Wednesday, December 29, 2021



This Mater Dolorosa, made of antique ivory parts, is without doubt, my favorite because of its personal meaning to me. I was drawn to the Sorrowful Mother at the time my father was battling a fatal disease in 1998. When he passed away, I made a vow to acquire a Dolorosa image to be processed in our town during the Holy Week, in gratitude for his painless, peaceful transition.  I managed to find a vintage processional Dolorosa shortly after, and began a family tradition of participating in the annual Semana Santa prusisyons of our town. 



I also wanted a version that we could venerate at home, perhaps an antique ivory piece, but by the early 2000s, complete, tabletop ivory images were becoming scarcer, and therefore pricier. I started searching for sacred images online—it was something novel at that time—so I was surprised to find an ebay Philippines site that had a few sellers of old items and collectibles. 



It was there that I met a local dealer, who turned out to be the brother of an officemate!. When I asked him offline to be on the lookout for an  ivory Dolorosa, he sent a private message to tell me, that he in fact has a solid ivory Dolorosa head. When I got hold of the picture, I was stunned, because it was an antique ivory head some three inches long, exquisitely carved, with open mouth, complete with glass eyes, complete with tiny crystla teardrop. It was of very high quality ivory, creamy white in color, without cracks and flaws. Unfortunately, that was all that he had—the clasped hands are missing, and so is the body, the base (peana), and accessories, right down to lost vestments, metal accessories and wig. 



I just could not pass up this ivory head, so I got it and kept it in a velvet pouch for a year or so, before I finally took it to my restorer, Dr. Raffy Lopez. One look, and he confirmed that I, indeed, made a good decision as the ivory was excellent in all aspects. His only problem were the missing pair of ivory hands, as it’s almost impossible to find old parts of appropriate size. I had no choice but to settle for new replacement  ivory hands.



 So I left the Dolorosa head with Dr. Lopez, not even bothering to ask for a timeline, as I don’t have one too. But two weeks later, he was on the phone again, sharing me about his excitement of finding a a pair of ivory hands—clasped hands—perfectly fitting the size of my Dolorosa. I can’t ask for better news! 



With my full trust in Dr. Lopez, I just left him to his own devices—although he would contact me once in a while to confer about my personal choices—do I like her in pure black or maroon and blue? Do I prefer a floral peaña? He suggested to do away with the wig as she will be wearing a wimple, anyway. And he also recommended satin fabrics. 



While Dr. Lopez was restoring and completing the Dolorosa, I was also briefing a local carver for a customized urna in which to house my Dolorosa. Based on the completed height of the image (about 22 inches tall), I commissioned a Betis artisan to copy a wooden urna and its design, I found in an online antique site. He had to do it twice—because the first one he did was box shaped; I wanted the front to have 3 panels of glass, which will make it trapezoidal.



After three months, the antique Dolorosa head had a bastidor body, jointed arms, fully embroidered vestments, and a peana with  calado design. It was now a complete image, standing 22 inches tall, beautifully dressed on her gilded base. Inside her carved urna, the Dolorosa reposes, still sad but stunning. Only her new caretaker is sorrowful no more.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021


One of the most quaint folk art pieces I acquired just has to be this tiny San Isidro Labrador from Bohol, that was matched with a hand-made wooden urna, fashioned from an old wooden milk crate.


The century-old San Isidro—a shade over 5 inches, excluding the base—is a typical Bohol piece with some of its brilliant polychromy still intact, all iconographically correct. He wears a green cape over a yellow tunic, with his boots on. He has missing hands, which once held a spade. 

The santo stands a mere 5+ inches tall

Despite the small rectangular base, there is a space once occupied by an angel plowing with a cow. The figure of the kneeling landlord is an optional element of the tableau, and he was left out in this representation, understandably because of the small dimension of the piece. 

Ordinarily, Bohol pieces were enshrined in folk urnas of the same qualities as the santo---small, brightly polychromed wooden altars embellished with relief carvings, raised by stair-shaped bases. This San Isidro, however, was found being displayed in an antique shop in a simple wooden urna, which stylistically does not match the Bohol style, but fits the santo’s size perfectly.

Wooden urna, handcrafted from milk crate

The small urna was ingeniously handcrafted from a milk crate—and the brand name can be found at the bottom of the urna to hide it—“Milkmaid Brand, Sweetened Condensed Milk". 

Milkmaid was an imported milk product, and it was first launched in the Philippines in the 1920s. By the 1930s, it was a successful brand, popularly known as “Marca Señorita”, because of the milkmaid brand character. 

Old Milkmaid ad, 1929

It was heavily advertised and promoted, and in 1929, Milkmaid even sponsored the search for the healthiest and cutest babies of the Philippines.

