Transfiguration in Miag-ao

Miag-ao, Iloilo, the Philippines

April 19, 2011

Miag-ao Church, built in the late 18th century in the province of Iloilo, is a magnificent marriage of colonial and folk art. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with three other churches in the country, all of which I had already visited. But more than checking it off my heritage site list, the church’s flamboyantly-designed facade, its singular claim to fame in a country dotted with baroque churches, is for the books and that alone calls for a go-see.

Miag-ao Church

On a trip to visit relatives with my family, we had to take a detour to the town of Miag-ao, south of Iloilo City. The church was more massive than I had imagined. To take an establishing shot, I kept going backwards until I was at the front gate trying to fit the image of the entire church, width and height, in my camera’s LCD screen. Moreover, the church is set against the afternoon sun. Direct sunlight and the facade’s soft ocher color rendered the LCD image invisible. I just pressed the shutter button blindly, hoping for the best.

Flowers and Fortress: Miag-ao Church

Two stubby towers that flank the church evoked the contour of a medieval castle with their broadly inclined buttresses and high-pitched top. The church apparently doubled as a fortress against Muslim raiders from the south. It was a bastion of Catholicism in the island. Yet, the soft tones of the ocher sandstone facade and hedges of blossoming yellow bells surrounding the towers rendered a dash of delicacy to the forbidding ambiance of this church-cum-fortress.

San Cristobal Bas-Relief: Miag-ao Church Facade

Acanthus Design on the Facade

Miag-ao and Me

Miag-ao Church is officially called the Church of Santo Tomas de Villanueva, named after a 16th-century Spanish priest known for compelling oratory that can “move even the stones.” Stones were moved in his honor here. Sandstone, culled from a nearby river, was transformed into a canvas upon which local artisans carved clergy-sanctioned religious motifs and infused them with folk sensibilities. The resulting religious art is akin to the rustic scenes in Amorsolo paintings, an uncommon local flavor in Catholic art that mostly features Spanish-looking statues and Biblical tableaux.

I met San Cristobal (St. Christopher, the giant saint bearing the Christ Child on his back) for a second time here in Miag-ao. I was first introduced to him at a crumbling fresco in Paete Church in Laguna. Similarly, the saint of Semitic descent has been depicted here as a local farmer amidst tropical fruit-bearing trees. The magnificent coconut tree that dominates the facade’s topmost pediment transports both the legend of San Cristobal and Spanish church architecture to the Filipino milieu.

With such densely-decorated facade, the interior of the church seemed stark in contrast. There was none of the florid carvings in the nave, except on the wooden doors, which, however, looked new. It was rather anti-climactic. But then, this was a church, not Enchanted Kingdom. It was not made to elicit oohs and ahhs from tourists, but as a place of worship for the people of Miag-ao. Rather than wallowing in disappointment, I felt privileged to have visited this unique icon of our indigenous and colonial heritage.

Miag-ao Church's Nave

Mom by Miag-ao Church Door

With Cousin and Personal Tour Guide, Jennifer

Special thanks to my cousins for going the extra mile (more than a mile, literally!) in touring us: Julius for driving for us and Jennifer, who was just a baby the last time I saw her, for taking the afternoon off to show us this church. Kudos, cousins!

As a side note, I bumped into all twelve disciples of Christ, breaking bread in a restaurant (apparently not the Last Supper because Jesus and Mary Magdalene were not present). They were unmistakably anachronistic in their white tunics. Lest anyone would still miss them, they had their names over their sashes.

It all seemed that Miag-ao transported and transfigured Biblical and Catholic personages into the town, where saints and disciples were among the townspeople.

The 12 Disciples in Miag-ao

27 thoughts on “Transfiguration in Miag-ao

    • Thanks Jim! But I think this church would photograph better in the morning. Very hard to angle shots against the afternoon sun!

  1. Brill photo’s as usual. What a church! It looks like part of a set for an Indiana Jones film. I love the mix of cultures and the rent-a-diciples were hilarious. What were they doing there?!

  2. This is truly a different church when we visited the place during our trip. Only when we were there, there was a celebration going on (fiesta or birthday ng mayor daw) that place was covered with decorations. Would’ve been better if we were able to see it like this – walang tao. Pero kung may tao man, masaya sana kung nakisalo kami sa kain! lol.

    • Pinaka-hate ko yung mga tarps ng politiko or banderitas na sinasabit on or near the facade of heritage churches. Nakakababoy eh. Suerte lang na kami lang ang tao when we were there. Kaso gusto ko rin sana na may makausap na taga-dun para makakuha ng local perspective. At least kayo puede pa makikain. #gatecrasher :D

  3. Hi there,

    I’m representing HK Disneyland looking for bloggers to send over to Hong Kong Disneyland in 2012 for a sponsored trip and in exchange bloggers would have to do a few blog coverage on Hong Kong Disneyland on behalf of the client.

    Shall you be keen, please email me at jaclyn@sirens.my

    I have previously sent some bloggers like Hannah (flaircandy.com) and Vince (vincegolangco.com) for 2011 and we are keen to work with more bloggers for 2012.

    Do hope to hear from you soon!

    Thanks!

  4. The exterior of this church looks very different from the other churches. I definitely liked this one and the way it is built. I wonder how it would be to worship god in his holiness within these churches. I know the place doesn’t matter when we seek him out but sometimes the solemnity of the place does have some bearing on us. The pictures and their various angles from which you have clicked, look wonderful. I wish I get to see these places sometime.

    Wishing you joy and peace,
    Susan

    • The wonderful blend of oriental and western architectural elements makes this church facade unique. When are you coming here, Mrs. Sus?

      Peace and goodwill,

      TTT

    • Panasonic Lumix point & shoot with Leica lens. Thanks for the kind words, Max. You just made my year, and it’s just the morning of the first day of the year! :D

  5. I love the way you took photos AJ. It reminds me of my passion for churches and temples and mosque. its nice to see your mom on the post too. I hope she is doing great.

    Send my hugs for your mum AJ. God bless always

    • We share the same passion, Doc! But your photos are on a different level. Nahiya naman na napansin mo pa pix ko. :)

      Mum’s fine as long as she’s on the road. We’re exploring the town of San Juan, Batangas tomorrow.

  6. Thanks for the wonderful info and photos. The art on the church itself is the most unique Catholic art I’ve seen. Would you attribute this to the fact that local artisans were commissioned to do the work with little outside influence into the baroque period? Do you have any info on churches in the surrounding area from a similar time period? I’d love to know if the artistic qualities of this church are unique to the region or if the other churches reflect a more inquisition type art style.

    • Hi Travis! I’ve not been able to find information with regard to the reason of the indigenization of Miag-ao Church. All I know is that the design and engineering of the church was solely undertaken by the assigned friar (Fray Francisco Maximo Gonzales) at the time of construction in 1786, not by architects from Spain or Mexico. It could have been the parish priest’s personal preference or perhaps it was a way of reaching out to the local population because Miag-ao Church was, after all, a mission church.

      I didn’t have the luxury of exploring other churches in neighboring towns, but I have visited churches within Iloilo City (as well as in Cebu, Bohol, and Laguna). None incorporated folk art in their facades to the extent we see in Miag-ao. The closest I can think of are the oriental bas-reliefs on the facades of Boljoon Church (Cebu) and Paete Church (Laguna), but in a much lesser extent as in Miag-ao. I suppose this sensibility is truly unique to Miag-ao Church.

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