One of the more exciting santo finds I came across is this very old Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) grouping, rendered in ivory, offered by a Quezon City antique shop. I had coveted it since the day I saw it, alongside another more refinely carved, albeit smaller Holy Family ensemble.
Luckily, it remained unsold for months, long enough for me to save up for it. That's how I came to possess this Holy Family in ivory, complete in its urna with the initials of the owner incorporated as cut-outs in the altar's design.
To a self-taught Filipino carver, ivory was a new medium with which to perfect his art, honed after years of working with wood.
Few carvers though had access to ivory, and only a few could afford to work this new medium. As such, early ivory figures either had pin-sized ivory heads or had wooden heads with ivory masks.
This Sagrada Familia group however has nearly all the trappings of a classically carved ivory images—from the intricately styled human hair wigs to the garments lavished with gold embroidery.
Even the metal works are wrought in detail, with fine “pukpok”patterns, rendered in tumbaga or low-grade rose gold.
The craftsmanship is even more apparent in the mini-rosary that the little Niño wears, complete with chain links and a cross.
The refined details of the tableau ends there, as one inspects the carving quality of Jose, Maria and the Niño.
The artist obviously strived to achieve classic realism in the facial features, but strong naïve elements still persist in the completed work.
The facial features are emotionless, stoic, the fingers carved in the so-called “tinidor”style—no delicate curves or joints, just straight digits.
The treatment of the stoney mound on which the figures are attached is unremarkable—there is no attempt to include landscape details such as rocks, grass and textural elements.
The transition from popular carving to the classical style has yet to be successfully bridged in this ivory group—which makes this Sagrada Familia special—an example of a Filipino artist’s striving to improve and perfect his art, a process of evolving so he could be at par with the world’s best.