Filipino Gothic

Manila, the Philippines

January 29, 2011

Gothic, Illuminati, noir-ish. No, these were not plot elements of the latest installment in the Da Vinci Code franchise.

One gloomy January day, I attended an Illuminati event at the only Neo-Gothic church in Manila, the Basilica Minore de San Sebastian. From the elevated train, the sight of the church’s twin spires piercing the sunless sky evoked an ominous Gothic atmosphere. Despite the whimsical aquamarine exterior, darkness enveloped my tentative steps as the basilica’s main portal creaked open akin to a film noir opening sequence.

San Sebastian Church

Lighted electric candle chandeliers and gleaming rose windows reluctantly illuminated the church’s Gothic features. What looked like a row of gigantic clamshells hovered overhead. The skeletal high-vaulted ceiling, looming pointed arches, towering steel columns, and the luminous golden retable at the far end all conjured up a medieval mise-en-scene.

Leon (my friend) at the Door: San Sebastian Church
Gothika: Nave and Alter of San Sebastian Church
Faded Trompe L’oeil Painting: San Sebastian Church

Initially, the walls and columns looked stark. As if by turns, decorative embellishments revealed themselves in the dim lights. Faded sculptural paintings hid behind a rusty haze; their subjects became apparitions lurking in the shadows. Supposedly trompe l’oeil, the tableaux’s depth of perspective had been evened out by time. Out of the blue, an otherworldly capsular object appeared to have descended down a pillar. It was a pulpit decked in elaborate design by artist Lorenzo Guerrero. Shadowy figures had tricked my eyes to waver from vision to imagination.

Clamshell Ceiling @ San Sebastian Church

Only the tiled floor I walked on was clearly real. Ann, a friend from Connecticut steeped in quilting tradition, later identified the aisle design as the Ohio Star, popular in the 19th century Gothic Revival. I wondered which came first – the floor tile or the quilt block. Perhaps both were inspired by an ancient mystical symbol.

Floor Patterns @ San Sebastian Church

The historic construction of the church was an alluring aspect of its lore. Wooden and stone incarnations of the church stood on this site; but fires and earthquakes had destroyed them since the 17th century. In 1881, Genero Palacios, a Spanish architect in the Philippines, advocated the use of an indestructible material to rebuild the church. After the Industrial Revolution, steel made the deal. The steel structure was prefabricated in Belgium which was then taken apart into eight sections and shipped separately to the Philippines. The pieces were reassembled in Manila like a steel Lego. The church was finally inaugurated in 1891, one of the few prefabricated all-steel churches in the world. A contested claim that Gustave Eiffel (of the eponymous Parisian tower fame) had a hand in the steel design further cemented the church’s legend.

Nuts and Bolts of San Sebastian Church
San Sebastian Church Rusting Away

Steel, it turned out, was not as foolproof as Palacios had hoped. It may have worked out fine in Europe, but not quite in a humid tropical island drenched in almost thrice the amount of annual rainfall. Rainwater and humidity proved to be persistently corrosive forces.

Architectural conservator Tina Paterno explained that water had been seeping into the steel structure. With a laser pointer, she highlighted several holes on the walls and columns. The 120-year-old basilica was rusting away despite previous restoration efforts. Water had gnawed its steely skeleton.

Church Conservator Tina Paterno @ San Sebastian Church
Joel Aldor, Co-Founder of Illuminati Tours

Along with several government agencies and private organizations that had campaigned to save San Sebastian Church, the public was enjoined in this undertaking. This was the advocacy of Illuminati – not the heretical secret society. Illuminati Travel and Tours, co-founded by aspiring church historian Joel Aldor, focused on heritage tours that would train the spotlight on the country’s rich cultural heritage and imbue Filipinos with a sense of history in the hopes that they would take an active role in the preservation of their historical heritage. San Sebastian Church, the steely damsel in distress, was an auspicious venue to launch the company.

People went to church to seek salvation. It was time to return the favor. This church, as with other colonial churches in the country, sought people for its salvation. People’s love for heritage could save many of our dwindling historical treasures.

Scaling the Steeple of San Sebastian Church

The church tour ended in a climactic climb up one of the twin steeples. The voluminous clouds seemed within reach, threatening to burst into a downpour, creating an atmospheric sense to this dramatic tour.

