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.

No comments:

Post a Comment