Manila, the Philippines

September 26, 2010

“It’s not flat!” Karry, my Japanese friend, exclaimed as she was looking up at the ceiling of San Agustin Church in Manila. That one sentence proved that the church’s ceiling mural had fooled yet another gazer. And that was exactly what a trompe l’oeil painting intended to do. French for “deception of the eye,” the visual art technique rendered images on a flat surface to be realistically three-dimensional, and it had been used for centuries. Kids, 3D was not invented by James Cameron.

LIght and Shadow, Reality and Illusion @ San Agustin Church, Manila
Light and Shadow, Reality and Illusion @ San Agustin Church, Manila

The use of optical illusions in painting gained prominence during the Renaissance when Italian churches displayed frescoes depicting fantastic scenes of floating saints and angels, Jesus and Mary in the infinite sky – awe-inspiring visual representations of Catholic doctrines. The idea was to literally open up the church to heaven, bridging the chasm between the mundane and the sublime. The physically enclosing ceiling became a window to the great beyond. The ceiling mural in San Agustin Church, though, was one of architectural illusionism, not an elaborate 3D biblical or doctrinal vignette.

Architectural Illusionism in Trompe L’oeil: San Agustin Church

Architectural illusionism tricked the viewer into seeing imaginary details. These artful artworks were created by scenographers, eventually commissioned by the Church to embellish churches with more elaborate designs than what had actually been built, sometimes conjuring up a non-existent dome. The result was a win-win situation: The viewer was awed either by its architecture (if they didn’t notice it was a painting) or its artistry (if they did find out). The effect held true even in the age of CGI. After I revealed this Renaissance ruse, Karry was still carried away: her jaw remained on the floor, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. The magnificence of trompe l’oeil art transcended, not just space, but also time.

Chiaroscuro: Light and Shade

The ceiling of San Agustin Church resembled a marble vault, embossed with statues and emblems, running the length of the nave to the transept and altar. The surface appeared uneven, thanks to chiaroscuro – the ingenious use of light and shadow to provide a realistic contrast. The positions of both natural and artificial light sources had been accurately anticipated; the way the human figures and geometric patterns painted on the ceiling cast their “shadow” convincingly corresponded to spatial reality. Only the painting’s flaked-off patches gave away the trick, most evident on the choir loft where one could observe the ceiling more closely.

Karry in San Agustin Church

I was not privy to the reasons the 19th-century Agustinian friars decided to use trompe l’oeil, the first among the few in the country. All I knew was that they imported Italian scenographers, Cesare Alberoni and Giovanni Dibella, to create this marvelous mural. Who would really see it when most people bowed in prayer at churches? Though not many people bothered to look up at the ceiling, it rewarded with awe-inspiring images to those who did. To me, this art technique also represented the theatrical and illusory aspects of religion in general, not just Catholicism. Like Karry, I would still gaze at it in awe, even after its artifice had been revealed.

San Agustin Church