The up-close-and-personal view of the bell and the spire of the opposite steeple was the highlight. I imagined that San Sebastian Church was ringing and reaching up to heaven in a desperate prayer for salvation. The view from this vantage point had seen the changes in Manila’s skyline. May it remain stable and solid through the centuries and continue to bear witness to the changing times.

Bell and Billowing Clouds: View from San Sebastian Church Steeple
Feels Like Flying: At the Steeple of San Sebastian Church

44 thoughts on “Filipino Gothic

Add yours

  1. Thanks for the lovely pictures! I read about this steel prefab church (and the supposed Eiffel connection) but not seen interior shots like this. How sad that it is slowly rusting but I hope for once that the those who love heritage, history, and beauty can come to its assistance. My own trip to the Philippines has fallen through and won’t happen for a year now but if I have time I’m adding this to my itinerary.

    1. That’s too bad, TAO. Still hoping you’d make it to our shores. And yes, San Sebastian Church is a must-see. Do tell me when you’re here. You’re a must-see, as well – if only to prove that you’re a real person, not a virtual one. 😀

  2. It’s wonderful that there is so many things that are of historical and architectural importance in Philippines. The spires reminded me of our own Or Lady of Good Health Shrine in Vailankanni in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu. I haven’t see the shrine in Vailankanni so cannot comment much on the architecture and the interiors. But the spiree did have a similarity. Maybe you can check out the images on Google.
    But what is Goth about this? I was wondering on that.
    I liked the “return the favour” part. I guess we all should share collective reponsibility on returning the favour.

    Joy always,

    1. Our Lady of Good Health Shrine is gorgeously Gothic! It even looks grander than San Sebastian. Such a shame, Sus, that you haven’t visited it yet. Go for it! 🙂

      Gothic is actually a very broad term. It could refer to the ancient European tribe generally regarded as barbaric. It also refers to an art movement before the Renaissance. Gothic architecture, being subsumed under art, also developed around the same time and is characterized by elements of this church: grand structures of great height, spires, pointed arches, and such. And there’s also Gothic literature, characterized by dark and macabre elements. I awkwardly based the style of this post on this kind of writing. But I think it’s an epic failure. Haha!

      Whew! That was a mouthful, Sus. Can’t help being wordy!

      1. English Teachers . . . so you (and I) can be quite wordy . . . often to the point of irritation. We love to hear us spout words, don’t we? 🙂

    1. I believe I can fly ang drama ko sa last pic. But in reality, I was getting acrophobic. Hitchcock’s Vertigo dapat pala. Hehe

  3. This is so beautiful! While reading this one, I felt as if you narrated the story in the church; music floated out upon the air and the church bell was ringing behind it. Love the third pic “Gothika”!
    I’d climb up one of the twin steeples next time I visit there. 😉

    1. Wow, it’s a first, Karry! Did you really read through the entire thing?! Hmmm maybe I should quiz you to find out. Haha!

      Sorry I’m not techie enough to put audio in my site. Good thing you have the imagination to hear music and bells while reading the post!

    1. Much appreciated, Alfandi and Jim. Yeah, that photo captured a moment of exhilaration. I was actually dancing like the Rockettes in the bell tower. 🙂

  4. 8 sections AJ? You gotta be kidding me! I’m sure you are. Just like you were kidding me over eating grass platters!
    I can understand what you say about the tropical humidity and rainfall slowly corroding it away. Sad, but hopefully they can replace sections where needed. It would be a shame to see such a unique construction lost. Very beautiful.

    1. I kid you not, Jim! How else could they have transported 52 tons of steel sections? (Thanks to Wiki for the figure!)

      As for the thatched platters, they flossed my teeth clean. Teehee!

      Erratum: That should be 1,500 tons of steel, according to architectural conservator Tina Paterno. Wikipedia is way off mark! Arrgh!

  5. This looks so beautiful. I have never been to a church (yes, never) but have always found them to be attractive. The floor picture is the one that caught my eyes this time and I have scrolled up and checked it out five time until now, while I am writing this. What designs!

