One of the more fascinating religious folk art that we adopted from the West are the so-called Crucifixion Bottles that were popular among whittlers and craftsmen in Europe and America in the 19th century. They are variations of bottled wooden whimseys that included the popular ships-in-bottle, a tradition that remains to this day.
Tradition has it that Crucifixion Bottles were made by Bilibid prisoners as part of their rehabilitation, starting at the start of the 20th century. Inside a bottle was constructed a whole Calvary scene, complete with the principal stick figure of crucified Christ shown surrounded by similar santo figures of Mary, St. John, the 3 Maries, and Roman soldiers. It was believed that prisoners passed the long lonely hours by skillfully putting together these disparate santo pieces inside a bottle, reflecting on Christ’s sufferings as they did so. Once finished, these bottles were sold as cheap religious souvenirs.
One weekend, I was looking for antique bottles to add to my collection at my dealer’s Cubao warehouse when I saw this medium size clear bottle with what seemed to be dirty paper shreds inside it. A closer examination showed that it was an old crucifixion bottle as I could see disassembled stick figures inside, all mixed up with the flotsam and whatever jetsam was inside.
Of course, I asked the dealer a trick question, asking what the bottle originally contained—and he answered vaguely that it held some kind of a religious relic. Hence, he says, it’s more expensive than his other bottles—I could have it for a thousand bucks. Well, I ended up getting it for the same price as his regular bottles, and immediately went home with my find, lest my dealer changes his mind. I earmarked this for my week-end project—I am sure I could restore this old Crucifixion Bottle, I have done so in the past.
Day One: I had to remove the contents of the 500 mL clear medicine bottle, which was consistent with other crucifixion bottles I have seen. With sloping shoulders and a wide, flat front and back side, these bottles were ideal for assembling sets of figures inside.
Using a long barbecue stick plus tweezers, I managed to remove the messy contents of the bottle. The dirty shredded paper were actually placed to hide the calvary base, although the more common fillers were cotton balls, to create a “heavenly effect”.
Disentangled from this dirty mess were three Calvary stick figures made of softwood, consisting of the Crucified Christ (surprisingly complete!!), Virgin Mary and a Roman soldier (very rare figure!).
There were remnants of the Cross too—the anchor was intact, but the Cross itself was missing the main bar. I cleaned up the figures using a regular paint brush and reinforced loose elements (like broken base bar, the soldier’s sword and Mary’s cape) with gel glue. I also replaced the missing parts from wood scraps recycled from an old crate.
Now, comes the most difficult part—assembling the pieces inside the bottle. I was prepared with an assortment of “tools”—mainly, barbecue sticks of different sizes, skewers, plastic paleta, tweezers, even bent paper clips! I had previously studied the order in which the parts were laid out on the bottle and I began with lining the inside bottom of the bottle with brown paper, which I glued using dabs of gel glue (perfect for such project, it doesn’t run quickly!) applied with the flattened end of a barbecue stick.
Next, I assembled the cross bars—one bar at a time—a fairly easy thing to do as the bottle was still empty; you could still move things around and fasten them using the same barbecue stick-with-glue technique. As this was going to anchor the cross, the cross bars had to be locked and glued securely, which meant waiting for the glue to dry—overnight.
On Saturday morning, I was ready to put the Roman soldier and the Mary figure inside the bottle. There were hole marks to guide me in positioning the figures. I knew that the soldier stood at the left of the Cross, while Mary stood in front (for all we know, this was a Magdalene figure!). For better visibility of Christ, I decided to relocate Mary on the right, where I had already punched a hole to slip in the figure, which had a peg on her feet, fashioned from a toothpick! Again, more waiting followed for the glue to set firmly.
After lunch, I was all set to put in the spar of the cross, which I did successfully in one go. The T-bar was more of a challenge as it already had the dangling arms of Christ, attched with very fine nails. I had to force it down the narrow neck of the bottle, then, I had to balance the bar on the spar, and coax it into position. After several tries, I succeeded—the dovetailing was perfect! A few dabs of glue and the cross was up!
By late afternoon, the glue was sufficiently dry, so I pasted the rays of the cross (made from brown paper and trimmed with gold glitter) on the back , to further reinforce its construction. Next came another critical part of the assembly—putting the armless body of Christ onto the spar of the cross, then coaxing the two thin arms in place so that the ends could be inserted into the shoulder sockets of Christ.
One really needs a steady hand to do this as it entails balancing the body on the narrow cross. I lined the cross with gel glue then pushed Christ’s body using a pair of tweezers. Even with glue, Christ would fall from the spar of the cross; thank God, the paper burst broke its fall many times.
The next problem was inserting the arms into the shoulder sockets. I had practiced this on the Christ figure outside of the bottle, and the arm fitted like a glove with one push. Inside the bottle, with less space to work on, it was very difficult. I would lift one arm using a slender stick, pull up the body with a skewer, and the body would fall, again and again.
After a dozen tries and with my patience running out, I decided not to insert the arms anymore and opted to lay them on the cross, almost touching Christ’s body. From the front, one could see Christ hanging from the cross alright, but from the side, you could see that the arms are not exactly attached to the body. Oh well, that was my best effort.
To ensure that the arms would not fall and remain in position, I dropped dollops of glue on the nails supporting them. Unlike before, I didn’t rush the drying of the glue; I let the glue set overnight. The next morning, after breakfast, I inspected my handiwork. I still was not happy with the way the arms have turned out, but I know, it could have been worse.
The last steps included glueing the paper INRI sign on the cross, and covering the base with crumpled strips of very fine papel de japon. For added effect and to weigh down the flimsy paper strips, I dropped in a couple of mother of pearl flowers onto the base of the bottle. To keep the cross from moving, a toothpick was inserted into a hole on the top of the cross; the other end was then inserted into a cork (from an old wine bottle), which was the pushed into the opening which was then dabbed with glue, to seal the bottle permanently.
It takes very little to creating bottled whimseys—one needs only an empty bottle, glue, a whittling knife, scraps of paper, fabric and wood. Anyone can actually do it, with just a bit of skill, patience and practice. Just take it from the Bilibid prisoners of old, whose rare folksy santo creations in a bottle now command thousands of pesos in antique shops—if you can still find one.