Miag-ao, Iloilo, the Philippines
April 19, 2011
Miag-ao Church, built in the late 18th century in the province of Iloilo, was a magnificent marriage of colonial and folk art. It was the only UNESCO World Heritage Site church in the country that I had not yet visited. But more than checking it off my heritage site list, the church’s flamboyantly-designed facade, its singular claim to fame in a country dotted with baroque churches, was for the books and that alone called for a go-see.
On a trip to visit relatives with my family, we had to take a detour to the town of Miag-ao, south of Iloilo City. The church was more massive than I had imagined. To take an establishing shot, I kept going backwards until I was at the front gate trying to fit the entirety of the church – width and height – in my camera’s LCD screen. Moreover, the church was set against the afternoon sun. Direct sunlight and the facade’s soft ocher color rendered the LCD image invisible. I just pressed the shutter button blindly, hoping for the best.
Two stubby towers that flanked the church evoked the contour of a medieval castle with their broadly inclined buttresses and high-pitched top. The church apparently doubled as a fortress against Muslim raiders from the south. It was a bastion of Catholicism in the island. Yet, the soft tones of the ocher sandstone facade and hedges of blossoming yellow bells surrounding the towers lent a dash of delicacy to this forbidding church-cum-fortress.
Miag-ao Church was officially called the Church of Santo Tomas de Villanueva, named after a 16th-century Spanish priest known for compelling oratory that could “move even the stones.” Sandstone, culled from a nearby river and moved in his honor, was transformed into a canvas upon which local artisans carved clergy-sanctioned religious motifs and infused them with folk sensibilities. The resulting religious art was akin to the rustic style of Amorsolo paintings, an uncommon local flavor in Catholic art that mostly featured Spanish-looking statues and biblical tableaux.
I met San Cristobal (St. Christopher, the giant saint bearing the Christ Child on his back) for a second time here in Miag-ao. I was first introduced to him at a crumbling fresco in Paete Church in Laguna. Similarly, the saint of Semitic descent had been depicted here as a local farmer amidst tropical fruit-bearing trees. The magnificent coconut tree that dominated the facade’s topmost pediment transported both the legend of San Cristobal and Spanish church architecture to the Filipino milieu.
With such densely-decorated facade, the interior of the church seemed stark in contrast. There was none of the florid carvings in the nave, except on the wooden doors, which, however, looked new. It was rather anti-climactic. But then, this was a church, not Enchanted Kingdom. It was not made to elicit oohs and ahhs from tourists, but as a place of worship for the people of Miag-ao. Rather than wallowing in disappointment, I felt privileged to have visited this unique icon of our indigenous and colonial heritage.
Special thanks to my cousins for going the extra mile (more than a mile, literally!) in touring us: Julius for driving for us and Jennifer, who was just a baby the last time I saw her, for taking the afternoon off to show us this church. Kudos, cousins!
As a side note, I bumped into all twelve disciples of Christ, breaking bread in a restaurant (apparently not the Last Supper because Jesus and Mary Magdalene were not present). They were unmistakably anachronistic in their white tunics. Lest people miss them, they had their names over their sashes.
It all seemed that Miag-ao transported and transfigured biblical and Catholic personages into the town, where saints and disciples were among the townspeople.