Manila, the Philippines
May 18, 2014
My grandfather must have turned in his grave. He was the first Filipino Baptist minister in my hometown in the 1930s; fast forward to about 80 years later and his daughter – my mother – declared she wanted to do a visita iglesia in Manila. As a PK (pastor’s kid), Mom could count with one hand the times she had been inside a Catholic church. Perhaps because of this blog, she finally caught on to my fondness for religious art in these colonial-era churches.
A Sunday visit to San Agustin Church was both a boon and a bane. The carved molave doors were flung wide open, the nave and altar gloriously lit, and the whole church abuzz with people. The church was not merely a static historical tourist attraction as one might see it on any given weekday. More importantly, its famous ceiling trompe-l’oeil was illuminated by sparkling chandeliers. So far, so good.
It was precisely this beauty and history that made the church a popular venue for Sunday weddings. We chanced upon three ceremonies skewered in overlapping succession. Barely had a bridal procession reached the altar when the next wedding’s entourage filled the holding area and occupied monobloc chairs scattered by the front door. Headset-sporting wedding coordinators barked orders at sweaty sponsors dressed to the nines and at restless flower girls and ring bearers. Taking a spot on the back pew, Mom decided to gatecrash the weddings. We caught the first’s newlyweds’ exit to a shower of rice, the second’s bridal march, and the third’s entourage waiting in the wings. She ditched the church museum tour in favor of witnessing a cougar bride wed her young groom.
The raison d’etre of our visita was the Manila Cathedral. Mom had read about its reopening after months of restoration work in the papers, still her main source of information despite being a lola techie. First off, we checked out the replica of La Pieta, cut from the same Italian marble of the Michelangelo original. My sister later posted a photo of the original on Facebook for comparison, and I couldn’t tell them apart!
Our most memorable find, however, was in another chapel. An unusual depiction of the Virgin Mary – with a breast bared to suckle baby Jesus – was one we had not seen elsewhere. A more common sight was Jesus stripped down to a loincloth, but an exposed female breast, especially that of His mother, seemed too avant-garde for a church.
Our Lady of La Leche beautifully conveyed Mary’s humanity, unlike that of her depiction as the Mother of God. Although the image retained her gold crown as the Queen of Heaven, the act of breastfeeding averted attention to her actual (read: earthly) role in the life of Jesus – as a vessel for His physical birth and nurturing. Surprisingly, conservative Protestants, not Catholics, objected to the mammary exposure. I thought, of all people, Protestants, who did not venerate Mary as Catholics did, would celebrate such humanizing depiction of the Virgin. Apparently, an exposed lactating breast had exposed their malicious minds.
It seemed only these particular Protestants got the drift. And for that, my grandfather could very well rest in peace.