Mahal na Araw (Holy Week) is that time of the year when families bring out their heirloom santos associated with the Passion and parade them off in ritual processions, arrayed in sumptuous gold-embroidered raiments and expensive devotional adornments. In the old days, these priceless santos—some larger than life—were lavished with gifts, with some receiving part of the year’s revenue from rice or sugar harvests for their upkeep and maintenance.
Not only did families dote on their treasured images, they also spent thousands on the wheeled platforms that bear them—carrozas or caros. The most prized carrozas are those made with panels of solid silver melted from old Mexican coins. The silver panels, often detachable, were made by craftsmen in “pinukpok” style, the same process in making metal décor for calesas, also known as repoussé, where designs are created by hammering the reverse side of the silver sheet. Other metalwork methods include chasing (indenting with a hammer or a dull-pointed object), embossing (raising in relief by pushing in the background) and engraving.
Long before the advent of wheeled carrozas were the andas (walkers), the platform mounts of santos, borne on the shoulders of able-bodied men. In Sevilla, Spain, these processional platforms were called pasos, which functioned as elaborate stage sets for the images. Andas referred to the structural supports for the paso. Heavy, decorated fabrics hung from the paso’s stretcher, thus hiding the paid carriers or costaleros. Eventually, as the size of platforms grew and the representations became more complex (the Ultima Cena tableaux has at least 13 santos!), the anda was mounted on a wheeled chassis for better maneuverability. Early carrozas had narrow calesa/cartela wheels, but these have now been replaced with modern, automotive tires for a smoother, jolt-less ride.
If one could not afford silver, wood (batikuling was a favorite) was utilized to make the carroza body. This was then carved, varnished, polychromed or gilded with gold. Historian Mariano A. Henson writes of an 1860 Holy Week procession in Kuliat (Angeles) in which images were carried on gilded floats, replacing the modest biers used in 1830. The gilding was done manually by women “who are not gluttonous and not given to smoke, chewing tobacco or buyo”. Woman’s saliva was used to moisten the gesso on the carroza so that the gold foil, when applied with a brush, stayed fast on the surface. This process assured the survival of the gilt even after years of handling and exposure to the elements.
Carrozas came in many forms: multi-storied, columned, canopied or made to look like boats. The carroza of Ntra. Sra. De las Estrellas, an ivory image owned by the late Carlos Mercado of Sasmuan for instance, is shaped like a chariot. Platforms can be designed with 8 sides or ochovado style. Carrozas carrying the sorrowful Virgin (Dolorosa) were equipped with a palio or a baldachin supported by carved poles or varas. The Mercado clan has a Sto. Entierro inside a calandra or a funeral coach, topped by angels bearing the symbols of the Passion. Silver chandeliers held glass virinas decorated with sampaguita flowers. In Mabalacat, the 28 emblems of the Passion (ladder, hammer, nails, crown of thorns, dice, etc.) are incorporated as silver milagros on the black sayal (skirt) of the carroza bearing Apung Mamacalulu.
During the Spanish times, the commodious ground floors (zaguans) of convents and large colonial mansions were perfect parking spaces for carrozas. Before storing, the metal parts were treated with shoe polish or zinc oxide dissolved in alcohol to prevent tarnish.
It would seem however, that carrozas not only served to carry santos, they were also used as funeral biers for children. I have seen at least one memento mori picture of an infant laid atop a carroza surrounded with flowers and lights, a beguilingly chilling sight. Perhaps, it was decided that this child, with a life still untainted, deserved to journey into the next life in the same spectacular way as our holy santos.
In the 1920s, families ordered their carrozas from ateliers in Quiapo, like the popular Maximo Vicente. The art of carroza making is still practiced in Pampanga although exceptional carvers are getting harder to find. One has to scour out-of-the-way religious shops in Betis and Guagua for these artisans. Gener Bautista of San Gabriel, Macabebe still accepts commissions for old-style caros while Rolly Flores and Boyet Flores, a descendant of the famed Flores carving family from Betis, continue the tedious carroza-building tradition.
Whether burnished, silvered, chased or plated, each carroza is reflective of the highest degree of skill attained by our local craftsmen. That is why, this Semana Santa when the santos come once more a-rolling, pay close attention to the carrozas—the spectacular splendor-on-wheels, bearers of divinities who have come down to earth to remind us of our Lord’s Passion, as well as the greatness of Filipino talent.