Sunday, April 27, 2014


WHO CAN SHE BE? An antique ivory-faced Virgin, with missing parts, surfaced in the market a few years ago. Her identification remains a mystery, but I suspect she represents "Our Lady of Light", and not "Our Lady of Consolation", as she was previously named by the seller.

 The identification of santos seem simple enough; one need only to look at his emblems and attributes to pin down his/her identity. A more diligent study is needed when the major attributes are missing—the attitude of the saint, his facial features, the pose of his hands, the color of the garment--can help in the identification process.

It is easy to assume that santos in a tableau (an assemblage of more than one holy figure) are easier to identify ( e.g. Crucifixion, Holy Trinity, Coronation of the Virgin), but not in the case of this ivory Marian tableau, whose identity continues to baffle me.

The dealer who showed this to me told me it was a Virgen del Carmen. At first glance, it did look like Our Lady of Mount Carmel—for it featured a small bearded ivory figure emerging from what looked like the fires of purgatorio (purgatory). The depiction of souls in purgatory are usually represented with half-bodies engulfed by flames and European paintings often include these souls (anima sola) with the image of the Virgen del Carmen.

But then, Virgen del Carmen is often represented in brown vestments, and is shown seated with a Nino—much unlike this standing Virgin in gold-embroidered clothes. Also, if this were a Virgen del Carmen, her right hand would have been in a grasping pose, to hold a scapular.

This observation then, led me to think that this was Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. I have seen figures of souls in the representations of the Virgen del Rosario, a known intercessor in saving souls from the flames of purgatory.

 However, when I further examined the figure of the man with outstretched hand at the base of the santo, I was surprised to see a pair of eyes on his back. A closer scrutiny clearly showed that the eyes were part of the features of a demon creature about to swallow up the hapless soul!! This unusual scene is depicted in the representation of Our Lady of Light or Ntra. Sra. De la Salavacion, simply here in the Philippines as Salvacion.

 “Salvacion”was one of the favorite Christian images of veneration introduced by the Jesuits, closely associated with their missionary work in Europe and in America. The inspiration for this image came from Palermo, Italy, where Jesuit Giovanni Antonio Genovese asked a nun to create the most effective visual representation for this devotion. The nun saw the image in her vision and had an artist paint it. The painting was housed in the Leon Cathedral in 1732.

 In the Salvacion tableau, a standing Virgin holding the Child Jesus would have her right, outstretched hand snatching a soul from the mouth of a demon—which would have been consistent with this figure, save for the pose of her right hand—the manikin hand could have been repositioned at some time.

 Opposite this—emerging from the cloudy base as seen in this tableau-- would have been the figure of a winged angel offering a basket of hearts, symbolizing saved souls. A pair of smaller angels would have hovered above the Virgin’s head, ready to crown her.

It would have been easy to verify this—there would have been holes or remnants of dowels and wires on the back of the Virgin that are tell-tale signs by which the angels were attached to the body of the Virgin . Unfortunately, this tableau was sold soon, so there is no way to examine the tableau and ascertain the image’s true identity.

 Our Lady of Light is invoked for protection against storms, plagues and other natural disasters. In modern times, she is the patron of electricians.

Monday, April 21, 2014


SAN JOSE IS NOW ON FACEBOOK. An antique ivory San Jose found for sale on a facebook group, bought and restored to its full 25" glory, with embroidered vestments, gold-plated metal accessories, and a new gilt base. Personal Collection.

 The social networking site, Facebook, is perhaps the strangest place to find an antique treasure, an ivory santo to be specific. Sure there are facebook groups devoted to processional santos and other religious imageries, but to find an antique ivory San Jose for sale in the site is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

 But thank God for a facebook group called Pinoy Pickers Online—an association of like-minded individuals who like showing off, and selling their thrift shop and second hand store picks. A motley assemblage of stuff are peddled here—mostly refuse from old homes, odds and ends that include Coca Cola items, vintage jewelry to appliance junk, vinyl records, toys and, if one is lucky, old devotional art such as the one I discovered here.

 A Seller had posted a picture of old religious items grouped together, but sold individually. Everyone, it seems, was asking about the Santo Nino, the Virgin Mary and the collectible Bible prominently featured in the foreground. Nobody was paying attention to a rather squat-looking San Jose behind these wooden statuaries.

One look and I knew the face of the midget San Jose, originally described by the Seller as carved from deer horn, was in fact, made of ivory—and that was all that mattered to me.

I quickly contacted the Seller and was glad to learn that the San Jose was available. Upon my request, he sent additional information and photos—which confirmed that, indeed, the head was of whole ivory.

Unfortunately, the hands were wooden, but this did not bother me at all, as the heft and size of the ivory head (2.5 inches) more than made up for its flaws—which also include a disproportionately short wooden body, wire armature arms, a wig made of wiry abaca, and a halo fashioned from a twisted copper wire.

