By Nancy T.Lu
Sunday Times Magazine, 28 Sept. 1968, p. 38-41
Experienced collectors with a discriminating eye for genuine museum pieces are wont to spot them all over the archipelago whether be in some isolated, weather-beaten ruins, or in some unexplored nooks of private homes. Because many a Cagayan artifact was not meant to be kept unseen, a number of these cultural treasures which can easily swell he Cagayan pride recently left their forbidding enclaves to undergo maximum public exposure in Lal-lo, the site of the Cagayan Provincial Fair.
Thus, the the cultural relics were brought in from all over Cagayan. And thus began also the pressing problem of identifying, sorting out, and classifying the numerable items comprising Cagayan’s cultural wealth. While the mian responsibility was delegated to the committee on relics, artifacts and antiques, a supervising authority was wanting. Invitation was extended a museology expert and soon enough, Fr. Jesus Meriño, O.P., of the U.S.T. Museum of Arts and Sciences flew in as the givernor’s special guest from Manila.
The enthusiastic Dominican friar took one look at all the collected objects laden with dust of the centuries and proceeded to single out slowly the “real wonders of art”. Taking care to jot down the outstanding features of the unique antiques as he went about rummaging for more of Cagayan’s historical possessions, he decided to direct the obliging engineer and helpful architect to classify and arrange the artifacts according to three general divisions: 1). People. Life and History, 2). Home, 3). Church.
Grouped along with the first category were tablewares imported from all over Eirope. There were eighteenth century chocolate cups of Spanish make. Some porcelain plates were German-made as a sopera all the way from Vienna. Certain chinawares had designs that connoisseurs would easily detect as rough British imitations of the fine, delicate artistic Chinese strokes. Gracing the opening of the Cagayan Fair with her very presence, the First Lady was reported to have taken fancy to a platter with a dent for gravy.
An alert guard constantly kept close watch over one of those contemporary glass showcases showing private collections of international coins and currencies. For security reasons, these precious personal belongings had to be locked away elsewhere every night. And for the same reason the owners chose to remain unidentified by name throughout the duration of the cultural exhibit.
Sweeping feminine attires of the Spanish era came in different colors tha had faded unevenly with the times. Nineteenth century camisas, panuelos and sayas that lay almost completely forgotten there in dust-colored trunks and spider-webbed chests that had seen better days were put out once more ahere a fairly strong whiff of air caused that distinct smell of age to permeate the atmosphere. But a real item for Ripley’s Believe it or Not was this sable-hued tapis with romantic Castilian verses woven in white silk thread all over it. Father Meriño obligingly translated the love poem as a love-stricken lovers’ reproach to his loved one never to forget that he is unhappy if should forget him. The Spanish priest volunteered a surmise that he must have been jilted by the girl. Apparently, the boy must have asked his sister to weave the chiding message into the tapis he later gave his girlfriend as a sentimental gift immortalizing his affections for her. Father Meriño further concluded from the numerous misspelled words that the poetic lover must have been a native and not a Spaniard.
The first recorded museums of old found in Egypt and Greece were reported to have been temples which held community treasures mainly religious in nature. Even today, votive objects for propitiatory purposes constitute a greater bulk of solicited artifacts in the traditional repositories all over the world. By sheer coincidence or otherwise, the recently tagged Artifacts Building found in the Tabacalera Compound in Lal-lo was once a convent-chapel servicing the Lal-lo community. Surviving the earth tremors of the seventeenth century, it had since been converted into some other more mundane use. Nevertheless, the indisputable cracks effected by the earthquake remain visible as the original concrete structure never really gave way to complete renovation. The only incongruous touches contradicting its otherwise incontrovertible claim to antiquity rest in the rust-free galvanized iron roofings and the wooden additions still fresh with paint. Furthermore, the dimly-lit interior was not stripped of its sacrosanct air.
“I simply directed the architect and the engineer to give a particular portion of the building a semblance of a chapel,” Father Meriño said. “How they would go about it I left it to their discretion for what really mattered was that they should project a suggestion of an improvised altar with all the essential elements that should go with it. It was a pity, however, that the 3-tiered altar could not be reconstructed as such because the ceiling did not extend upward high enough.”