The urna itself, though simple in its creation, has many charming details. The “pediment’ is flanked by two “fence peg” spires. The double doors are hinged with wires, which were also used to make the latch. The boxy structure was attached to a 3-step stair base. 

 Its coating of white gesso or paint are still visible on the surface. Similar urnas made from commercial wooden crates were usually embellished with painted designs to make up for their plainness, but this example has no traces of color that I can see. In any case, San Isidro seems to be happy in his simple abode—after all, as a humble farmer-saint, he is used to a much harsher environment!

Friday, December 3, 2021

346. FROM JOHN DOE TO ST. JOHN: An Antique Bone Santo Transformation Story

A BONE TO PICK. A nameless santo found in Ermita

I only remember hazy details of how I got this santo with head and hands made of bone. What I can only recall was that, I got this from one of the dealers in Ermita perhaps in the 1990s, when I started becoming drawn to ivories which I could not afford. 

Nobody knew who he was, as it was without clothes, metal accessories, wig and base that may have otherwise given us clues to his identity. Because it was affordably priced, I purchased this nameless santo and became a sort of a stand-in piece, as in my mind, it was the next best thing to owning a more valuable ivory. 

The antique male santo has quite a young, but expression-less face. It looks like it had been carved from cattle bone—square-jawed, with pronounced cheeks, but a finely detailed nose. There is a certain flatness to the carving, perhaps because bone tends to be brittle. 

Even with his painted features, he look so stoic, with lips pursed. He stares with bulging glass eyes and a blank gaze, The fingers are unremarkable, carved almost “tinidor-style”, with open palms. The bone head (a half-mask, actually) and hands are assembled on a wooden body with the usual jointed arms.

The closest santo that vaguely fills this male santo type is San Juan, the young apostle and apostle.  His most common iconography shows him holding a quill and a book—but this santo’s hands just jut straight out from his wooden arms. 

And so I decided  San Juan Evangelista he shall be.  Creating the look was my favorite ivory restorer, Dr. Raffy Lopez, who salvaged old embroidery from his “baul” of santo supplies, and incorporated them with new embroidery he designed on green and maroon satin. He also provided his “peaña” or gilded base, plus his wig. 

I contributed the paragua-style halo (which is a bit big!), and pukpok artisan gave me a new, silver-plated quill pen, which looked more like a sword than a feather quill. There was no way of having the right hand with an open palm hold it, so I just secured the pen with putty.  


After more than 25 years, still have this antique bone santo, even if, year after year, I keep telling myself to dispose it. The reason probably why I am hesitant to let it go is because of the interesting back story attached to the piece---of how a John Doe santo became a John the Evangelist santo!

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

345. SAN ROQUE : Patron Against Pandemic and Pestilence

SAN ROQUE, Invoked Against Pandemic

 In these, the pandemic years, no other saint has been heard more often than SAN ROQUE as his name is included in the Oratio Imperata, specifically composed for  covid-19.

SAN ROQUE (“St. Roch” in France and “San Rocco” in Italy) was born in Montpellier, in southern France, near the end of the 13th century. It is said that Roch bore a vivid red birthmark on his chest, shaped like a cross. His father, a governor of Montpellier, as well as his mother,  died by the time Roch was 20, leaving him to fend for himself in Europe during the time of the Black Death, the plague which killed an estimated over half of the European population.

SAN ROQUE distributed his inheritance among the poor, gave the governorship of Montpellier to his uncle which he would have inherited.  With his few personal possessions, he headedfor Italy. In his journey, he encountered cities stricken by the plague. In Aquapendente, a village in Italy, he ministered to the plague-stricken citizens, healing them with the sign of the cross. He moved on to Cesena, Rome, Mantua, Modena and Parma,  curing people along the way.


SAN ROQUE soon caught the plague himself; and like a “self-quarantined” patient in today's COVID-19 crisis, he sought a sanctuary, where he could be in prayerful solitude. A dog miraculously appeared to bring him food and sustenance every day. Surviving the plague, he chose to return to his France, but was imprisoned instead, as he was dressed like a pilgrim. He died after 5 years, but his identity was revealed when the cross on his chest was uncovered; he was given a holy burial. 

In 1414, when the city of Constaza, Italy was hit by a plague, people were called on to pray to SAN ROQUE for healing.  After their petitions and processions, the plague miraculously stopped.

This representation of the santo, in wood and ivory, depicts him as a pilgrim with his dog by his side. The head and hands are of fine ivory, classically carved, and outfitted with glass eyes. His boots are painted on.

SAN ROQUE, with original metal accessories

The saint is iconically posed with his right hand lifting his tunic, and his finger pointing at the festering wound on his knee. The other hand holds his original pilgrim stick in brass, with a metal flask tied on top.

The tunic and cape have been replaced using the original tattered garments as pattern for the new outfit, all re-created by Dr. Raffy Lopez. 

