Tuesday, July 27, 2010


By Josephine Pasricha / Photographs by Manny Fernandez

(Source: Architectural Journal, A Magazine of the Home Arts, Vol. II, No. 12, pp. 88-91. ©April 1982)

“They don’t make santos like they used to,” says Francisco Vecin, who owns a collection of about 200 santos, most of which are life-size processional pieces.

Vecin compares a 150 year old santo. The Image of Christ, with Señor Desmayado, a recently sculpted piece of the fainting Christ. Both belong to his collection; the antique Christ is a family heirloom that must have come from Laguna, while Señor Desmayado is a commissioned work from Bert Gubaton.

The santos of old were done with love by sculptors who had the patience and the leisure , although not much knowledge of anatomy and proportion. Often, it took them months, perhaps years, to finish one santo; they had all the time to pause from their work and wait for the wood to dry just so.

Modern santo carvers are always rushing. They do not have enough ti me anymore to do everything by hand with painstaking skill. Thus, the use of machine tools; even drying techniques use the assembly line method.

There is a division of labor among the artisans. There are makers of torsos, amkers of heads, carvers of hands and feet. There are those who only polychrome the santo, rendering the right tint and color to approximate the live human flesh. There are also labradores who carve ornaments, silversmiths who make the golden crowns, diadems, halos, silver carrozas, flowers and candle holders. Of course, there are the fashion designers who specialize only in clothes for santos.

Thus, santos from the 19th century and even to the 20th century are characterized by smooth finish, stereotyped faces, mass-produced hands with feet set on similar mannequin-like torsos. Invariably, they have false glass eyes imported from Germany, the kind that the blind use. They may also have teeth made by dentists and inserted into the mouth through a hole at the back of the head. Their wigs are made of artificial or even natural hair; their clothing is elaborate with the popular estofado embroidery in gold or silver.

“But notice how the beard of an antique santo is curled in a careful, painstaking way. It is very obvious that it has been done wit love and time for such minute details. The carvers of today cannot do these things anymore, “ Vecin shakes his head.

“They may try to copy these painstaking details; but their hands simply can’t, having been trained in an altogether different way.”

Santos in the 16th and 17th centuries were primitive, aboriginal, defective in anatomy and proportions, crude in hair and clothing. It was only in the 18th century that the art of sculpturing sacred images developed. The anatomy and proportions were corrected; the hair and folds of the garments became natural; now and then, though, there were stunted pieces. In the 19th century, Paete sculptors produced very realistic santos in the style of Martinez Montañez, the celebrated Spanish master.

It is interesting to note that santos usually have hollow bodies, not only to make them less heavy for processions, but also so that the hole at the back of the bodies may be used as a secret container of money, heirloom jewelry and important papers.

This, this symbolizes how everybody and everything in the household is consecrated to the family santo.

Monday, July 26, 2010

23. The Saintmakers: NICK LUGUE

This exclusive interview series first appeared as SSF Personalan on Semana Santa Filipinas, the biggest online group of santo owners and enthusiasts. It features personalities directly involved in the “santo trade”: ecclesiastical artists, carvers, artisans, encarnadors, painters, lateros, bordadors, costureras, cultural activists and avid santo fans. It is also aimed at recognizing the unsung contemporary talents behind our religious arts—how they started, how they honed their skills, and how it is like to run a santo business today.
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Featured on this page is the accomplished Pampanga santero NICOLAS LUGUE of Apalit. Nick, as he is more popularly known, is a 41-year old santero who has found quite a measure of success not only in his native Pampanga but also in nearby provinces and even in Metro Manila. In a narrow alley tucked along Barangay San Juan, lies Nick’s house-cum-workshop, which is always a beehive of activity as he and his artisans carve, sand and paint santos of all shapes and sizes. Nick shares with us his experience in carving (pun intended) out a name for himself in the santo industry.


NICK: My father, Leopoldo “Pol” Lugue was a carver before me, but he started out carving designs for doors and furniture. I would help him carve these designs and that’s how I got my start -- carving bas reliefs for doors.

When he shifted to santo carvings, I tried that too and I felt a different sense of fulfillment with santos. Santos, unlike furniture, offered a much greater challenge, allowing me to explore and realize my fullest potential as an artist. Every time a client reacts upon seeing a finished santo image, I get a sense of how my artistic skills have improved.


NICK: It was in 1991, actually at the height of the Pinatubo eruptions and its aftermath, that I decided to concentrate on being a santero. Previous to this, I also tried my hand at metalsmithing, experimenting with ‘pukpok’ art. But the appeal of a sculpted image was more enduring to me.

I practiced first with “butul baka” (cow bone) carving—you know, simple bone masks that were affixed to carved bodies of small saints. My first wooden santos were anatomical nightmares! But then again, it was case of “practice makes perfect,” and over the course of time, that’s what I did, practice until I got things right.


NICK: The main challenge in this business is the lack of a wide and deep talent pool. So basically I end up doing everything.

But I like being very hands-on, though. I still do the basic carving, which to me, is the most important step, because if it’s wrong to start with, you can’t undo the mistake. After that, my workers take over. I also do “encarna” work, although I get a lot of help from my younger brother Andoy, who has become adept in painting in oil, lacquer, and all types of paints.

We work twelve months a year, so we are luckier than most. We are already doing Holy Week images at this time. That is why I have no plans at the moment to expand our business -- we are doing quite well.


