercely competitive market. They have plucked santos from old household altars and pedestals of churches all over the country. Enticed by high prices, families are parting with their heirloom pieces, while poor parish priests are selling religious relics to finance repairs of their crumbling churches.

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