Dauis / Panglao / Baclayon, Bohol, the Philippines
April 1 – 3, 2011
Bohol, already blessed with natural gifts – the Chocolate Hills and the tarsier, is embellished with some of the most visually dramatic Catholic churches in the country. I visited the province with my mother and sister, not on a spiritual journey – none of us is Catholic, but for a more sensuous reason – for our love of heritage and art.
The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption seemed out-of-place in this little town. With its tall horseshoe Byzantine arches at the facade, florid murals in the interior and stone towers on its grounds, it was solid evidence of foreign influence on our culture. How strange it must have been – this looming edifice of stone – to Boholanons of centuries past who lived in traditional houses of bamboo and grass.
The area around the church used to be fortified against Muslim raiders. The fortifications had since been dismantled by time and circumstance, save for a stone watch tower a few meters from the church, an enduring legacy of colonial power. The Boholanons were conflicted about this power that both conquered and protected them. These days, capitalism had replaced colonialism. The convent that housed Spanish friars was converted into a swanky souvenir shop and alfresco cafe.
Earlier that day, I had spotted the church from across Tagbilaran Bay. Its Gothic belfry, crowned by pointy projections, was unmistakable even from that distance. Dauis Church may not be considerably prodigious, but it had been an imposing presence in this little town, unrivaled for centuries.
The sun was high when we got to San Agustin Parish Church. On a Sunday, between masses, we found the church lifeless and empty, its doors and windows flung wide open, letting in the radiant afternoon sunshine. Its interior, a long and hollow vault, exuded a warm pastel glow. It was at a vantage point near the altar that I quickly snapped a photo of Mom, her head and silver hair outlined by a halo of white light from the open front door.
The church’s trompe l’oeil ceiling painting was a glorious celebration of colors, shapes, and heavenly images. I looked up transfixed by its striking depth and vibrant colors in the tradition of exquisite Catholic art. Even the confessionals were symmetrically carved with flowers and birds. Finally a confession in the Garden of Eden, they seemed to convey.
We were lucky to have the church to ourselves. On the other hand, I would’ve wanted to see how the parishioners regarded these sublime works of art. Could they have been seduced by these tantalizing visions of heaven above them?
But all church visits in Bohol led to the Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, the original headquarters of Spanish Jesuits in the province and one of the oldest churches in the country.
The church, made of cut coral stones cemented together by egg white from what must have been millions of eggs, a fact that Mom was fixated on, was massive. The Jesuits were guilty of forced labor on two counts – for the hens that hatched the eggs and for the men who cut the coral stones from seaside cliffs and constructed the church.
An eerie darkness enveloped the church despite throngs of tourists and local churchgoers. A claustrophobic chamber and the cavernous nave lent an oppressive air. In fact, the church once served as a dungeon for backsliding Boholanons.
The church was also a virtual prism; its stained glass windows refracted natural light into rainbow colors. Late afternoons in Baclayon Church cast these technicolor rays on pews and the prayerful. The effect beguiled Mom’s thoughts away from the egg whites in the masonry. In a moment of uncharacteristic initiative, she began conceptualizing art shots around these colorful lights.
Art and the Church – the combination is almost always surreal. Fra Lippo Lippi, a friar in Robert Browning’s poem that questions the authority of the Church over art, enthuses about God’s art – His creation:
The beauty and the wonder and the power,Robert Browning
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises, — and God made it all!
That may be true of the natural world, but in the Church, they are all man-made. I could imagine the colonial era friars rousing reverence from the people with such artful use of lights and shades. Catholicism may have colonized the Philippines more than Spain did.