 The image was wearing its original green satin vestment that was beyond repair, and it stood on an ordinary box base stained to simulate wood grain. In all, the image stood only 16 inches, inclusive of the base. After a few phone calls, a deal was sealed between us and the image was mine!

The Seller was kind enough to make a bus trip from Laguna to Makati, just so he could personally deliver the antique ivory San Jose to me. The face of San Jose was beautifully carved, and the details of the facial features were outstanding. I lost no time in contracting the services of my santero for the repair and restoration of this fine San Jose.

 Major restoration began with elongating the manikin body of the saint through wooden augmentations done on both the torso and the leg area.

 A tall lotus base, gilded in gold, was commissioned separately to replace the boxy platform on where the image originally was mounted. Also, a new pair of ivory hands were ordered in lieu of the wooden ones that visibly didn’t fit the proportion of the image.

As for the vestment, my instructions were for a more elaborate design, which would entail more gold embroidery.

This would up the cost of restoration, but I think the quality of this San Jose warranted a bit more of extravagance!

 I had my first view of the almost-completed santo through a series of texted photos on my phone. 

Completing the ensemble was a jusi wig and the metalworks: a small brass halo and a flowering staff plated in gold, a familiar attribute of San Jose.

The resulting restoration was very dramatic: from 16 inches, San Jose now stands 25 inches, from the tip of the halo to the bottom of the base.

 I have a number of ivory San Joses in my collection, but none as impressive-looking as this latest find. In fact, even my santo restorer asked me to give him priority should I decide to unload it in the near future.

One thing for sure, that is not bound to happen soon! I never had so many “Likes” for an antique ivory santo!

 But that is bound to happen to an ivory treasure that I amazingly, incredibly found—not in an antique shop –but on Facebook! Now that’s what I call santo networking!

Friday, April 11, 2014


One of the leading companies in Manila engaged in the import-export business during the 1920s thru the Commonwealth years, was Levy & Blum, Inc. The founders of Levy & Blum were Jewish entrepreneurs who fled the Franco-Prussian War to settle in the Philippines. The company's headquarters was located in 345 Echague, Quiapo, Manila. The thriving business regularly issued catalogs featuring items of interest to Filipinos. This ca. 1930s catalog features an aseemblage of imported sacred statues, of different sizes, materials and prices to appeal to a diverse market.

The statues of saints ("Estatua de Santos) were made of imitation ivory (imitacion marfil) and were described as having a beautiful appearance (bonita apariencia) with well-finished details (detalle bien acabado).

Ideal for home chapels, these images ranged in sizes from 60 cm. ( at Php 6.00) to as small as 12 cm. ( at a more affordable 80 centavos). They represented saintly figures as Sta. Teresita del Nino Jesus, Virgen de Lourdes, Milagrosa, Sagrada Familia, San Jose, Sagrado Corazon, Sto. Nino, Virgen del Carmen, Angel de la Guardia, San Antonio, Virgen Antipolo, Cristo Rey, San Cristobal,  San Juan, San Ignacio, San Francisco and Inmaculada Concepcion.

Related sacred items were also sold, including lockets and rosaries, with embossed figures of saints, at Php 1.10 per piece.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


SAINT JOHN VIANNEY. A rarely seen vintage santo of the Cure of Ars, patron of priests. Carved locally, the all-wood santo dates from the 50s and once belonged to a Manila family.

St. John Baptiste-Marie Vianney, (b. 1786/ d. 1859) is known as the Cure of Ars, the patron saint of priests. Ordained in 1815, he was known for his pastoral works and ministry in the community, thus his patronage. As a parish priest of Ars, a remote French hamlet, he gained a reputation as a confessor and director of souls.

St. John's life was marked with extreme mortifications.  He demonstrated utmost patience in a life characterized by abject austerities. It was said that he was besieged by the devil but this great mystic ward him off with his acts of holiness, remaining to this day the living image of the priest after the heart of Christ.

St. John was beatified only in 1905 and canonized in 1925,  and so, there are very few sculpted representations of him. That is why, I was delighted to see this wooden image of the saint that was found for sale, in a Manila home, which led me to thin--could a family member have been a religious? Was this a commissioned work for his private devotion?

I will never know--but I do know that this was done in the late 50s, judging from the carving style of the figure. Most St. John statues are carved in the round (de tallado),and I still have yet to see one in the manikin style.

As in all his representations, he is depicted as an oldish priests, with white or greying hair, slight and frail looking. His hands are clasped in prayer.

He wears a surplice with lace trims at the edges. Upon closer inspection, the realistically painted lace trims are actually real fabrics decoupaged or glued onto the wooden statue, then painted over, hence the texture. Around his next is a short stole, also made from real lace material. Around his waist is aloosely-knotted cincture.

In honor of the 150th anniversary of Vianney's death, Pope Benedict XVI declared 2009-2010, a year for priests. St. John Vianney's Feast Day: August 4.