Sunday, March 6, 2011


The first religious image mentioned in Philippine history is the Sto. Niño de Cebu. Carved in Flanders (then a Spanish possession) and dressed in velvet cloak and plumed hat, a hand raised in benediction and the other carrying an orb, the image attracted Juana, Datu Humabon’s wife; Pigafetta therefore gave it to her. This example of early Filipino devotion to the Niño before long popularized carvings in his likeness. In 1590, Domingo de Salazar, the first Archbishop of Manila, wrote to King Philip II of ivory carvings of the Child Jesus being carved in Manila—so excellently as to approximate in quality the Flemish originals. These first examples were, of course, carved by Chinese artisans; and they gave rise to characteristic traits which became incorporated in later Philippine iconography. For instance, the fleshy, rotund thighs of the Sto. Niño; and the neck of most saints ringed with the folds; and eyes shaded by heavy lids. These characteristics seem more common in ivory images, but even wood carvings (particularly of the early period) exhibit these traits.

From the indio background, the most telling contribution to santo sculpture is the somewhat disproportional physiognomy and a tendency to flatness. For when the artisans conceives of his sculpture as a free-standing object in the round, he typically pays only minimal attention to its back profile. The reason for this, of course, is that Philippine ornamental carvings in their traditional usage—carved on the surfaces of objects—used a flat perspective. The frontal directness of objects was always the primary concern of the craftsman. One notices this even in the bulul—the only representation of our animist past which survived the fervor of the early missionaries. The older craftsmen often had no idea of using clothing to enhance the proportion of the body in the artistic sense. In later sculptures, the slight turn of a leg proffered forward sometimes resulted in a fuller carving of the lower garment; an arm lifted in supplication may have a ripple of creases on the sleeve.

It’s a pity—but perhaps unavoidable—that much of the estofado coating applied to the garments of saints has been lost. Our hot, humid climate causes it to flake off. Apart from natural causes, there was the ritual habit of repainting images every so often. The fact that beautiful estofado decoration would be covered seldom stopped the devotee from giving an old image a new coat of paint. It is the ritual intention that was important—not the aesthetic value. For these images were above all intimately bound to everyday life—gaining meaning and value as they relate to the owner n ritual terms. Estofado is the technique of decorating the garments of images. Gesso or its equivalent in thick putty-like plaster is used to prime the body of the statue. In the Spanish tradition, a coat of goldleaf was first applied to the body of the sculpture—followed by a thin coat of paint through which we can barely see the gold shimmer. Floral patterns were then incised on this coating, reinforced with traditional decorative elements painted on to emphasize the sgrafitto pattern. This ornamental technique must have been very attractive to the colonial artisan, for it was rather similar to that of his own accustomed carving technique. And largely because the Filipino artisan was able to impart something of his own character to the santos he carved, his religious imagery gained distinctive marks. Unlearned though he may have been in the manner of Europeans, he gamely produced his own lively interpretation of the heavenly hierarchy. God and His saints must have had many good laughs over their sometimes-impious representations in Filipino colonial iconography: bulging eyes, squat figures, sensuous lips—and expressions that had never before crossed the faces of Christian saints. Informal statues meant for homes display the wider variety of stylistic differences. For one thing, the craftsman had to deal with clients of varying tastes and standards. One imagines that the peninsulares would have wanted in their home altars nothing less than those images grandiosely enshrined in church altars, or seen in the latest books and prints brought over by the Acapulco galleons. Upwardly mobile principales and mestizos must have also vied with one another to secure the best carvers and the best type of wood for their own altar images.

But for the majority of Filipino converts, the so-called popular style—more crude, more primitive, more naively conceived—sufficed. Surprisingly, it is in santos of this category that the scholar can measure the faith of the early converts. For here, freed from the hierarchial demands, the folk fashioned their saints in their own image. It is here, too, that one finds many statues vaguely reminiscent of the likha and anito. Santos of the popular style often tell us too, even of the changing costumes of the colonial period. The patron of San Isidro normally portrayed as a Castillian genteman was gradually replaced by indios, mestizos, and chinos. San isidro Labrador—so close to peasant affection—is often carved as dressed in the loose camisa worn by farmers.

Generally, all images were first treated with gesso to fill in the grain of wood and to achieve a smooth finish. The sculpture was then primed with red or yellow paint, before being polychromed in the standard colors assigned to specific saints. The faces of images are often coated with several layers of paint that approximate the skin tone. This process is known as encarnado. Ultra-realism became the vogue in the 18th century. Glass eyes, wigs, jewels and false eyelashes were introduced into santo sculpture. Images were dressed in velvet and the finest materials possible. Head and hand were now usually attached to a sketchy frame, with sockets supported by wooden legs. In the bastidor type, head and hands mounted and the body frame heavily padded to produce a conical saint. In this style, legs were no longer carved nor detailed. Emphasis shifted to the ornamental appearance of the object: the sculptural form disappears altogether.

In the absence of written records, dating santos is at best an educated guess. It is much easier to arrive at generalities regarding provenance. For instance, santos from the Bicol region tend to be carved from heavy wood. The figures are always massive proportion, well-carved with bases being frequently adorned with angels (if the subject happens to be the Blessed Virgin) and brilliantly colored. Popular subjects for Bicol carvers are San Antonio de Padua and the Pieta. From Cebu came the bell-shaped, heavy images of the Virgin with ivory heads and pegged-on wigs. Iloilo sculpture tends to be on the flattish side, with angular shoulders. Most popular santos from this province are mounted on crudely-made bases.

Samar has a prevalence of santos carved in light to medium-hard wood, which are tall (like the Pangasinan images) but flat, with angular shoulders and head. One characteristic of the Samar San Roque is a wound located on the right rather than on the left thigh, as it should not be in orthodox iconography. Bohol Virgins are generally squat figures slightly hunched at the shoulder, with pinched waists. The hair is straight and shapeless, or else falls in separate strands at the back. The face has a rather piquant expression. Bases are octagonal in shape instead of the usual globe, which is standard in the representation of the Inmaculada. Negros Virgins are crowned with nondescript faces. Bold floral designs invariably liven the central panel of their garments.

Whatever data we have today are still not enough to afford us a keener knowledge of the styles generated at a particular time in a specific locality. Historical records are so scarce that it is next to impossible to formulate an authoritative overview. It will be, as I have mentioned earlier, at best an educated guess, and for want of information, riddled with gaps. Thus, I appeal to dealers and collectors to join hands in amassing information in a common archive—the ADAP—where all the items that pass through their hands are photographed, given a description with additional information regarding source and provenance, and, possibly, the name o the foreign buyer. Such information will contribute to the collection of knowledge that is essential to a deeper and cultured understanding of this art form, our most vital link to discovery of the Filipino psyche.

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