Thursday, October 16, 2014


THE LITTLE LORD JESUS LAY DOWN HIS SWEET HEAD. A 7 in. antique ivory Nino sleeps on a new brass crib with  a canopy decorated with old mother-of-pearl flowers. Old plaster sheep from an antique creche and miniature candlesticks flank the Dormido. The whole ensemble is housed in a vintage virina from Thailand, which used to hold an antique Buddha. Personal Collection..

 One of my most treasured santos in my collection is this antique Niño Dormido of solid ivory. I acquired this 7 inch image from a formidable collector of antiques in a most fortuitous way.

 A gentleman collector had previously seen my modest collection of santos posted online and was pleased to know that we shared the same santo restorer. Next thing I knew, he extended an invitation to me to visit his home in a Manila suburb that was filled to the rafters with the most astounding collection of sacred art—from paintings, retablos, tabletop ivories to processional santos. I was just happy to make his acquaintance (he tunred out to be a kabalen!) and grateful for opening his ancestral home to me.

 I was still gushing over this gentleman’s collection when I met up with my santo restorer friend. “”Oh,”, my friend said, “you might want to see his antique Niño Dormido that he is unloading. I have it with me!”.

 It was love at first sight when I beheld the figure, wrapped up in an old silk handkerchief. It was not perfect—his nose and a hand had broken off, both feet were chipped, and the wooden pate on his back was missing. Still, it was an impressive figure, old and hefty, with an impeccable provenance.

Antique Niño Dormidos rarely come up in the market, for they are prized devotional pieces by owners. I knew then, I just had to have this sleeping Niño. But when told of the price tag, my heart sank—it was affordable by today’s standards, but still I didn’t have that much amount of money. “Not to worry,”said my friend, “ all we have to do is call the collector! And I’ll tell him who the interested buyer is!”.

To make the long story short, I made an embarrassingly low offer, which, to my surprise, was accepted! It was a kind gesture on the part of the collector, whom I had only previously met once!

Once I took the Niño home, it spent months in a shoebox because I really had no idea how to display it. Ideally, this should be in a virina (glass dome), on a velvet bed of some sorts—I have seen examples online. But the costs of antique virinas are so prohibitive—this, before the day of Made in China glass domes.

 It was then that I remembered I had a small glass dome bought in Thailand, which once held a Buddha figure. It was not antique, and the glass itself was thick and full of bubbles—not the clear, thin glass of Czechoslovakian-made antique virinas. But I thought with a bit of creativity, I can make do with this glass dome.

 The first thing I did was to have a new traditional base made, to replace the original base that had tacky floral carvings in front. Designing the brass bed or crib where the Niño would lay proved to be the greatest challenge.

I have seen bridal glass domes with spectacular brass canopies decorated with metal flowers, birds and leaves—and I wanted something like that. In the end, I customized my own design, which I took to my nearest ‘pukpok’ metalsmith in Mexico. I had to explain everything to my metalsmith painstakingly, providing him with visual pegs for small details such as the brass bird, the shapes of leaves and flowers. I also asked him to incorporate an antique brass halo which I earlier found, as a centerpiece accent. It took awhile for him to finish the crib, as it needed to be gold-plated too.

Once done, I took the crib home and figured out a way to embellish it with a cushion and other trimmings. The red velvet ‘bed’ was fashioned from fabrics scraps and cotton batting, thanks to my limited sewing skills. I still had old ‘lagang’( mother-of-pearl) flowers that I used to decorate the wire frame.

 Miniature brass candlesticks sent by a friend from U.K. doubled as flower holders, and a flock of plaster sheep—remnants from an antique crèche were the finishing touches for my Niño Dormido virina project.