From Tuao, lying ion the boundary of Cagayan and Mountain Province, had come the curious elements of a once magnificent altar. For one reason or another, the severely-damaged church of Tuao was neglected for a time by the people and eventually, its gilded altar was exposed to the elements. It took a prudent parish priest to go out of his way to salvage whatever was left of a once beautiful place of worship. Dismantling the whole construction, he proceeded to keep the columns and the wings of the altar under his house where they would be safe.
Instances of mishandling of the high-priced artifacts were not exactly unheard of. Father Meriño bewailed, for instance, how too much cleaning of the wings of the altarby eager individuals caused the parts of the altra to be deprived of the gold-plated designs of flowers and leaves. The traces of gold sheen came off when the clay beneath got wet and gave way.
Of the twenty one columns chiseled along the pseudo-classic artistic plan, three were not in pairs. Then, too, a number of these elaborated designed columns were as there should be thirty six columns all in all. Also nowhere to be found were the indispensable connecting beams of the altar.
Each pillar was carved from the trunk of the sturdy narra tree. Father Meriño concluded that the columns must have been carved by native artists well-trained in the Spanish tradition. But who supervised these artists? He asked. Could it have been the parish priest who was known to have been an artist himself?
Just as attractive was the seventeenth century century retablo from the Camalanlugan church where it served as a screen shielding the interior of the church from the outsiders. Formed from nine enduring narra trunks, the unique relief depicted Our Lady of the Rosary as an intercessor for souls in purgatory. The curious thing about it, however, was in its representation of souls as differentiated from angels flying about freely with wings. The penitent souls ascending into heaven all by themselves were without wings. In had to look closely to see the striking difference.
As borne by the subdued tones of colorings and enamel, artistry was prominent in this work of art. While the planning and drawing , the panorama and the general idea were unquestionably Spanish, the carving itself was adjudged as Chinese,
However, on the whole, the wide array of displayed objects could not boast of outstanding or fine artistry. In several instances, the anonymous creators of these solid figures manifested an obvious lack of artistic academic training. The feet either went out of line thus producing an abnormal effect or the head suggested strongly a mournful absence of a sense of proportion, In one case, the crucified Christ could have passed with fairly good remarks from sharp critics except for the flaw that took the shape of an oversized crown of thorns.
But that was not what really counted. In spite of it all, these classified works of art
Do have a place in national repositories known as museums. They make even more interesting subjects of study.
And so they trooped in—the people from the remote towns all ver Cagayan valley and even the residents of the neighboring provinces. Artifacts galore turned out to be part of Lal-lo’s treat for the day. Garbed in motley attires, they took a close look at Cagayan’s treasured belongings vying for attention: medium sized saints molded along the traditional poses whether it was st. Peter portrayed as a penitent in a sixteenth century carving or St. Thomas Aquinas crushing the malignant church heresies aptly represented by a vicious serpent with seven venomous heads; from Tuao, a sixteenth century pedestal highly suggestive of Kalinga art; round brass candlesticks belying Kalinga influence also; the primitive-looking sitting figure of Our Lord of Patience—an object of special devotion during the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries; the priceless ivory images of the Blessed Virgn Mary and the crucified Redeemer of mankind; priestly vestments from Valencia, Spain, such as the chasuble and the dalmatic all sporting embroidered designs in silk and gold threads.
For objects closer to home , there were chairs from Vienna, a dining table reportedly 265 years old; an antiquated creaking trunk, an austere rattan and wooden bed; a harp and even a strange-looking escribania or writing desk with several minute drawers.
The enterprising organizers who set about introducing a pleasantly stimulating aura of culture consciousness not just to an exclusive sophisticated clique but to the public at large had fanned the clamor for a permanent repository of valuable artifacts. The idea then was for the government to subsidize an aesthetic refuge—call it a museum—where privately-held relics could be brought for safekeeping. Here, too, experienced personnel, trained to engage in research, curatorial and library work will know how to handle best the delicate works of art so that the artistic heritage of a people may be preserved.
Meanwhile, Lal-lo’s Artifacts Building if converted permanently into a veritable showcase of Cagayan treasures portends well for what may , in the long run, emerge as a flourishing cultural institution for the Cagayan inhabitants. It certainly has the prototype shapings of a provincial museum in the making. And who could have thought of a more fitting place than Lal-lo, with its historical background and interesting topography?
The millennium for complete recognition of the the importance of a museum may not have arrived in the Philippines, but many a Cagayano will certainly not object to Lal-lo, nce the provincial capital, as the site where a sanctuary of Cagayan pride will find a lasting place.