Wednesday, April 26, 2017

292. OLD PIECES FROM HEAVEN AND HELL: Luis Ma. Araneta’s Venerable Virgins

Text and Photostyling by Felice Sta. Maria
Photography by Ben Laxina, Originally appeared April-June 1980 issue

Collecting is addicting: Luis Ma. Araneta started out as a young boy saving his father’s cigar bands and today owns among the finest assemblages of Philippine paintings, religious sculpture and houseware.

During World war II.Araneta’s involvement as treasurer and fund raiser of a guerilla unit was discovered. While imprisoned in the looter’s cage between incarcerations at Fort Santiago, Araneta was visited regularly by Don Alfonso Ongpin who braved the hecklers to inform his collector friend on who was disposing what treasure. Araneta purchased several pieces in this manner. Gifted with sentiment and a passion for the past, he recalls that fellow connoisseurs of the postwar era through the 1960s thought him mad for redeeming battered santos.

Painted wood with glass eyes and hair eyelashes, 62 cm.
Among the most lovely and charming interpretations of the Virgin Mary is the Divine Shepherdess, based on the metaphor of Chirst the Godd Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep and who seeks out the lost of the flock.Araneta’s high relief was carved from wood—the Virgin from one solid piece, the angels from separate pieces later pegged into place. In keeping with Biblical contest, angels are pure spirits despite their masculine names; the duo hovering above the Virgin are sexless. Artists worked estampitas, engravings and a few sculptural examples as models; santos were displayed on altar tables pushed against a wallor in wall niches. Both conditions de-emphasize the importance of carving a realistic backview. The face of this santo is European and far removed from naïve, popular renditions made by untrained carvers or by members of a family for their own use. Both Mother and Infant have glass eyes with lashes. A metal crown, symbolic of Mary’s reign as queen of heaven, threatens to slip over her head. Even if it were veiled: her regal rank is exaggerated just as the crown id of unrealistic proportions. Other Divina Pastoras are depicted not only with characteristic shepherd’s staff. But a wide-brimmed hat and costume of an Alpine lass.

Santo-collecting began as a salvaging effort. After Liberation, island churches lay in disarray. As ivory hand fell from wooden arm, and decapitations continued, substituting modern images for old ones seemed th natural remedy. Many a churchman felt obliged to remodel and beautify his parish. As new plaster of paris statues appeared on altars, antique ones were turned into kindling or buried in unmarked graves; others have turned up as parts of chicken coops and fences. Parishioners followed suit, some even leaving heirloom images to survive uncared for on home altars.

Ivory and polychromed wood. 41.5 cmfigure with an 11.5 cm. detachable base.
Whereas the featured Divina Pastora is European in rendition, this santo exemplifies Chinese standards of loveliness. Both Mother and Child have ivory heads and hands joined to wooden bodies. Collectors say that old statues carved by the Parian artisans (and later their descendants no longer confined to the Chinese quarters after 1860) have “bulging eyes”, although other santos reveal their Oriental craftsmanship because of epicantic folds. There are their signs: beauty rings run along the long, swanlike neck; the Virgin’s face is an exaggerated oval; and the fingers of both images are long and tapering.

The Holy Child may have been an afterthought since the babe hangs miraculously without aid from the Virgin’s graceful hands. This santo is Eurasian: the Oriental figure is clad in a western farthingale typical among royalty of the early Renaissance. Rendition is highly sophisticated with a head-to-body ratio of 1:8 , much more than the natural physical proportions of the times. Both images have holes in which haloes or crowns could be attached. The composition detaches from the cloud-and-cherub base; the plain bottom-most brown base is a recent addition.

As the cultural value of santos became clear to the public, old images acquired escalating commercial value. By the mid-1960s, cocktail and creative circuits decreed it fashionable to own Chinese porcelain and Sta. Ana diggings as well as a representative number of limbless, many times decrepit and unidentifiable wooden images; bejeweled ivory-faced dolls evolved the epitome. Chaplains and caretakers were enticed to part with church fixtures as competitive buyers offered new, and sometimes questionable substitutes, in payment. Religious art collectors and imaginative interior designers took to recycling altars, parts of santos, pews  and the like.

These santos depict the evolution of religious sculpture from the naïve to the sophisticated as well as the growth of Marian devotion. Mary is multi-faceted : virgin mother, heavenly queen and mankind’s hope. Her cult finds its roots in the Holy Family. The Philippine-carved Ntra. Sra. Del Rosario is a naïve sculpture-in-the-round made from a heavy solid piece of wood. The folk interpreted their saints and virgins and Jesuses as they thought fitting. This rendition combines the Immaculate Conception’s crescent moon with the Del Rosario prayer beads. The Imaculada is done in an advanced popular style; amorini such as those on the base  are characteristic of Imaculadas from Bohol, Negros, Laguna, and Batangas. The Virgin of Caysasay served as local prototype for Imaculadas. In 1570, the Manila diocese was created and put under the protection of the Imaculada;  only in 1854 was the Imaculada Concepcion defined as a dogma of faith. Imaculadas are usually depicted above a globe or a crescent moon, with their hands in prayer.

Images are either ecclesiastic or secular, and function in processions or on altars. Araneta has the entire range. T is difficult to determine the provenance and date for each and every piece, a collector is sure only if he has first-hand data on his side. But Araneta’s staff records what it can. Aside from the approximately 1,500 catalogued objects including antique paintings, salakots, furniture, kitchenware, silver and porcelain, Araneta has at least 500 santos.

There are approximately 100 statues of Virgin Mary in his mansion-museum. First-floor wings contain specially built section for Our Lady of the Rosary, Immaculate Conception, Mother and Child, and the Divine Shepherdess. Heaven and hell surround the visitor,; cherubs gaze down along with elaborate icons; there are paintings, estampitas, and books on the life of Mary as well as Roman Catholic saints and martyrs.