Thus, the Christ Child reposes, no longer hidden in a shoebox, but on a velvet, canopied brass crib for his Head, housed in a special glass dome fit for a newborn King.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

209. FAMILY FIRST: A Folk Urna From Ilocos

FAMILY FIRST: A Folk Urna From Ilocos

 I remember the moment when I acquired my first antique urna, complete with the figures of Joseph, Mary and Jesus. It was in the early ‘80s when I started collecting santos, thanks to my Creative Director who turned me on to this fascinating hobby. But back then, my 50 peso budget could only buy ‘buraots’—an antique dealer’s parlance for old pieces on the verge of being called junk. So, my first pieces were crudely carved flatback santos, santo fragments ( a carabao from a San Isidro tableau, a Nazareno hand) and small crucifixes, often without bases.

 It was while on a shooting assignment in Baguio, sometime in 1982 that I bought my first complete santo ensemble in an urna—not a santo fragment, not an incomplete figure--but an almost perfect primitive altar from Ilocos. In a break from the shoot, I accompanied my boss to Maharlika Shopping Center—then Baguio’s center for arts, antiques and souvenirs, located in a multi-storey building right in the market district. Pinky Garcia, then, an up and coming antique dealer, had a shop there—already called PNKY—and that’s where I beheld the folk altar for sale.

The first thing I noticed was its rich, smooth patina, indicative of its antiquity. It was in the shape of a house, with a tin roof, topped with a turned finial and trimmed on the side with two graceful wooden swirls. Four columns marked the corner of the main structure, that sat on short carved legs. Wooden frontals were carved and decorated with floral swirls and curlicues. Inside the altar were the carved wooden figures of the Child Jesus, flanked by Mary and Joseph. The naïve figures were no more than 10 inches tall, crudely carved and feature-less, but painted with once-rich hues, with their dressed painted with flourishes.

 The whole ensemble was fashioned from soft wood and wood scraps—the latter, used as a backing for the urna. It had stood unscathed for years, saved for a few missing hands, tin halos and San Jose’s staff. I wondered too, if the urna once had glass panels, or if it had a door of some sort, but there are no nail marks to indicate that it had been equipped with these. The dealer had identified this antique piece as a Tagalog altar, but an expert corrected me to say that the style was very much from the Ilocos region.

Whatever, I fell in love with the urna, and so shyly, I asked the dealer for her best price. When she showed me the price tag—Php600—I nearly fell off my seat—it was way out of my league! I only had a Php 200 ‘baon’ for the duration of my production work (I still had a day to go). But—she added---she could lop off a few pesos more, arriving at a final, non-negotiable price of Php 495! Unfortunately, I still could not afford the discounted price—so sadly, and with a deep sigh, I turned away.

 The next day, we packed up our shooting and made a final dash to the Baguio market to buy last-minute pasalubongs for the folks back in Manila. This time, I was with my boss, and I egged her—being a more knowledgable collector--to check out the urna which I wanted, as the shop was just a floor above us.

 Of course, she was charmed by the piece! She then advised me to buy it, as the urna she said, was in such pristine condition and that I can’t get that piece for a Php495 once it is brought down to Manila. I told her though, that much as I liked it, I couldn’t afford it—and proceeded to show what’s left of my baon—all of Php150.

 “Goodness, Alex! Why didn’t you tell me? I can lend you that amount and you can pay me back anytime!”. It was so unexpected that I felt so embarrassed, and I started to object, protestations that fell on deaf ears. Right then and there, she whipped out her credit card from her wallet, and dealt with the shop owner herself. I insisted that I chipped in my last remaining Php100, so she was charged just Php395 on her card.

 We walked away from the antique shop with me lugging the packed urna proudly with one hand, along with my longganisa and peanut brittle. In the ensuing years, my dear boss would resign and make a splash as an accomplished advertising creative in Malaysia, while I would remain in the industry, until I too, joined the expat bandwagon in 1989. But through all those years, I have kept my beautiful Ilocos urna for 32 years—not just as an artifact of our religious history, but also as a wonderful reminder of the boundless kindness of friends.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

208. OUR LADY OF THE ROSARY, Santissimo Rosario Parish, U.S.T.

OUR LADY OF THE ROSARY, Santissimo Rosario Parish, U.S.T. ca. 1960. 

