Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Comprehensive samples of Fil-Hispanic colonial art are on display with the Villanueva painting collection. They consist of large and small sculptures and a few paintings. If sculptural pieces form the great majority of the collection, it is because sculpture was the premier art of that epoch. The woodcarver had no need to purchase any material as wood was available for the getting. Too, sculptural pieces had only two great enemies—fires and termites. If hardwood was used, the danger of termites was eliminated. In fact, some softwood, like batikuling, was also immune to termites. 

Many of the sculptural pieces extant were literally resurrected from their graves. Reverence for images was such that they were never destroyed. If one had no more use for a partially broken image, the custom was to bury it. Many have been excavated from their graves. Paintings , on the other hand, involved some expenditure on the part of the artist. The traditional support for paintings was either wood or cloth. The painters mixed their own colors which consisted of Chinese cinnabar with local pigments and gums.

Needless to say, paintings do not keep well in the tropics. This is an added reason why they are relatively rare in collections. Naïve pieces form the majority of the sculptural pieces in the Villanueva collection. It is the consensus among collectors that the naïve pieces are far more interesting than the sophisticated ones. Their beauty lies in their imperfections. A few look as if they were created by all-thumbs sculptors. In others, the gaps between the artists’ ambitions and abilities vary considerably.

 But what they lack in technical execution is more than made-up by an individuality of spirit not found in the more sophisticated pieces. The sophisticated pieces can be said to represent the Catholization of the Philippines while the naïve pieces represents the Philippinization of that Catholicism. In the beginning were the saints, and the saints were with art, and the saints were art. That is the historical commencement of Philippine art.

This is not to say that there were no graven images before the conquest. Antonio Pigafetta, who recorded Magellan’s discovery of the Philippines, describe the pre-Hispanic images: “These idols are of hollow wood without any back parts. They have arms open, the feet turned up, with legs open, and a large face with four very large teeth like those of wild boars, and they are painted all over”. Unfortunately, the early conquistadores were soldiers and priests—not anthropologists—and before the new gods could be introduced, the old gods had to be destroyed.

 The first step towards the Christianization of the Philippines was the systematic destruction of all pagan idols. The extermination was so thorough that today, no visible vestige of the old gods exist even in museums. So while there was a primitive form of art prior to the conquest, available art specimens only date back to the Hispanic period. So it is the beginning of art and the saints, or the saints and art, but it is a beginning after a Deluge.

 Spanish evangelization of the Philippines urgently required two things: churches and images. It would be naïve to think that the early Filipinos could readily grasp the spiritual message of Christ. What they saw were new idols enthroned in more imposing altars and paraded in spectacular processions.

To all intents and purposes, they were more powerful than the old gods. Suffice it to say that images became the main decoration of Filipino homes. Roughly speaking, there were tow kinds of images produced in the Phhilippines—the naïve meaning “having native or unaffected simplicity” and the sophisticated, meaning “refined, subtlized and highly complicated”.

 The naïve pieces were carved by persons who, wanting an image of a saint of their particular devotion, simply went ahead and carved one with their bolos or other tools on hand. Needless to say, this type of craftsmen had limited skills and carved not what they wanted but what they could. The classic Spanish description for this kind of sculptor was, “Si sale con barba, San Anton; si sale sin barba, la Purisima Concepcion”—“If it comes out with a beard, it is San Antonio; if it comes out without a beard, it is the Purisima Concepcion”. Other naïve pieces were carved by skilled, self-taught woodcarvers. These pieces were mainly for home use, although there are some beautiful naïve pieces in many churches today.

 Who were the iconoclasts who created these images?

 The oldest image in the Philippines is the Santo Nino left by Magellan during his fatal trip to cebu. It is no doubt one of the earliest prototypes for the Santo Nino explosion that was to follow. It is not illogical to assume that when the Spaniards started to look for local people who could carve saints, the first people they sought were the Filipinos that carved the pagan idols decsrobed by Pigafetta.

This is a very important point because if this hypothesis is true, then, the pagan tradition did not altogether die but simply continued in another form. It is very possible that the last of the pagan carvers were also the first Christian carvers.