NICK: My most important projects are commissions by private individuals, particularly in Bulacan and in Nueva Ecija. For a family in Talavera, Nueva Ecija, I sculpted most of their Semana Santa images, a lot of them tableaus, which have since been featured in their Lenten commemorative book.

Most of my commissions are for Semana Santa images, with Virgins being the most popular. And yes, I have been contacted by SSF members from abroad too, with various inquiries about potential projects.

(Nick has actually worked on two replicas of the canonically-crowned Virgen de los Remedios used for parish visitations. For the Saint Joseph the Worker Parish in Floridablanca, Pampanga, he completed a Nativity Set with thirteen figures. Likewise, he helped restore the 170 year-old Holy Angel of the Nepomuceno Family of Angeles City)


NICK: Well, I hope that SSF truly becomes a venue for information-sharing and for helping out those who desire to have their initial santos, or to upgrade to better ones.

I know that there are a lot of young santo enthusiasts who are members, so to them, I say, be ready to learn from those who have more depth of experience and who are more in the know. Keep an open mind, share the joys of owning and caring for a santo, so that our revered Philippine religious traditions will live on.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

22. RETRO-SANTO: Ntra. Sñra de Peñafrancia , Patroness of Bicolandia

The most revered image of Bicolandia , the Virgen dePeñafrancia is based on an image found in the rocky hills between Spain and France. It was said that the Virgin appeared to Simon Vela and it was on the apparition site that an image of the Holy Virgin was found among the rocks on 19 May, 1434.

In 1712, a Spanish government official—a Covarrubias—was assigned to Cavite. He had a son—Miguel Robles, who got sick while studying for priesthood at the University of Sto. Tomas. He recovered after praying to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, whose picture he held all throughout his illness. He also made a vow that if cured, he would construct a chapel by the bank of Pasig River in Manila, in gratitude to Her. Miguel later became a priest and was assigned eventually to Nueva Caceres (now known as Naga City).

There, he fulfilled his promise; he asked the help of natives to build a chapel by the banks of Bicol River, in lieu of Pasig. He then commissioned a local artist to carve an image of our Lady patterned after the picture he clutched while sick. The image was painted with the blood of a dog—which miraculously came alive even after being dumped in the river. News of this miracle and many others spread all over Bicol and miracles spread like wildfire and devotees grew in number as the devotion spread beyond Bicol, reaching Tayabas, Marinduque, Laguna, Isabela and all the way to the Cordilleras.

The official coronation of Our Lady of Peñafrancia as Patroness of Bicolandia took place on September 20, 1924, officiated by the Rt. Rev. Msgr. Guillermo Piani. “Ina”, as she is fondly called, is honored during her feast day with a festive tribute that begins with the famous Traslacion procession during which the images of the Lady of Peñafrancia and the Divino Rostro (Holy Face) are brought by barefooted male voyadores from the Basilica through the main streets of the city to the Cathedral. The 4-hour procession is participated in by pilgrims from all over Bicol and other parts of the country. A fluvial procession in which the Virgen is placed in a pagoda and cheered to the shout of “Viva La Virgen!”, is the highlight of the festivities.

A pall of gloom was cast over Bicolandia region on 15 August 1981 when the antique image was stolen from her shrine at the Peñafrancia Church. A massive search was launched and it was only over a year after that the image was mysteriously returned to Rt. Rev. Msgr. Florencio Yllana, a former Rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Peñafrancia.

A motorcade from Manila to Naga accompanied the precious Virgin, arriving finally in the city on 8 September 1982, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady. Not even a raging typhoon could deter the thousands of exulting devotees from giving their beloved “Ina” a warm and rousing welcome. The image was safely installed at the Metropolitan Cathedral on the same day, where a pontifical concelebrated mass was offered in thanksgiving for the safe return of Our Lady.

The image of Our Lady of Peñafrancia is now enshrined at the Basilica Minore at Calle Balagtas in the City of Naga. Her Feast is on every 3rd Sunday of September

The Grand Tercentenary Celebration of Our Lady of Peñafrancia will be observed this September 2010 and the Archdiocese of Caceres is at the forefront of the 300th year festivities, the preparations of which were began three years ago.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

21. MATER DOLOROSA, by Dr. Raffy Lopez

One of the most accomplished ecclesiastical artists in the country today is Dr. Raffy Lopez. A doctor by training, he dabbled in the art of santo vestment making in the 80s, which eventually led to a home-based business that includes restoration of wood and ivory santos, design and execution of religious vestments as well as various church art. Dr. Lopez is sought after by collectors for his antique ivory restoration services; but he also creates religious images using new ivory. His latest masterpiece is this recently-completed processional Mater Dolorosa of new ivory.

This ivory Dolorosa stands 1.15 meters tall and is of the bastidor type. The head was carved and copied from an antique 19th century wooden head by Dr. Lopez's carver, Nong. The encarna was done by no less than the artist Rafael del Casal. The Dolorosa stands on a peana carved by carver Celso, with a basket-weave pattern, then gold leafed by Kiko Aguilar.

The vestments were sewn from silver Thai silk and embroidered profusely with Spanish gold thread with hand stitching in low and high relief. There are 'banig' detailings on some of the flowers. The silver fittings were handcrafted by master metalsmith Dodong Azares.

Monday, July 5, 2010


By Alaine Ty
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.