Tuesday, June 26, 2012

114. SAGRADA FAMILIA: Santos of the Holy Family

FOLK SAGRADA FAMILIA, polychromed on a mortar-shaped base, 16 ". Provenance: Manila.

The Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Family on ration of the Holy Family Sunday, following Christmas. It was in the 17th century that the devotion began by the Canadian religious, Msgr. Francois de Lival who organized a local confraternity.

SAGRADA FAMILIA, antique ivories, restored and redressed, Raffy Lopez Workshop.

In 1893, Pope Leo XIII instituted the devotion in the liturgical calendar, on the Sunday within the Octave of the Epiphany, subsequently moved in 1969 to the Sunday within the octave of Christmas (that is, between Christmas and New Year).

SAGRADA FAMILIA, century-old folk santos, gessoe'd and polychromed. 16 ". From the Visayas. Offered at a Manila antique shop. 

As a theme in Christian art, the “Sagrada Familia” showing Maria, Jesus with Jose, grew out of the Western version of the theme of Nativity, which was current in Europe from the 14th to the 17th c. Variations included depicting the Holy Family at work (St. Joseph performing carpentry work being aided by Jesus, with Mary doing domestic work like sewing); and the young Jesus walking in between His parents, with God the Father hovering above the trio.

SAGRADA FAMILIA, in the folk style. The short, squat bodies still retain their original paint. They stand on a square base with serrated edges and painted folksy floral motif.

Other popular representations include additional figures like Sta. Ana (St. Anne), San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist) and St. John’s mother, Elizabeth. The Holy Family as an art subject has been painted by practically all the great names in our art history, including Raphael, Michaelangelo, El Greco and Rembrandt. A sampling of folk santos representing the Sagrada Familia are featured on this page

 SAGRADA FAMILIA. Brilliantly painted and primitively carved Holy Family santos. 
Provenance: Cebu.

SAGRADA FAMILIA. Small, 8 inch. santos with faces almost rubbed off. Lightwood, on a base. Provenance: Cagayan.

SAGRADA FAMILIA. Carved by a more seasoned artisan. Traces of paint. Offered by a Manila antique shop.

SAGRADA FAMILIA. Carved lightwood santos, with much paint loss. Mary is surprisingly taller than Joseph which appears to be carved hastily, with minimum features. Offered by an antique shop in Pampanga.

SAGRADA FAMILIA IVORIES. Small santos representing the family, each with an ivory head and hands. The mannikin bodies still retain their tattered clothes embellished with gold thread embroidery. Personal Collection.

SAGRADA FAMILIA. A stunning Holy Family group made of ivory and dressed in gold-embroidered clothes. The santos, surmounted by the fihure of God The Father,  are enshrined in a magnificent folk altar flanked with angels.

SAGRADA FAMILIA. Naive santo carvings of Jesus, Mary and Joseph on a mortar-shaped base, typical of many Visayan santos.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


 As one who considers himself a purist antique collector, the idea of getting a new ivory santo was simply inconceivable. But recent developments in the antique trade has led me to rethink my position. It cannot be denied that the stock of antique ivories in the market has dried up a long time ago—even dealers say so. As late as the mid 1990s, one could still go to Philtrade and check out Cesar Reyes’s horde of antique ivories still in their original virinas. I remember seeing a Nino Dormido lying on a hilly meadow decorated with mother-of-pearl “rocks” under a bell jar with a price tag of 45K. A Del Rosario image dressed in gold-embroidered vestments holding a baby Jesus was similarly priced.

Today, antique ivories available in local shops carry astronomical price tags that have become totally out of my reach. A recent visit to an antique shop last week yielded an ivory masked San Jose without a virina and incomplete metalworks outrageoulsy priced at 80K. Such realities have led me to think of more affordable ways to own these precious pieces. Like assembling a santo from disparate antique ivory parts. Or even considering ‘new antiques’—ivories aged to look like old pieces.

Last year, I made the rounds of Philtrade antique and repro shops and this Nino head and hands caught my attention. The hands were okay, but the billiard-ball sized Nino head was carved with a cloyingly cutesy expression complete with  pudgy cheeks and pouty lips, painted a garish pink.

It was the sheer size and heft of the ivory that struck me-- the head was one solid ivory mass. I remember a santo carver advising me to ignore the carving flaws of an ivory head: so long as the ivory is large and solid; it can be recarved and corrected.

When I sheepishly asked about the price, the dealer quoted a figure that sent me scurrying out of Philtrade. On my way out, I decided to text my offer—half of what she quoted. She texted back to tell me that “she needs to confer with her business partner ”. When I told her I was already in a taxi en route for home, she frantically said that she was accepting my offer.

And that’s how I came to own this ivory Nino.  For months, the head sat on its stand, while I figured out what to do with it. One day, I decided to take it to  Nick Lugue, Pampanga’s most accomplished santo carver, and asked him to make a body and a base for it. I was just too busy to even think about this project and didn’t even bother giving Nick specific instructions—except the design of the peaña, which I wanted copied from a book of Mexican colonial art.