 The second oldest image is the Nuestra Senora de Guia, which was found, (atop a pandan tree) on 19 May 1571, by one of the conquistadores, being worshipped by the natives, the day Manila was conquered. To date, there is a dispute as to whether the image is Christian or pagan. The figure was carved from two pieces of local wood: the body of molave, the head of narra. The facial features, attire and the way the hands meet on the breast indicate a Hindu origin. Some have speculated that the image may have come from Christian Goa.

It is a historical fact that Legaspi’s troops met a Japanese named Paul, who was wearing a Theatin cap, and claimed he was a Christian. Did some Christians precede Legaspi’s expedition to Manila? The great possibility exists that Our Lady of Guidance was a pre-Hispanic Filipino pagan idol. It is made of local wood and it was being worshipped by the natives. Tradition has it that the very first santeros were Chinese. Those who advance this theory like to point out to marked Orinetal features of many of the early images.

There is no doubt that some of the earliest iconographers were Chinese. It is also a fact that some of the images were carved in South China. But more important is the fact that the overwhelming majority of iconographic art in the Philippines was produced by Filipinos. The best proof is that it has a distinct quality not found in Europe and South America, and certainly not China. From the conquista to the early decades of the 19th century Filipino painters and sculptors confined themselves to religious subjects. It was not till the second decade of the last century that the Filipino iconographers started to branch out into secular art.

--  Excerpted from the catalog booklet, THE VILLANUVA COLLECTION OF PHILIPPINE PAINTINGS, Publication Nov. 4, 1976, (c) Philippines. Published by the Roberto T. Villanueva Foundation, Inc. All pictures from the same booklet.

Friday, October 25, 2013

169. The Bangkal Picker II: MORE THRIFT SHOP SANTOS

Just a few days after I went home from Bangkal with a cache of folk santos, the same seller called me up to say that she has some fresh stocks that I may like. She even sent me, by phone, photos of a pair of folksy-looking but solidly made santos. I thought they were quite interesting, so during my Monday lunchbreak,  I taxied to her shop to look at the pair of santos she was offering.

They turned out to be an appealing pair, almost of the same size, and obviously carved by the same artist. They are even painted the same way, and the colors have retained their vividness all these years. Though done by one artist, they are carved from different wood.

The first santo, a Sta. Maria, is the taller and heftier santo, about 12 inches tall. She is made of santol wood, and the body is almost cylindrical in shape, following the contour of a straight santol branch or small trunk. The cape and tunic are fancifully painted with trefoil flowers growing from a leafy vine.The naive carving of her features betrays the folksy character of this image. Nailed on her head is a rusted tin crown, with some missing tin parts.

San Vicente is equally interesting because even though he is smaller, he has more details--from the tin halo to his pair of tin wings (amazing how his wings have survived without being detached from his body!). he has extremely short arms, which add to his appeal, and is painted in almost the same way as the Virgin, with more of the leafy patterns on his vestment, rather than the flowers.

He could very well be the Virgin's twin, judging from San Vicente's facial carving--with a narrow head, long nose and a cheeky face.Of course, I bought the pair for a very reasonable price, much lower that one would have paid for in a regular antique shop.

But I was in for more surprises, as when I went to the larger Bangkal warehouse and started poking my nose around, I found more folk santos--a San Pedro and another unidentified female santa. Their coloration was much more vibrant, and despite San Pedro's missing key and the snta's lost hands, they were in great shape!

San Pedro was made of lighter wood, and it only took a bit of waxing to bring out its excellent features. I replaced the key with an antique skeleton key that I've had for years.

The second santa-- a very hefty piece-- stumped me as at first glance, it looked like a generic Sta. Maria, but the longer I looked at it, the more it resembled Sta. Teresita de Nino Jesus.She wears what looks like a nun's habit, and the floral patterns on her dress are consistent with the Carmelite saint's flower attributes. So, for now, she  is St,.Therese of the Child Jesus to me.

