In Tagalog, simbahan is a noun meaning church and simbahán (with accent on the last syllable), an imperative verb suggesting or ordering, “go worship.” It’s an appropriate way to begin 2021, to pray for deliverance from our present miseries.
The new book Simbahán by Regalado “Ricky” José and illustrated by Allan Jay Quesada is a selection of 50 of our “culturally or esthetically … must-visit” Catholic churches from Batanes down to Mati in Davao Oriental. It’s a great introduction to Filipino culture and tangible heritage and perfect as well for the hopeful and the repentant—nothing wrong with praying while looking.
José’s text relates the history and the spiritual and secular significance of each site. He describes architecture and interior furnishings and points out exceptional objects. Quesada’s watercolor illustrations capture the colors, proportions, and important details of the originals, more successfully than if they had been run-of-the-mill guidebook photographs.
The four Philippine baroque churches on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites are there—San Agustín (Manila), Paoay (Ilocos Norte), Santa María (Ilocos Sur), and Miag-ao (Iloilo).
- San Agustín was completed in 1604 but the existing main retablo and the trompe l’oeil paintings date to the late 1800s. José and Quesada lead the reader upstairs behind the organ to show that prior to repainting, San Agustín’s walls and ceilings were in reds, blues, and gold.
- Paoay church is the ultimate Philippine earthquake baroque structure with “humongous buttresses with volute tracings (like sampaguita blooms on wrestlers’ biceps).” A tip to visitors: just as the Taj Mahal is best seen under a full moon, José suggests waiting till sunset to view the façade, “it turns golden” and details come into relief.
- With wide stone steps (84 of them) leading uphill, the church at Santa María is a favorite Fernando Amorsolo Jose calls it a “citadel, the Ilocano version of the Acropolis.” It has been repaired and renovated numerous times and the one of the 1890s must have been the last straw. José reports that it caused many townspeople to pack up and leave in disgust, founding the town of Cuyapó, Nueva Ecija.
- The church at Miag-ao was built up on a hill after a pirate attack in 1764. With thick limestone walls, it was intended to shelter the entire town in future pirate raids and to be strong enough to resist any earthquake. The façade is a giant folk art piece depicting San Cristobal carrying the child Jesus on his shoulders past a luxuriant coconut palm (it looks like a peacock), papaya and guava trees.
The book includes three contemporary buildings:
- The Parish Church of St. Isidore the Farmer in Negros’ Victorias Milling Company, Inc. It was designed by an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright and has a mural by Alfonso Ossorio meant to express church teachings on social reform. Though popularly known as Church of the Angry Christ, José says, “the images depict God’s love, through the Sacred Heart.” Indeed, one does not express anger in spreading one’s arms wide, as Christ does in Ossorio’s painting.
- The Parish Church of the Holy Sacrifice at the U.P. Diliman Campus. The church is remarkable for its design in the round and for its treasure of National Artist works—design by Leandro Locsin, Stations of the Cross by Vicente Manansala assisted by Ang Kiukok, sculpture by Napoleon Abueva, and terrazzo flooring and pews design by Arturo Luz.
- The National Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Baclaran by Cesar Concio. The venerated image is a copy of a Byzantine icon of Mary and the Christ child. Before Covid-19, some 130,000 devotees converged on the shrine every Wednesday.
Between Visita Iglesia during Holy Week and sightseeing while on work and holiday trips, I’ve been to exactly 30 of José’s selection. With Simbahán’s descriptions and pictures, my bucket list is longer by four: Boljoon (18th century interiors), Lazi (huge church and convent), Ozamis (ceiling murals), and Guiuan (with retablos enriched with seashells, it’s extreme rococo).
I understand how difficult it must be to make a choice, but memorable ones I’ve been to outside of José’s 50 include those of Santa Ana (Manila) that has retained many 18th century features—the Camarín de la Virgen (dressing room of the Virgin) with a Ming porcelain tile floor and 18th or 19th century ceiling paintings and the Pozo de la Virgen, a well believed miraculous since pre-Hispanic times; Silang (Cavite) with retablos consisting of magnificent relieves; and Taal (Batangas), the country’s largest with a 19th century trompe l’oeil ceiling.
As José observes, so many old churches have been renovated, some because of earthquake, typhoon, termite, or war damage and others because of changing fashion. In the 1880s, Neo-Classic was the craze, causing the replacement of Baroque or Rococo retablos. Now many are trying-hard-San-Antonio (Forbes Park) replicas with Hershey’s-chocolate-gold-foil-covered carvings and chocolate-painted backgrounds.
Church authorities are constantly making “improvements.” Jose remarks on azulejo tiles (probably brought in by galleon from Mexico) of Majayjay church’s Sanctuary. It must have been after José’s visit when I dropped by and found workmen busily replacing the azulejos with beige Romblon marble like what I have on my bathroom floor. Red curtains with yellow tassels and fringes painted on Narvacán (Ilocos Sur) church walls struck me the most in a late 1970s visit. They were gone the next time I was there, thanks to a balikbayan who donated gallons of house paint to obliterate what she considered badúy.
Church authorities also neglect, sell (sometimes illicitly), give, or throw away old things. I was in Mahatao (Batanes) about 1980 and was received by an ancient Dominican friar in an upstairs convent room lined with old books and records. I asked a friend who had just come from there about them and his response, “What books?” Then there was this Makati antique shop with a load of silver objects—sacras (altar tablets), ramilletes (altar décor), ceriales (processional candlesticks, guidon and crucifix), and canopy poles, supposedly sold by a casino-loving priest. Such stories are endless.
More than just a guidebook, Simbahán is an introduction to the riches of Philippine history and culture and an appeal to care for unappreciated treasures that can make us lift our heads higher, make us more proud to be Filipino.
Note: Regalado Trota José explains that simbahán (with accent on the last syllable) is the word for church in much of Southern and Central Philippines.
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