STO. NIÑO, Head and hands of ivory, mounted on wooden body. Garbed investment embroidered with gold thread. 19th c. Ht. 30 cm. Gopiao Collection.
Photography by Patrick Uy
Philippine Religious Ivory Carvings.
Excavations show fossils of elephants and tusk-bearing relatives of elephants in various Philippine sites (Cagayan Valley, Pangasinan, Panay, Manila and Mindanao.) A Spanish Augustinian memo in 1573 mentions elephants in Sulu. Sixteenth and 17th century Spanish accounts also state that ivory (marfil) was fashioned by the Filipinos into religious statuary, jewelry and weapon handles. Still the existence of a thriving ivory carving tradition before the Spaniards came cannot be ascertained. What is indisputable is that the earliest religious ivory carvings were commissioned by the Spanish friars initially from immigrant carvers from Southeastern China.
SANTO NIÑO, Solid ivory figure, arms carved separately. Gold crowns, traces of gilding on the hair. Glass eyes, 19th c., Ht. 20 cm. Treñas Collection.
The most intriguing question is whether these were carved exclusively by the Chinese (which was the dogma upheld until fairly recently) or whether this craft passed on to Filipinos early on. Gatbonton initially expressed a theory about a “local” style in her 1982 catalogue, Imagery in Ivory for the ivory exhibit of the Intramuros Administration. The theory that Filipinos also carved ivory was again ventured by Gatbonton rather tentatively in her book published by the Intramuros Administration in 1983, entitled Philippine Religious Carvings in Ivory, when she states that, “We may reasonably assume that Filipino carvers, we working alongside the Chinese.” This assertion Gatbonton repeats more unequivocably in her article for Arts of Asia also published in 1983—but here she goes on a limb. She breaks the paradigm—she states that based on the collection gathered by the Intramuros Administration, it was possible to reassess the general belief that Chinese carvers were responsible for all the ivory carvings originating from the Philippines.
MADONNA AND CHILD. Solid ivory figure with gold leaf decorations; gold crowns and gold rostrillos (facial aureole). 18thc., Ht. 26 cm. Treñas Collection
She cites two reasons: 1. The Filipino carver’s attitude towards the theme of Crucifixion where Christ is the passive victim); 2. The Filipino carver’s tendency to carve for frontal effect.
This theory was actively pursued by Jose. Although it is not clear when Filipinos started to carve ivory santos, by the 1730s, the Spanish missionaries were praising the artistic skills of indios and mestizos. In 1729, the Archbishop of Manila states that in connection with a proposed deportation of the Chinese, the natives were ready to take over all crafts. In 1738, Fr. Pedro Murillo Velarde S.J. wrote that the Filipinos were ‘exceedingly clever in handiwork—good carvers, gilders and carpenters.” Significantly, Jose notes that the item ‘sculptor’ does not appear in the lists of Chinese professions in 1689, 1700 or 1745. All in all, historical evidence shows that the Chinese were absent from the Philippines for long periods of time. The answer to this question may not be definitive, but the paradigm has been broken.
SANTO NIÑO. Head, hands, feet of ivory mounted on wooden body. Garbed in vestment embroidered with gold thread,, silver crown,m Late 18th cm., Ht. 39 cm.m Gopiao Collection.
While more research and documentation have to be done, significant strides have been made on the recognition of Philippine ivories. The Spanish scholar and writer, Margarita Estella Marcos, has traced a number of Philippine ivory carvings now in private collections. Jose enumerates some of these pieces: a Santo Cristo documented in 1585 in the Church of the Magdalena in Sevilla, a number of pieces given by Bishop Antonio Paino to the Church of Sta. Maria in Valladolid in 1630 and 1660, a plaque depicting the Crucifixion dated between 1694 in the Church of Vera Cruz in Salamanca, a San Miguel and San Juan Bautista dated between 1695 and 1712 in the Cathedral of Badajoz, a Divino Pastor dated 1699 in the Castle of the Family of San Francisco Javier in Navarra, a Cristo de los Peligros which arrived in Spain in 1715 and is now enshrined in the Parish of Belmonte in Cuenca.
PURISIMA CONCEPCION, Solid ivory figure. Gold ornaments, Late 18th c., Ht. 27 cm., Maralit Collection.
In 1770, a dozen ivory figures (among them, the Four Evangelists, a Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion and the Four Doctors of the Church) were documented to have arrived in Mexico from the Philippines. The Museo Oriental in Valladolid exhibits many ivory carvings of Philippine provenance.
More and more, Philippine ivory carvings are emerging from the shadow of European ivories. Although there were early condescending references to the Philippine pieces as hybrid ivories with pious Oriental expressions, Western oses and agitated draperies, this has changed. These pieces, the result of a unique Filipino sensibility utilizing European models and Chinese tecniques, are now recognized as among the most beautiful religious ivory carvings produced during this period.