In the Philippines, monastic art is a collective term for the artistic outputs of nuns and novices who pass their cloistered hours doing arts and crafts projects. Later, the same skills were taught by religious teachers to girls in Catholics schools, who learned a bit of the Fine Arts along with the domestic arts.
Popular at the turn of the 20th century, these artistic creations include tole art, paper quilling, religious embroidery, paper crafts, dried flower and leaf art, artistic patching and sewn figural creations. Since most of the creations were three-dimensional, they could not be contained in regular frames. Instead, they were kept in shadow boxes.
A shadow box is an enclosed glass-front case that is made to contain objects presented in a thematic grouping with artistic or personal significance. The grouping of the objects and the depth effect created by their relative heights from the backing creates a dramatic visual result.
These are then profusely decorated with paper, fabric or mother-of-pearl (‘lagang” or madreperla) flowers or buds. Sometimes, bird figures made of balsa wood are mounted on branches. Metal parts like halos were fashioned from foil. To create 3-D effects, elements of the picture were sometimes raised using thick cardboard and tole techniques. The frames used are standard period frames with art nouveau or art deco carvings, converted into a shallow box.
Secular versions of shadow box art also existed, which was a favorite past-time during the Victorian age. Instead of religious themes, nimble fingers crafted art made of human hair—braided, soiled or used as embroidery thread to make memorials of dead loved ones. I have seen shadow boxes with patriotic figures, papier mache fruits and a heritage house in Sta. Rita has 4 rare shadow boxes containing dioramas of the allegorical figures of the Four Seasons.
Most of the shadow boxes featured here can be seen at the Archdiocese Museum of San Fernando, Pampanga.