Months after, I dropped in for another visit to find the base already done. It had a rococo design, gold-leafed and marbleized. The Niño body was almost finished too. The wooden body was classically carved, with one leg slightly bent on one knee, and a trademark chubbiness complete with a distended stomach and small ding-aling.

But it was the Niño head that floored me. That’s because Nick remolded the facial features—reducing the pudgy cheeks, refining the nose and the eyes, and reducing the size of the collagen-thick lips.

It looked entirely different from the Niño that I bought—more classical looking, less of the cutesiness. The new features of the child Jesus were painted on—the eyebrows were arched, the cheeks were given a soft blush and the blue eyes retouched. A few months after, the assembled Niño, now beautifully transformed,  looked like this:

The standing Nino measures about 17 inches tall; with the base, around 22 inches high. With the crown, it stands an impressive 28 inches.

With the carving  complete, I now was ready to have the ivory Nino dressed. So off I went to Dr. Raffy Lopez to discuss the preliminary vestment style I wanted. Initially, I just wanted a simple Nazareno colored velvet robe with transferred embroidery salvaged from an antique vestment of a Virgen del Carmen I have been saving for years.

Instead, Raffy suggested making a chasuble for the Niño on where he intended to transfer the antique metallic embroidery, so the design could be shown to the fullest. He also preferred using a thinner kind of fabric so the added embroidery could be more detailed—not possible on thick velvet. The work went rather fast on the chasuble and this was the progress of the work after just one week:

The design concept for the cape, on the other hand, was inspired by an old velvet belt I picked from an antique shop in India a few years ago, and which I happened to bring along in my visit to Raffy. I thought it would make a perfect belt for my Dolorosa, but it was just too long. The belt was intricately embroidered with unique quatre-foil panels, the centers of which were studded with glass stones.

While I was engrossed with the design style, Raffy was also thinking of ways to improve my Niño. He discarded the cheap-looking brass crown which came with the ivory, and produced from his full stock of santo accessories, a more appropriate, proper-sized silver crown plated in gold.

He then did final retouches on the facial features of the Niño, darkening the brows and the lids, and subtly refining the lips and the blush. Lashes would be added later.

Two more weeks after, the propitious call from Raffy came--my ivory Santo Niño was ready to be picked up! The result exceeded my expectations;  I never thought new ivory, when properly carved, painted and vested—could look as good as this:

I still have not changed my stand about genuine antiques, but this new ivory project has certainly readjusted my attitude towards collecting: today’s affordable treasures can be tomorrow’s fine antiques.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


When devotional santos found their way into Philippine homes, they had their own special places atop mesa altars--altar tables--which became a standard piece of furniture in the homes of Filipino Catholic families. Further reverence was accorded these santos by putting them inside home altars--locally called urnas--not only to protect them, but also to mimic the church altars with beautifully designed retablos and nichos to house these religious figures.

Folk artisans crafted wooden altars such as these examples from different periods and imbued with distinctive styles. The first two examples above are from the Visayan region, similarly made with a sunburst topper, columns, legs and signature flanges (palikpik) with cut-out decorations. The urnas are crudely carved but brightly painted in contrasting colors. Such primitive altars were made from remnant wood pieces, including wood crate packaging that are sometimes imprinted with the brand name of the product.

Other common altar designs are these urnas with leafy, sinuous floral frontals, carved in low relief.  The characteristic rounded opening, and the simple rectangular base are consistent features of these urna types.

The niches are outfitted with glass-panelled doors, but a lot of these urna types are available in the market sans their doors.

The province of Bohol is known for its very distinctive 19th c. urnas that are easily recognizable by their vivid polychromed colors and their simple structure, with parts put together by pegs and joints. Each piece is carved in low relief, with floral and vegetal motifs concentrated on the two side panels anchored with columns, the topperboard and the base.

The removable base is multi-tiered, usually showing 3 gradas (levels). Detached bases with missing altars are often sold separately and are used by collectors for other decorative purposes.

I have seen a lot of these boxy urnas in northern Luzon, and they are a common sight in Manila antique shops. The above example is almost complete, except for a missing glass-panelled door. Note the serpentine-like decorative panels on both sides of the altar and the four columns that support the structure. The figures of Jose, Maria and Jesus are directly pegged onto the floor of the urna. The altar legs end in stylized 'clawfoot' forms.

An incomplete example of the same style is shown above, featuring a Madonna and Child. The decorative side panels and the door are missing, as these pieces were often just joined to the altar body using pegs and short nails and are thus, easily damaged or lost.

The urna of San Vicente Ferrer is also of the same type as the previous two. Note the serrated edges of the door, which has lost its glass panel, a common treatment artisans used in fashioning these folk altars. The roof is also missing--which may have been made of wood or tin.