    1. It’s a simple yet elegant pattern. I just find it intriguing that it’s also a quilt block design. There must be an interesting story behind it.

  6. Fascinating! I guess stone would have been a better option than steel, but at least I hope they find a way to stop it from completely rusting away. Great photos of an impressive building!

    1. The downside of stone is that it’s easily demolished by earthquakes, which we get a lot for being in the Ring of Fire.

      Btw, this church’s design was inspired by Burgos Cathedral. Have you been there?

    1. The shoes look Gothic too! 🙂 Scoot over here, Doug. You’ll find a lot of fodder for your cheese blog here! Swear.

    1. Of course I remember you! I never forget a co-host!!! 😀

      Nice to “see” ya here, Nicole. How did you find my little corner in the blogosphere?

      Mwah back!

  7. Nice post AJ, the academician in you will always float in whatever writing style you take. Truly, I like how you narrate things in the readers’ shoes. An extra ordinary account on the plight of San Sebastian Church deserves extra ordinary response especially from the devout Catholics.

  8. i like that you say people go to church to seek salvation- return the favor, as the church seeks people for its salvation!
    a couple of comments on the post: it isn’t the only prefabricated all-steel church in the world, there are a few others, too. Peru, Chile, Turkey, to name some countries. Next, they shipped over 1500 tons of steel, not 52! The Ohio star floor pattern is of Machuca tile, a replacement floor. The original was a hardwood (Tindalo) in herringbone pattern.
    Lastly, on your sentence: “With a laser pointer, she highlighted several holes on the walls and columns that had compromised their structural integrity.”
    I did highlight several holes, but I didn’t say anything about structural integrity – the holes are on cladding. We suspect the structural parts are compromised in strength by rust, but this has to be verified during our survey.

    thanks, and cheers,


    1. Hi Tina! I truly appreciate the feedback and corrections.

      Although I did say “it MAY be the only prefab all-steel church,” now I know for a fact that it is not. I also took out the phrase about the holes compromising the structural integrity.

      I intentionally didn’t include the tonnage in my post because I found conflicting figures. Thank you for the info though.

      Interesting bit about the floor pattern. Although I love the Ohio Star, I’d prefer the restoration of the original herringbone pattern, even if it’s not hardwood.

      Again, thanks Tina. More power!

  9. I am so fascinated with churches especially their gothic and medieval architectural concept of design AJ. This is the Church that I’ve missed to visit when I was in Manila last time. Love reading your articles. I feel like in the tour also. :-).

    1. It’s one more reason to come back here, Bonzenti. Put this at the top of your list because it’s unique in the country as the only Gothic church. Thanks for touring vicariously with me!

  10. I was here as well with Pinay Travel Junkie, too bad we both didn’t know ur AJ from PTB back then haha…kaya di ka ata namen nakausap.

    1. Actually, I recognized you and Gay, but I was too shy to introduce myself to blogstars like you both! (Yep, shy talaga ako.) Itong si Joel, di naman tayo na-introduce. It’s his fault. Hehe.

      But you took a pic of me when I won the raffle. Asan na yun?

  11. My bestfriend’s bother is also involved in Illuminati Tours. He sent me a text message before regarding this event. His name is Andrew Rollon. Maybe you met him in the event. What a coincidence!

    1. Small world! Yes I met AJ Rollon there! He was my friend’s business partner (too bad they’ve since gone their separate ways). You should’ve attended. It was an enriching tour. And it would’ve been a nice place for us to meet again after so many years! 🙂

  12. oo nga eh we should have met there. Their business is no longer operational? Thank you. I love your blogs!

    1. Aw you warm my heart! 🙂 The business still exists, but AJ is not connected with it anymore. I met him again at Kylie’s concert. Nice fellow.

    1. Hongtoroy…St. Peter’s talaga. You already! Hey Rye, thanks for gracing my blog with your fabulousness for the first time. Touched for the very first time indeed. 🙂

  13. I was wondering how you managed to take pictures inside the church. I wasn’t allowed to when I visited, but then I went there sans a tour group.

    1. I guess I was lucky to be part of the tour. The climb to the steeple was rather precarious so I’d understand if they didn’t always allow it.

      Thanks Baki for lurking around my site! 🙂

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