SAN ROQUE’s faithful canine companion is shown on his right, with bread in his mouth. The seated dog is made of painted wood. At first glance, the Angel –his other iconographic element—seems to be missing. 

Usually, the Angel is present bearing a scroll that proclaims the saint as the patron of pestilence victims, to be invoked for protection and relief  from their illness. However, a close inspection of the base shows no traces of nails or dowels that could have anchored the small figure on the base to complete the tableau. 


However, there are many representations SAN ROQUE that show him Angel-less, with just a dog for his companion. Besides, the reference to the Saint’s healing power is already written on the rectangular, stone-topped base. In Spanish, it reads: “Los que tocadas de la peste invocoven  mi siervo Roque se libraren por su intercesion de esta cruel de enfermedad.” (Those who are touched by the plague, invoke my servant Roque, and, through his intercession, you will be freed by his this cruel disease)

This SAN ROQUE was possibly made in the 1930s, as it came with a gothic-style wooden urna popular in the era. I have a special interest in the saint as I lived at the San Roque Rectory of the San Roque Church in Blumentritt, Sta. Cruz, Manila, the church that my late uncle, Msgr. Manuel V. del Rosario founded in 1958, and which he served until his retirement in the 1980s. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021


THE SLEEPING CHRIST CHILD, personal collection

The image of the sleeping Jesus in sacred art is drawn from His birth in Bethlehem, where He was born in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes. It was St. Francis of Assisi, of course, who perpetualized that depiction when he put up a manger in a church.

NINO DORMIDO, from the Francisco Vecin Collection

NINO DORMIDO, on a repurposed doll's toy bed.

The sleeping Christ Child has been the subject of many artists through the centuries, often represented naked, consistently shown with eyes closed or half-closed, with charming poses—tiny finger in His mouth or pointing to His head,  a Hand raised in blessing,  cheek resting on a palm, with straight, bent and crossed legs. In painting and sculpture art, the sleeping baby is shown in different settings---lying on a manger, on a pastoral landscape, on a flaming heart, or adored by the Blessed Mother,

NINO DORMIDO, note the unusual crossed legs.

The hole on the back was where a stick was placed to
support the Nino Dormido while painting.

The most prized sleeping baby Jesus are made of ivory, known as “Niño Dormido”,  which today, are so precious, that they command astronomical prices in auctions, that is, if you can find one. Generally, Niño Dormidos of ivory, come in small sizes for home devotion—with average sizes ranging from 6 to 8 inches. The images are commonly displayed nude to show off the ivory, but many are dressed in gold-embroidered raiments, complete with gold or silver caps, belts and sandals studded with gems.

NINO DORMIDO, Provenance: Bohol

As equally appealing are the locally-carved wooden Niño Dormidos. Though not as expensive as ivories, these antique wooden figures of the Christ Child are much rarer to find, as the traditional Sto. Niño had a more popular following.

The Nino Dormido has its original (but flaking) encarna

This wooden Niño Dormido is one such fine example of religious folk art. It comes from the Francisco Vecin Collection, who owns many of these miniature wooden examples. It is carved from heavy wood, just a little over 7 inches, and is Bohol-made, with its original (now flaking) encarna. I acquired this from him sometime in 2006, when I was still working in Makati, and I was pleasantly surprised that Mr. Vecin let it go.

A CLOSE UP VIEW, reveals open glass eyes.

This Niño Dormido is outstanding in every respect, classically carved with baby features, curly locks, and a plumpish body. Though small, his thick droopy eyelids are outfitted with glass eyes, making him look more awake than sleepy.  This Dormido is one of those rarer versions that show the Baby with crossed legs, as if to foreshadow his Crucifixion.

I decided to keep this Niño Dormido in its “as found” condition, and tried to look for an appropriate bed for it. For years, it laid on a vintage 4-poster toy wooden bed that was too short for him, and encased in an urna that I had asked a furniture shop to make, patterned after an old one.

The Nino sleeps on a piece of antique European lace,

It was only lately that I found another vintage toy bed of the right size ( but with more modern features, alas!). I covered the bed up up with antique laces, and made a flat pillow, and propped it on a new peaña that I no longer use—so that will do for the moment. The final touch is the addition of a spray of wired “lagang” flowers, hoping that it will add to the antique look that I wanted to recreate.

The Sleeping Christ Child is represented in many art forms.

It may not be authentic, but at least this Niño Dormido from Bohol has a new and better home. In the future, I will probably have a new “resting place” made, although I have not figured out if it’s going to be a daybed, a manger, a 4-poster (definitely, not a sofa!).

The Nino's bed rests on a vintage gilded peana,

And what do you think of the idea of having a silver cap and a belt? Well, let me see.. I will sleep over it!.