 The 1960 celebration of the Feast our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, from September 24 to October 2, was pacled with activities and marked with great pageantry, culminating in the grand procession of the images of Our Lady and St. Joseph in the late afternoon of Oct.2, Sunday. The Santissimo Rosario parish itself was erected on 2 May 1942, with its seat at the Students’ Chapel and Fathers’ Residence of the UST.

The first parish priest was the very rev. Fr. Emiliano Serrano O.P. U.S.T.’s close association with Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary began just before Santo Domingo Church was firebombed in December 1941, at the heaight of war. The miraculous image of our Lady was transferred under military escort to San Juan de Letran. But with Letran also under threat, the image was transferred to the U.S.T.’s Students’ Chapel where Our Lady stayed as a refugee, until her enshrinement at her magnificent church in Quezon City, built in 1954.

 A replacement image was installed in the chapel, made of wood and carved in the round. It depicts a standing Mary, with the Christ Child on her left arm, while holding a rosary with the fingers of her right hand. The smaller-than-lifesize crowned image stands on a cloudy base adorned with flowers. 

The devotion to Our Lady never waned even with her transfer, but in fact, became even stronger, as people flocked to U.S.T. to implore her maternal assistance particularly in October. The 1960 solemn festivities were marked with daily masses, novenas, flower offerings and vigils.

Block rosary units, established early in the parish area, practiced the “recitation of the rosary in the “Rosario de la Aurora”(dawn rosary) procession. This devotion took place at 4 a.m. on the first Saturdays of the month—from May to October. The faithful, carrying images our Lady and their candles, assembled at the U.S.T. gate and marched in procession around the campus, singing Ave Marias and praying the Rosary.

 Today, the grandeur that was the pre-war Santo Rosario fiesta lives on, as more devotees from all corners of the Philippines gather every October to personally reaffirm their faith in the unfailing protection of their patroness, Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

207. HOLY FAMILY: Ivory Carving Style In Transition

HESUSMARIOSEP! An antique ivory grouping of the Holy Family, 13 inch., tallest figure, dressed manikin figures,  ivory face masks, ivory hands, wooden bodies, human hair wigs, rose gold metal. Century old. Personal Collection.

One of the more exciting santo finds I came across is this very old Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) grouping, rendered in ivory, offered by a Quezon City antique shop. I had coveted it since the day I saw it, alongside another more refinely carved, albeit smaller Holy Family ensemble.

Luckily, it remained unsold for months, long enough for me to save up for it. That's how I came to possess this Holy Family in ivory, complete in its urna with the initials of the owner incorporated as cut-outs in the altar's design.

To a self-taught Filipino carver, ivory was a new medium with which to perfect his art, honed after years of working with wood.

 Few carvers though had access to ivory, and only a few could afford to work this new medium. As such, early ivory figures either had pin-sized ivory heads or had wooden heads with ivory masks.

This Sagrada Familia group however has nearly all the trappings of a classically carved ivory images—from the intricately styled human hair wigs to the garments lavished with gold embroidery.

 Even the metal works are wrought in detail, with fine “pukpok”patterns, rendered in tumbaga or low-grade rose gold.

The craftsmanship is even more apparent in the mini-rosary that the little Niño wears, complete with chain links and a cross.

 The refined details of the tableau ends there, as one inspects the carving quality of Jose, Maria and the Niño.

The artist obviously strived to achieve classic realism in the facial features, but strong naïve elements still persist in the completed work.

The facial features are emotionless, stoic, the fingers carved in the so-called “tinidor”style—no delicate curves or joints, just straight digits.

 The treatment of the stoney mound on which the figures are attached is unremarkable—there is no attempt to include landscape details such as rocks, grass and textural elements.

 The transition from popular carving to the classical style has yet to be successfully bridged in this ivory group—which makes this Sagrada Familia special—an example of a Filipino artist’s striving to improve and perfect his art, a process of evolving so he could be at par with the world’s best.