Reflections in Church

San Juan / Manila, the Philippines

May 2 – 3 and June 19, 2010

Stone and stained glass. Art and architecture. History and hoariness. These are the things I love about Catholic churches.

Reflection in Church

Church of San Juan del Monte aka Santuario del Santo Cristo

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.

Fortified Facade: Flying Buttresses of the Church of San Juan Del Monte
Cotton Candy @ the Church of San Juan Del Monte

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, had 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.

Casting Colors: Church of San Juan del Monte
Manila Cathedral: Basilica of the Immaculate Conception

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.

Rose Window Reflection: Manila Cathedral
Manila Cathedral Lights

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.

Sin’s Serviam
Jesus in La Pieta at Manila Cathedral

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.

San Agustin Church

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.

Ki and the Cloistered Art of San Agustin Church

As a wedding ceremony was about to begin, we decided to explore the two-storey 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.

Carlos Celdran in Action @ San Agustin Church

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 celing. The remains of famous artists, such as painter Juan Luna, and 141 POWs during the Japanese Invasion had been entombed here.

Cripta aka De Profundis in San Agustin Church
Drama on the Escalera Principal at San Agustin Church (Photography by Ki)

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.

Wedding at San Agustin Church
Pipe Organ and Trompe L’oeil Painting in San Agustin Church
Dome @ San Agustin Church

Although I’m not Catholic, I find myself drawn to these Spanish Era churches. For me, an old church is both a refuge for reflection and a receptacle of art and history of the place where it stands. As a Madonna song goes,

I’m not religious

But I feel so moved

Makes me wanna pray…

Wedding Photo Shoot at San Agustin Church (Photography by Ki)

22 thoughts on “Reflections in Church

Add yours

    1. If you find yourself in the Philippines, you should! And if you could only go to one, I suggest the last one, San Agustin Church, for reasons I stated in the blog.

  1. No sense of architecture, no sense of history, no sense of art… still I’d love to visit these splendid churches. As this post(photos) gives a detailed explanation, I guess I don’t need any other references. This is the best for me. Thanks!! 🙂

    1. The Manila Cathedral and San Agustin Church are quite near your hotel. You don’t need a crash course in history or architecture to appreciate these churches. You’d just naturally develop that sense when you visit them. Oh, and believe me, this post is far from detailed. 🙂

  2. Hearsay that the San Agustin Church was a cemetery! The surface where you step inside the church, there are people buried underneath! Stained glass is always a fixture in any predominant churches probably to lessen the light and enhance the beauty setting. I notice that if a country is very catholic, progress is derailed due to the involvement of the church. Great pic especially that rows of pew where the colors reflect! What camera are you using?

    1. There’s a huge crypt within the monastery. Is that what you mean? It don’t think it’s under the church though, more like beside it. More than a hundred POWs killed during the Japanese Invasion are buried there.

      Yes, stained glass is the bomb in church architecture. There’s something sublime and poetic about how it casts light onto the church.

      I use Panasonic Lumix, but it’s an old point-and-shoot model. To be honest, I don’t even use all the features. I’m not techno-savvy at all. My photos are all snapshots.

  3. Hay !!! Every other time I feel tempted to say -YOUR BEST work ever…;))) It’s good I’ve not said it cause there are loads of things I do love in your ‘reflections’…
    Thanks for giving me what I wanted..;))) I feel mesmerised by all those need to say that the blog’s been staying open and probably this is the 5th time I am going through it (hehehe..)
    I’ve never been in a Catholic church but thinking of what such kind of place gives you, yeah, you were right- ‘Stone and stained glass. Art and architecture. History and hoariness.’ plus the way you can feel like nowhere else…I do hope there are more people who have the eyes and heart to see and feel those things…Luckily, we are one of the chosen…..:Pp
    Hope that one day if I ‘jet over’ to your place, I’ll be able to visit at least some of those beauties…(daydreaming…again)

    1. Tons of thanks, Teacher Reny! Glad you liked it. But a warning: I still have a few more church entries up my sleeve. 🙂 I hope they won’t eventually bore you. :p

      I’m surprised you’ve never been to a Catholic church. I thought Bulgaria was a Catholic country! But you don’t even have to come here for the cathedrals. You have the original ones there in Europe! Wouldn’t it be ironic for a European to go to Asia to see Catholic churches? :))

  4. No AJ. Bulgarians are Christians, well, most of us. And the closest I got to a cathedral was the Black Cathedral in Brashov, Romania…unfortunately closed at the time we were there cause of baptism….too bad for me… though it was imposing from the outside.Maybe with a bit of luck next time….who knows…
    Btw, there was a Catholic church in the city I studied my high education but at that time we were forbidden to enter it…the crazy communist system you know…
    And no, you will not make me bored with those church blogs…no way !!!! I am looking forward to them..;)))

    1. By Christian, do you mean Orthodox or Protestant? Not that it matters. Just curious. 🙂 Btw, thanks for sharing your friend’s Flickr link. Now I know what a “real” baroque cathedral looks like! Ours are really just copies that pale in comparison. What I’d give to actually visit Italy!

  5. Orthodox….(hehehehe…we are humble)
    welcome for the link(there are some more from Italy, if you are interested…;))) ) those places are beyond imaginatin and are worth visiting indeed…one day we’ll be there….get packed,AJ….;)))

  6. Mesmerising!

    I’ve been to a church just once, for attending a colleague’s wedding. It wasn’t as grand as this one, but was beautiful. There is something interesting in anything that is old…..historic. Something, that draws you towards them and you’re left spell bound. The company of these places make you want to know more and more about them.

    1. You could not be more right, Nehha. Old buildings are like old souls; their wisdom and history hang in the air so heavily that even sounds seem muffled within them. They’re like oases of silence and peace in the maelstrom of modern life. 🙂

  7. AJ – Thank you for the tour. I love the achitecture and the history. All of our souls are spawned from our history and you capture it so well. Thank you and be well – Ron

  8. nako friend, with facebook, it’s becoming more difficult to maintain the blog ha ha ha. but i made a promise to myself that i will visit my linked sites and leave comments every single day (if they have a new post of course). maybe we should start that movement?!?

    this post is lovely! reminds me to sort my south cebu church pics (i’ve always been fascinated with that subject) and post it online. i love the “drama” pics, perfect lighting.

    i should say that a friend of mine is getting more adept at using photoshop. hmmm?

    1. Facebook is like a “kabit” – demanding sa oras! Hahaha. That’s a noble endeavor – posting comments every day. But given the number of blogs in my blogroll, baka every week na lang ako. 🙂

      Anyway, thanks a bunch for the photo comment. Credit goes to Picasa for the “effects” in my snapshots. 🙂

  9. You take lovely photographs. The first picture of the reflection is quite a shot. Every building that is associated with religion and rituals look quite solemn and magnificient when there are no people or no activities going on. One can spend ages sitting, walking, observing and feeling the coolness of the place. Th tall ceilings, the stained glass, the wood work, et. al. leave one speechless and moved.

    I am getting addicted to reading all the posts here. Shall not devour more than two (by principle) a day.

    Joy always,

    1. Thanks for the thumbs-up, Sus! No need to devour everything at once. I’ll be posting some of these entries in my Asian series in the Blogplicity page. I’ve done Vietnam and Cambodia, next stop – Thailand!

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