From Bohol comes this more sophisticated urna, elaborated with oversized finials, the 'eye of God" topper, carved side trims and turned Greek-inspired columns. There are floral appliques on the top and base of the altar structure. The floor of the urna is trapezoidal in shape, giving it a more expansive look.

This next example is a finely crafted urna done in the neoclassic style and executed in heavy dark wood. The roof is glass-panelled, like the body. Lean Corinthian columns hold up the roof, supported by carved, gold-leafed brackets on the base. This must have housed an exquisite ivory santo.

From the 30s down to the 60s, commercial religious statuary shops offered these box-type wooden altars that were simply varnished and carved with decorative details such as Christ's or the Virgin's monograms, gothic design motifs, crosses. These streamlined, glass-panelled urnas were mass-produced, so one sometimes find the same design executed in different-sized versions.

Carved along gothic lines, such urnas feature pointed arches topped by crosses and trefoil forms. Many of these sturdy examples have survived today and  chances are, you'll find one or two in the current stocks of downtown Manila antique shops. Whether primitively-carved or commercially-crafted, these home altars represent not only the reverence of the people who bought them for their treasured santos, but also the skill, artistry and creativity of the Filipino artisans who lovingly made them.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012



VIRGEN DE LOS REMEDIOS, Patroness of Pampanga

The image of the Virgen de los Remedios is one that is dear to every Kapampangan—this particular Virgin with the title she shares with the venerated Virgin in Malate Church,  happens to be the Patroness of the province of Pampanga.

2010 Re-enactment of the canonical coronation of Virgen delos Remedios, 
San Fernando. Photo courtesy of Arwin Paul Lingat.

The story of her origins began only on 15 April 1952, when Kapampangans started the Cruzada y Buena Voluntad (Crusade of Charity and Goodwill) through the initiative of Bishop Cesar Ma. Guerrero.

The original image was borrowed from Baliti, a barangay of San Fernando, but when the people decided not to loan out the image after a year of non-stop pilgrimage to all Pampanga towns, Bishop Guerrero commissioned a similar image that was eventually crowned canonically on 8 September 1956 at the San Fernando Capitol grounds. 

Virgen delos Remedios, pilgrim image. Picture courtesy of Arwin Paul Lingat.

Every Kapampangan home used to have either an escayola image or a print of the Virgen de los Remedios, and I remember having both on our home altar, although today, only the plaster cast image survived. 

Virgen de los Remedios, as an image, is not as popular with santos fans as, let’s say Virgen de La Naval or Purisima Concepcion. That is why, in my recent visits to the workshop/residence of Dr. Raffy Lopez, I could not help but be surprised at the  surge in the number of Virgen de los Remedios ivory images being commissioned lately. But most adhered to the iconography of the Malate Remedios and not the Remedios of Pampanga.

I don’t know if it was out of envy or if it was just good old  Kapampangan pride that finally made me decide to have my own Virgen de los Remedios ( by the way, aren’t envy and pride two of the 7 deadly sins??!??). Well, I do have one last remaining antique ivory Virgin that I restored many years ago and I always believed it had some resemblance to the Pampanga Remedios.

I got the old ivory head and hands from Philtrade, now brown with age. Not exactly a beautiful looking head—it even had lost its eyebrows—but it had a character face.  I had also an old  headless/armless  body of an Immaculada, that came with embroidered white and blue vestments.

The head and the hands were a perfect fit for the body. A human hair wig from another antique santa was recycled for the Virgin’s use and an open crown I found served as her temporary, though inappropriate, corona. The new base, I got from Dr. Lopez.

For many years, I kept this nondescript Virgin in the old house, away from display, but every time I would see her, she would remind me of our patroness. I think it was actually the dress that gave her the resemblance, but after awhile, I started to believe she could really be the Virgen de los Remedios.

So, armed with an old stampita of Remedios and a vintage souvenir program of the re-enactment of her crowning that showed her body in full, I asked Dr. Lopez to transform my put-together Virgin into the Virgen de los Remedios of Pampanga. Note that Dr. Lopez had just completed a Remedios for a friend and was rushing to complete another one for an archdiocesan exhibit. I was worried that a 3rd consecutive Remedios project would drive him nuts!

First, since the ivory image had no facial resemblance to the original sweet-looking Virgin, we decided to go by the power of suggestion and copy every detail of the Remedios Virgin—from the metalwork, ruffled sleeves and collar, the color and the draping of the vestment

I decided though to use a cloud base on which the trademark half-moon could be stuck. Dr. Lopez had to extricate another work-in-progress santa from its cloud base so that it could be used by my Virgin, and I immediately liked the result.

As always, I pretty much left the restorer to conceive the design of the vestments to be rendered in a shade of blue and light pink.

The project was done in lightning speed, finished in a little over  2 weeks—a record of sorts, at least for me. 

The result of Dr. Lopez’s amazing restoration remedy I now present here: 

"O Indu ning Kapaldanan, Panalangin Mu Kami!"