Victorias / Manapla, Negros Occidental, the Philippines
November 30, 2017
Lay theologian C.S. Lewis once pondered, “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?” In as many ways as history would allow, so it seemed. In two sugarcane plantations north of my hometown, there were a couple of chapels that represented two contrasting images of the Christ in their artworks.
My childhood trips to Victorias included visiting relatives with Mom and, at times, making a side trip to the world’s largest sugar mill, Victorias Milling Company. My memories, though, were even more faded than our photos of harvested sugarcane in rail freight, meadows between sugarcane fields, and the liturgical painting that put a little farm chapel on the map.
Three decades later, I felt it was finally time to revisit. My elderly uncle in Victorias had long passed away, but the unconventional religious painting was still up.
It took a few wrong turns to find St. Joseph the Worker Chapel deep within the vast milling compound. But it took just one head turn to find the mural of the Angry Christ – looming over the altar, filling the small chapel that could not contain it.
It drew me in, body and soul, with the centripetal force of a black hole. The metaphorical weight of the 60-meter mural gravitated toward the fiery red barbed heart of the Christ with face scowling, arms rigidly outstretched and held up by a larger pair of hands. I could not see behind the altar where he vanquished Satan the Serpent under his feet. On the other hand, the upper portion spilled out of the wall onto the ceiling and skylight.
The painting was as old as the chapel, both completed in 1950. And how random it was to find it in this sleepy plantation town.
This was not the meek and mild Lamb of God who lost his temper only once at temple merchants. This was the beastmode Judge of the World, quite a departure from the Christ’s traditional representation in liturgical art. Spanish sugar baron Don Miguel commissioned his artist-son, Alfonso Ossorio, to create a mural for his plantation chapel. Ossorio imbued this small town project with all the avant-garde sensibilities of New York where he had established himself as an Abstract Expressionist painter and student-supporter of Jackson Pollack.
Did the Don give the judgment theme the greenlight or was he shocked at the result? After all, an art critic had described Ossorio’s work as “weird demonic visions.” I had no way of knowing, but the provocative painting remained without evidence of censure.
A bit of online sleuthing revealed the context whereby Ossorio came to present the Christ’s angry face. An article dished about how the artist was struggling with his sexuality at that time. That he spent almost a year away from the freedom of New York to be in this rural town with his wealthy and, most likely, conservative family lent a clue to his state of mind while working on his masterpiece. But such was stuff for tabloids. Navel-gazing much? In truth, no one knew his motivations apart from the artist himself.
Over at the next town, Manapla, we drove deep into Hacienda Santa Rosalia of the Gaston family, originally from France. We made a stop at the family’s ancestral house, the Gaston Mansion. The white 1930s mansion occupied a place in pop culture when it figured prominently in Peque Gallaga’s 1982 cinematic opus Oro, Plata, Mata. The wrought iron gate was unlocked, though no one seemed to be home. We continued on the dirt road at the shadow of giant acacia trees.
We visited the hacienda, not for the plantation mansion, but for The Chapel of the Cartwheels. Fr. Guillermo “Gigi” Gaston, priest and resident-owner, designed the salakot-shaped chapel in the 1960s with farming implements, notably cartwheels, which gave it its name, on the walls and in place of a cross. Mortar and pestle were repurposed into a stoup and candelabras, broken colored glass into rose windows, a salvaged mortar shell into a bell. Chapel decors were made from volcanic sand, bench pews from hardwood prepared by farmers’ families, and the altar from an ancient boulder. It was the good father’s way of reaching the hacienda‘s farmhands.
The Christ hanging over the altar was not on a cross. His hands and feet were nailed to a cartwheel. No reason was given for the creative license. Not that any was needed. It called to mind the torture device in the Middle Ages called breaking wheel used in executing capital punishment. Death did not come swiftly; it was a protracted process of breaking the bones and reserved for those who committed the most heinous of crimes. To die by the wheel was considered a great dishonor.
The breaking wheel was the cross’ counterpart for the punishment of and dominion over slaves in many cultures. The suffering of the Christ for the greater good was best exemplified by an image closer to home. It was a Christ, especially one that looked Southeast Asian, that accepted his fate with faith. He was a Christ that plantation workers could identify with.
Meanwhile, the Angry Christ had foreign features: an abundance of facial hair, a stocky build, and the bluest eyes! He commanded complete obedience and instilled compelling fear. He was a strict and controlling Christ that allowed no defiance, perhaps all too similar to plantation owners of European descent.
Somehow, these two faces of the Christ represented in this cultural and agricultural context made sense. One was a Master to be obeyed, the other a Servant to be emulated. Religion, indeed, had been used as a tool for subjugation from colonial times and beyond. A quote in the Chapel of the Cartwheels went, “Where art is religious and religion is artistic.” Simplistic, perhaps even misguided, it may be, this was my take on the religious art in Victorias and Manapla.
As we drove away from the hacienda, we found a cure for overthinking. We stopped by the highway to buy the famous Manapla puto to get our vacay vibes back. The town’s delicacy was a round rice cake steamed on a banana leaf. It could be rather bland to the uninitiated – indeed, the puto was made to be smothered in butter or dipped into hot cocoa or dinuguan (blood stew) – but it was comfort food for a Negrense, master or servant.