The Collector reads the life of one saint a day. When asked by a firned what he wul save from the ultimate deluge, Araneta pointed to his favorite santo: a gold-dressed Nuestra Senora del Rosario dangling a delicate set of prayer beads and encased in an antique virina.

These two santos were purchased in Mexico. The Del Rosario is symbiotic virgin, again combining crescent moon with rosary. The mother and child is a sophisticated treatment of a traditional theme. Despite attempts at classical finesse, the sculptor failed to master the effect of wind on the virgin’s garments. Strangely, there is a gold cross on this santo; the Latin cross was not a Christian symbol until after the Christ Child grew and was crucified.

The Virgin Mary is a Filipino gauge for feminine beauty: “Marylike was once the college- girl cliché for gentle lady propriety. Among the most available sangos for sale on the market are Del Rosarios, Imaculadas, and Del Pilars. Hyperdulia remains intense; Filipinos are intimate with their saints—what more then with the Mother of Christ, who appeals to the traditional importance accorded family units and the matriarchal title. How many miracles are attributed to the Holy Queen! She has turned away the Chinese and Dutch invaders from Philippine shores, protected galleon runs, stemmed off typhoons, headed the sick, and appeased the heartbroken. Women, and even men, such as Araneta, are named Maria in her honor.

Dulia reaches back into the early years after the Crucifixion when martyrs were secretly paid homage in the Roman catacombs by followers who laid palms on their corpses, and after burial on their graves. When Mary died, she was idealized. Clement of Alexandria encouraged using pagan symbols in the second century. During the reign of Cosntantine, Christianity was accepted and the building and ornamentation of churches began. Representations of the Virgin Mary were among the earliest, including those of Christ and the Family. In 787 A.D., he Council of Nicaea allowed the veneration of images in answer to Emperor Leo the Isaurian’s attempted iconoclastic schism.

It is not uncommon to find an antique figure clad in new clothes such as the one pictured ; a meticulous collector like Araneta, however, commissioned garments that resembled the frayed, authentic one, down to the gold thread. Many antique processional santos are still found with their wardrobe complete although hey are in various stages of decay. Old folks believe harming a santo or its clothing will bring bad luck.

Throughout the Medieval Age, Marian devotion continued; eleventh century chivalry is in fact and offshoot of the Virgin;s cult that has helped elevate woman (whose status suffered tremendously from Eve’s recorded curiosity). It was only in the 13th century, however, that Marianology crescendoed: the Assumption, Immaculate Conception and Intercession were philosophically highlighted by the Spanish thinker Ramon Llul (1235-1315); Scotus of England provided theological buttressing.

Renaissance art glorifies Mary; by the 17h century, cloth garments, glass eyes, real hair and jewelry were used in creating baroque santos also referred to as flamboyant. Throughout Europe, ivory faces and hands were pegged into wooden bodies and transformed into elaborate images for church and home veneration, figures lost in ornamentation.

Ornate santos, as well as  a number of classical renditions, are usually enclosed in a fine glass dome or giant candles shade. Both protective cases are called virina in the Philippines. The term is likely a corruption of vitrine, which in Spanish means not only a glass and wooden showcase (the vitrine became a highly popular piece of furniture in Europe from the 17th through the 19th centuries for displaying Chines finds, antiques and Victorian knick-knacks). Although new virinas are available, they are thicker than antique ones and come in plastic as well as glass. Bell-jar like covers grew popular after the Suez Canal opened in 1956 and facilitated the export of fragile European ware to Manila; travel time was cut in half. Virinas appear in various sizes—from those for miniatures to large ones that can house an entire Holy Family complete with magnificent glass entourage of palm trees, people and animals blown individually in the mid 1800s by Bilibid prisoners.

Slender giant hurricane shades that bulge out at their middles accommodate solo saints because of their slender proportions. Candle covers, like te dome versions, fit perfectly to an elaborately carved wooden base that is usually gilded; the tube type’s top is sealed off by a removable and an equally elaborate, matching wooden crown. Clocks, secular sculpture, beadwork and silk flowers were likewise displayed dust-free under glass covers, particularly during the Victorian era when a profusion of decoration ruled interiors.

Much of the Araneta collection is in wood, this having been the popular medium. The priests themselves,  Chinese artisans and a vast number of Filipinos are responsible for wooden santos.

Glass and wood-encased engraving, mounted on silk.
30 cm x 24.3 cm x 4.1 cm.

Collectors refer to the simplest renditions as naïve or popular. Untrained carvers knew little of anatomy; their images add the most basic attributes of the chosen saint to a very rigid, usually symmetrical and extremely unhumanlike body. Improvisation is common; folk santos combine what is genre with imported doctrine.

An unschooled worker’s guide was whatever example the local curate could offer: costly image bought in on a galleon from Mexico or Spain, a tiny one tucked away by a zealous missionary who foresaw his needs in the sculptureless Orient, but more commonly estampitas, escapularios, and prayer book engravings. The result of the non-artists’ endeavors are highly imaginative representations of how early converts envisioned God, the Church, Purgatory, Heaven, Hell and the super humans that became saints.

The folk carved hard, medium and soft woods with whatever tools were available. Collectors point out that when a knowledgeable buyer hefts a possible purchase at an antique shop, he is not just checking for kinship with the image; heavy woods are rare today and buying a substantial santo carved from a solid block lessens the chances of owning a reproduction.

While flamboyant images hide their material in an attempt at realism, sophisticated santos do not. Done with more skill than naïve images, a sophisticated or classical piece, is a sculptural creation; in the case of ornate santos, “decoration” to quote Fernando Zobel de Ayala, “is the statue itself, not classical styles”.

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