These santos turned out to be even much more affordable, so I brought them home with me too--thrift shop santos that have now become the latest treasures in my collection.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Santos for personal devotion are common in European countries; small metal figures of Christ, the Virgin and patron saints kept in leather pouches or capsules are often carried by mobile devotees, and brought out during times of prayer and reflection. These are different from the Philippine metal amulets (anting-anting)  cast in the shape of small religious figures, that are meant to be worn on the body.

Santo miniatures, however rare are not unknown in the Philippines, as seen from these examples. Much smaller than the standard tabletop santos that range from 8 to 24 inches, these mini-santos of wood can be found in sizes from 6 inches to as small as 2 inches.

There's a quiet legion of mini-santo collectors out there who delight in amassing these small antiques for various, yet practical reasons--budget, limited display space and appeal. Artist Claude Tayag is once such collector, who collects santos under 8 inches tall. Indeed, they make for an unusual collection, and over the years, I have assembled a modest set that are no more than 7 inches high, exclusive of their bases. I am presenting these mini-santos along with a 3.25 inch tall gluestick tube to give you a size reference.

The tiny figure of San Vicente Ferrer stands just about 5.5 inches, without the base. Next to it is an even tinier San Roque tableau, carved with intricate details, so unusual for its miniscule size. San Roque stands a mere 4.25 inches without its peana and base, while its companion dog and angel are  2.50 in. and 2 in. respectively.

 A more colorful version of San Vicente Ferrer is shown above, purchased from ebay.ph. Standing on an orb, the 4 in. San Vicente strikes a pose with his emblematic book and raised upright finger. Overall, the santo is about 6.25 inches in height. Next to it is the kneeling figure San Isidro's landlord, Juan de Vargas, with a Lilliputian size of 3.25 inches. This used to be part of a tableau.

 A complete Sagrada Familia tableau carved from heavy wood stands in all its miniature glory on a base just 1 inch high. The adult figures of San Jose and Santa Maria are a shade under 6 inches tall. Both have traces of polychromy on their vestments.

 Meanwhile, the Child Jesus sandwiched in the middle is just about 3.5 in. The figures of Bohol provenance are all well carved and may have been housed in a matching small urna.

Though small in stature, these folk santos evoke the same charm as their bigger tabletop counterparts, losing none of their appeal and attraction--proof positive that big things do come in small packages.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


ROCH OF AGES. The restored and completed San Roque reunited with a replacement dog. The base was repainted and the santos, which remained in great condition, were cleaned and buffed. The santo stands 24 inches high, excluding the base.

The hunt for antiques –and antique santos, to be specific—has changed irrevocably with the advent of cellphones, which can conveniently transmit photos in minutes. In this manner, assessing antiques for sale has become easier; pictures, however small, can give one a fair idea of the santo’s aesthetics, condition, and indications of age and size.

 When the above picture of a dogless San Roque was sent to me by a Pampanga dealer, I was impressed by the overall carving style and uncommon representation of this pilgrim saint. The santo is dressed like a peregrine (pilgrim), with a cross carved in relief on his left chest area.

 He is shown lifting the hem of his brown vestments, a finger pointing at the wound on his thigh (more common folk representations show the wound on his knee).

The hatted figure holds an original staff, with a flask tied to the tip.

 The face of San Roque is lean and long, his face dour,almost devoid of expression. His glass eyes were of the imported variety, commonly referred to as ”ojos de Europa”, which are in fact, doll eyes that were commercially produced in Europe since the 19th c.

 Keeping the saint company is an expressionless Angel in white holding a tablet with this inscription: “Los que fueron heridos de peste el favour de Roque alcanzaran salud” (Those wounded by the plague, (ask) the favor of St. Roch to attain health) This is in reference to his ministry of the sick during a pestilence in which he himself was stricken with the deadly disease.

 San Roque stands on a damaged base, which has lost much of its paint. Also missing is San Roque’s faithful dog, who ministered to him when he became ill himself, by bringing him bread daily.

 I would date this incomplete tableau to the 1950s and I thought it’s worth acquiring and restoring. The size alone—24 inches—is highly desirable. The best thing about this San Roque was its price, and when I personally saw it, I was convinced even more that I have found a truly worthy piece.

