Spatial Transcendence

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 (click here for the pronunciation) 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. Think Sistine Chapel. 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 non-existent material 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 creating the appearance of a dome that did not exist. 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 decorate their church with a trompe l’oeil mural, 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
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22 thoughts on “Spatial Transcendence

  1. While reading this post, I clearly recalled the scene of San Agustin Church and the amazing painting on the ceiling. I still can’t believe the ceiling is flat, though. 🙂
    Pictures are also great as well. I love the pics of the ceilings reflecting both natural and electric lights: it’s tender but bright like you.
    And this post made my heart warm more than anything, especially in this tough situation after the biggest earthquake in Japan.
    Thanks, AJ!!

    1. Finally a post you like (because you’re in it, haha)! Glad you appreciated the mural. I took you to San Agustin for that.

      As for the photos, I know I didn’t do it justice at all. It may be because of the limited range of my point-and-shoot or perhaps my limited skills (I think it’s more of the latter; can’t put all the blame on my dear cam).

  2. I’m so impressed with you as always, AJ! Imagine just the intricate details on the ceiling of San Agustin already pulled out a topic to share with us… That’s unique intelligence in you my friend. I salute you for that. And, Karry is one lucky woman to be featured here… Thanks as always… XO

    1. I was just wowed by it, J, so I chose to discuss only that part of the church. Trompe l’oeil piqued my interest, initially because I didn’t know how to say the darn word. 😀 XO back!

  3. Speechless yet again. This was completely mind blowing. Architecture of ancient buildings (religious and others) never cease to marvel me. I wonder about the grand power of envisioning these structures in the minds of those who designed them. If I was there, it would have been a great task to get me out of those wonders. I would also have been like Karry, glued!

    Joy always,
    Susan

    1. I’m with ya in architectural appreciation, Sus. This makes me a boring travel buddy though. I take time in inspecting design features with a fine-tooth comb!

  4. I agree with @jo1803, very intricate the way you describe the murals of the church, ilang nose bleed pa ang dadaan bago ako magawa ng post to describe churches a detailed as your description. galing AJ!

  5. …wow, San Agustine Church….i’ve read and heard so many good facts ’bout that place but never got a single chance to see it in its real and actual form… maybe i’m too lazy to explore our country’s hidden wonders…haha… it’s been a while since last time i came here… i actually got busy with so many things like finishing some requirements at college before i graduate this April… [o my, so excited..hehe…]… i had fun with your photos and words and hoping to see myself in that same place in the future… thanks…^^

    Take care.

    ~Kelvin

    1. You still have a lifetime ahead of you to explore our beautiful country, Kelvin. So many places here that might inspire you to write more poetry! Anyway, congratulations on your graduation. Welcome to the world of…unemployment! Hahaha joke!

    1. Nice to find a kindred spirit in you, ChinChan! The photos are secondary; what’s important is that you’ve written about the place. I’ll be checking out your posts soon.

    1. Whoa!!! I’ve never been nominated for anything in my life! This is way cool! (You can see how tickled pink I am by the number of exclamation points…hehe.) Thanks Rob for voting for this little mom-and-pop blog at a little cyber-corner dwarfed by the big business of blogging in the blogosphere. 🙂

      Now the more important question: Who will I wear at the awards ceremony?!

  6. who painted those murals or at least somebody from our time retouched it? i presume even retouching job should be done by great painter.

    1. As stated in the article, a pair of Italian scenographers painted the ceiling mural in the late 19th century. Have they been retouched in recent times? I don’t know, but closer inspection reveals flaked-off patches, not indicative of any recent restorative work.

      The collapsed churches in Bohol also contained mesmerizing murals. More than the stone facades that can still be rebuilt by anastylosis, my heart goes out to those paintings that are gone forever. 😦

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