San Juan and Manila, the Philippines
May 2 – 3 and June 19, 2010
Stone and stained glass. Art and architecture. History and hoariness. Such qualities kindled my fondness for Catholic churches.
Driving through San Juan one day, fellow church-lover Ki and I decided to drop in at the Church of San Juan del Monte (Santuario de Santo Cristo) within the grounds of Aquinas School, his high school alma mater.
The church had the bulk of a formidable fortress. Thick columns fanned out from the front and sides, giving the church an invincible appearance. Not surprisingly, no account of any earthquake-related destruction was stated on the church marker since its construction in 1602.
There was no mass at the time of our visit – for me, the best time to be in a Catholic church. A sense of peace pervaded the empty church. Prismatic reflections on wooden pews cast by stained glass windows were mesmerizing. I was transfixed by these little abstract paintings emblazoned in light. The dominating red blot, I realized, was the image of Jesus Christ radiating the color of blood and love.
There was a kind of hush too; only the pitter-patter of the faithful or tweeting of birds echoed through the nave. The stone walls insulated the interior from the tropical heat and urban chaos outside. This stillness, ethereal yet palpable, turned the church into a refuge where the world turned in slow-mo, relieved of the weight of urgent distractions. I warmed a spot on the pew in suspended animation like the frozen yet lifelike statues around me.
The next day we found ourselves at the grand Manila Cathedral. It was conferred the title of Basilica of the Immaculate Conception by no less than Pope John Paul II in the early 80s. The Catholic pecking order, from cathedral to basilica, put the Manila Cathedral high up in this religious hierarchy; it was only one of the 12 basilicas in the country and of about a thousand and a half in the world.
How ever it was called, Manila Cathedral was one of the most elegant Catholic churches in the country. We marveled at its travertine statues on facade niches, bronze bas-reliefs on the portals, sheen of cream marble on columns and rails, sparkling stained glass on rose windows, and a majestic pipe organ on the choir loft – the sublime apotheosis of grandeur and grace in this Third World capital.
These architectural and artistic embellishments both told and belied the church’s tempestuous history. Since its original construction in 1581, Manila Cathedral had been reduced to rubble by a litany of calamities: fires, typhoons, earthquakes, and WW2 bombings – what Mother Nature had destroyed, the Americans demolished just as well.
The present structure was completed after WW2; as such, it could never evoke old-world hoariness as extant stone churches could. However, it was a standing symbol of the Church’s resilience in the face of foreign occupation, war, liberation, and poverty – the vicissitudes of the city’s history.
Interred within the church were the remains of former cardinal Jaime Sin, more popularly known as Cardinal Sin – pun intended by fate. He was considered by some as “the greatest sin” in Philippine politics for allegedly bridging the chasm that was supposed to be the separation of church and state, a thorny issue that continued to prick sensibilities. His coat-of-arms and motto (Serviam, meaning I Serve), prominently displayed on the transept floor, stopped me in my tracks.
Michaelangelo’s La Pieta, actually one of its authorized replicas, was drawing tourists into a chapel on one side of the nave. It was cast from the mold of the original sculpture and made from Carrara marble. I had not known it had been on display in the church since 2009.
I lingered, awed by this magnificent copy of a historic work of art, until a large group of Korean tourists filled the chapel. That may be the boon and bane of the Manila Cathedral. The church was tourist-friendly; huge boards of old photos and informative texts had been propped up in nave chapels. Tourists like me crowded these chapels-cum-museums; a moment’s peace was more elusive here.
Finally, we visited the historic San Agustin Church at the heart of Intramuros, the old walled city of Manila. One of the oldest standing buildings in Manila, it was completed in 1607. The church had withstood numerous earthquakes and survived the British Invasion, the Spanish-American War, and the Japanese Invasion and deserved its current status as a National Monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The facade looked unassuming, its antiquity freshly painted over, save for its main portal. Made of dark-brown molave (a tropical hardwood), the door detained us with its intricately carved with bas-relief depicting Augustinian saints, flanked by a pair of granite lions, offerings of Chinese converts, that gave the baroque architecture an Oriental accent.
As a wedding ceremony was about to begin, we decided to explore the two-level San Agustin Museum, housed in the adjacent monastery. The lower cloister was converted into a gallery. Huge oil paintings of saints adorned the high walls, while carrozas (carriages used in religious processions) of all makes and sizes were parked in one hallway. Ki was concerned that the artworks were exposed to the elements without any protective glass casings.
A couple of pleasant surprises awaited us. First, the Urdaneta Exhibition in one hall told and showed the life of Andres de Urdaneta, an intrepid explorer and an Augustinian priest. He had circumnavigated the globe and was credited for discovering a trans-Pacific route between Mexico and the Philippines, still used by modern sailors. Second, we chanced upon Carlos Celdran, a famous Manila tour guide and cultural activist, and his tour group. We eavesdropped at his history spiel peppered with his trademark theatrical shtick.
We eventually left Carlos to his own devices and explored the other parts of the monastery. A low-clearance opening led us to a couple of cavernous chambers collectively called cripta (crypt), its walls lined with multi-tiered tombs to the ceiling. The remains of famous artists, such as painter Juan Luna, and 141 POWs during the Japanese Invasion had been entombed here.
Emerging from the cold crypt, we climbed up the granite grand stairway, or escalera principal, to the second floor where more relics, artworks, furniture, statues, vestments, even old books were exhibited in various halls. I almost ignored a nondescript passageway to the choir loft of the church, which turned out to be the highlight of our visit. We viewed the church in its full splendor from this vantage point.
Since a wedding was underway, the church was gloriously illuminated revealing fine details that we could’ve only half-seen in semi-darkness had we visited at off-hours. The ceiling trompe l’oeil, a 3D painting predating Avatar by centuries, was an enchanting sight. It was a wonderful way to cap our visit to these three churches within a month or so.
Although I was not Catholic, I found myself drawn to these Spanish Era churches. For me, an old church was both a refuge for reflection and a receptacle of art and history. This verse in a Madonna song resonated with me:
I’m not religious
But I feel so moved
Makes me wanna pray…Madonna / Guy Sigsworth / Jem Griffiths