 I personally undertook the cleaning of the santo and the angel, which I easily detached from the base. The base immediately went to a local painter who simply re-painted it with a marbleized effect.

 The most challenging part was finding a replacement dog. Weeks before I saw this San Roque, I remembered seeing a dog being sold separately in one of the shops at Philtrade. I had made an offer for it, which the Seller did not accept.

I thought that the dog had the right proportions to match my San Roque. I returned to Philtrade and located the shop—and thank my lucky stars, the wooden dog with a whole bread in its mouth was still there! I made another offer, and this time, the Seller agreed to sell me the dog.

 Soon as the base arrived, I assembled and staged the different pieces, using wooden pegs. Everything fell into place, moreso when I positioned the dog by his master’s side—it was perfect fit. My San Roque tableau is finally complete.

Friday, October 4, 2013


The Virgin of the Most Holy Rosary, the most important Marian image in the Philippines commisioned by Gov. Gen. Luis Perez Dasmarinas, is closely associated with the Dominicans as it was to them that the image was entrusted after its completion in 1593. It was later enshrined at the Sto. Domingo Church.

As such, the venerable image is honored with annual processions participated in by carrozas bearing the likenesses of Dominican saints made with ivory head and hands. The age of the ivory images has not yet been ascertained, but most seemed to be from the 19th century. The first images to be made were those of Sto. Domingo and San Pio Quinto.

Santo Domingo Guzman, from a noble family in Caleruega, Spain was first a priest, then a Canon Regular in the Cathedral Chapter at Osma, He went on to found the the Order of Preachers ("Dominicans") , approved by Pope Honorius III in 1216. His iconography includes a dog with flaming torch in its mouth, based on her mother's dream. His name has become a pun for "domini canis" (God's dog) and "Dominicanus", or a Dominican priest. He is also represented with  star on his forehead, a vision seen by a godmother during his baptism. A staff and a rosary are also his attributes, as a legend states that the Virgin personally gave him a rosary. He died in 1221 and was canonized by Pope Gregory IX in 1234.

San Pio Quinto was born in Bosco, Tortona, Piedmont, Italy, in 1504, and baptized as Michael Ghislieri. He joined the Dominicans and rose to become bishop, grand inquisitor, and cardinal. Elected pope in 1566, he zealously implemented the decrees of the Council of Trent. He had the rosary prayed throughout the battle against the Turks at Lepanto until these were defeated; he instituted the fiesta of our Lady of the Victories, later changed to the Rosary, on October 7. Died on May 1, 1572, at the Vatican, April 30. Beatified 1672, canonized 1712.

The image of San Vicente Ferrer is one of the original images to join the La Naval processions. It survived the war by being kept in a vault at the Sto. Domingo Church. Standing under 5 feet, its metal accessories--banner, book and aurelo, are of silver.  Valencia-born San Vicente Ferrer joined the Order of Preachers at age 17, and became known as an "Angel of Peace" during turbulent times in Europe. Hence, he is represented as a winged saint. He gained fame as a charismatic preacher, and was miraculously understood by many people of different nationalities who listened to his sermons despite speaking in his native language. Thousands of Jews and Moors in Spain were successfully converted this way. A trumpet is also an attribute, referring to his preaching of the coming of Judgment Day.

Other La Naval santos: San Lorenzo Ruiz, Beata Juana de Aza, Beata Margarita de Castelho, Santo Thomas Khuong, San Juan de Capillas, Santa Rosa de Lima, Santa Ines de Montepulciano, San Vicente de la paz, Santa Magdalena de Nagazaki, San Juan Macias, San Martin de Porres, Santa Rosa de Lima, Santa Catalina de Ricci,  San Juan de Colona, San Luis Beltran, San Antonio de Florencia, Santa Catalina de Siena, San Alberto Magno, Santa Ines de Montepulciano, San Raymundo de Penafort, San Jacinto de Polonia, San Pedro Martir, Santo Tomas de Aquino, Santa Margarita de Ungria and San Jose.