Holy but Hot (C)

Published November 16, 2020, 12:30 AM

by Jaime Laya


Jaime C. Laya

The Manila antique collectors world is small. Collectors, shopowners, agents, pickers, etc., know each other. They compete but are a friendly lot. News circulates fast about who bought what and for what price, what is fake, what is missing, what might be available. Naturally each keeps secret and no one asks what is being targeted but once a capture is made, there is often a grand reveal.

The finding and return of Baclayón’s San Blas bestowed upon Antonio “Tony” Martino the standing of Mabini Interpol, repository of information on what has disappeared and where it might be.

One day, his friend Jojo Canlas, a top-of-the-line restorer of images expert in embroidery, carving, refinishing, metalwork, etc., and patronized by parishes, dealers, and private collectors, arrived from Pampanga.

Canlas disclosed that a Romeo Bauzon, a common friend and another collector-dealer, had shown him the image of a young Virgin Mary. He recognized this as part of a Santa Ana ensemble that Tacloban was looking for. Of course, Canlas could not say outright, “Aha, so you have pala Tacloban’s hot image.” He had come to toss the hot potato to Martino and left him a photo of the missing image.

Antonio “Tony” Martino with part of his collection.

News had also reached Martino that the carved head of an old woman was available, meaning that part of the lost image was with Bauzon and the remaining part was still in the shadowy fringes of the Manila antique market.

Matrino went to Bauzon with the photo and the latter immediately agreed to return the image to Tacloban. Bauzon remembered the agent telling him that the old woman’s head ended up with Severina “Viring” de Asis of the celebrated Jo-Liza Antique Shop.

Off went the two to San Juan hoping that the missing head was still with de Asis. It was and voila! Tacloban’s lost image was found.  The consensus was to turn over Santa Ana’s head and the image of the young Virgin Mary to historian-scholar Regalado “Ricky” Josė and let him take care of returning them to Tacloban, which Josė did.

Both de Asis and Bauzon have since passed away and surely looking kindly at them are Mary and her mother St. Anne.

In another lucky coincidence, an agent and the supposed owner offered Bauzon a molave head that belonged to a Holy Week processional image, probably of the fallen Christ (La Primera Caida) and unmistakably carved by the famous sculptor Graciano T. Nepomuceno (1881-1974). The story was that the mannequin body had been eaten by termites and the owner decided to sell the head.

Martino, a handicraft exporter, bought the head and showed it to one of his Pampanga carvers by way of inspiring him to do work of equal quality.

It turned out that the head belonged to a Laguna family and that the body, though decapitated, was still bugless and healthy in its Biñan home. The owner went to Tom Joven, another super special restorer of santos doing carving, embroidery, hair replacement, etc. for finicky collectors and parish priests, for a new head and Joven in turn went to no other than Martino’s carver. The carver thanked Joven for the business, adding that if he wanted to see the original, go ask Martino. Joven once more went to see Martino, this time with the pair of hands that the thief didn’t pinch. The perfectly carved hands convinced Martino who promptly relinquished the head. The grateful owner gave him tapes of Gregorian chants.

Processional images, incidentally, are generally undressed and disassembled after each procession. The carefully carved head and hands and embroidered garments are kept upstairs while the simple mannequin bodies are covered up and stored in a bodega downstairs. Francisco “Quico” Vecin of Makati, another well-known santo restorer, has several Holy Week processional images with a couple of dozen figures of Christ and assorted Jews and Roman soldiers. For some 50 weeks of the year, the heads—angry, screaming, agonized, dripping blood, and with staring eyes wide open—are in glass cases all in a row.

My thought on seeing them—after recovering from the shock—was of Place de la Concorde after a long and busy day at the guillotine.

Note:  The image of Santa Ana usually consists of two figures, St. Anne as an old woman and the Virgin Mary as a young girl.

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