When our house in Mabalacat was renovated in the 1970s, the home altar was relocated to my bedroom. I recall a half a dozen or so statuaries enshrined in that altar, which was actually a niche atop my Mother’s antique cabinet. There was a Sacred Heart image of Christ with a broken head that has been badly re-glued, a Saint Therese of Lisieux with peeling paint, Our Lady of Lourdes and a wall plaque of Our Lady of Fatima. The centerpiece however was the 2 ft.-high plaster-cast image of Virgen de los Remedios that stared at me with unblinking glass eyes complete with eyelashes. That often gave me the creeps and so I used to cover my head with my blanket to avoid her gaze which seemed to follow me everywhere I went. Nevertheless, this early exposure to religious images must have spurred my later interest in collecting “santos”---carved religious images of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, saints and angels, of wood or ivory, from our distant colonial past.
The first Spanish missionaries who reached our islands brought with them religious statues that eventually became valuable instruments of evangelization. One such image is the Santo Niño of Cebu, the oldest santo in the country, given by Magellan in 1521 to Hara Amihan, wife of Rajah Humabon, who was converted upon seeing the wooden likeness of the Christ Child.
Soon, anitos were being replaced as objects of devotion, in favor of these more powerful santos that could be invoked for special favors or protection. San Ysidro Labrador, for instance, was the patron of laborers and farmers and his help was solicited for good harvest. San Antonio de Padua was called upon to help recover lost objects while Sta. Rita took care of desperate women with serious marital problems. But santos have their human side too, and when they failed to answer people’s prayers, they were often “punished” by their unhappy devotees by being locked inside aparadors (cabinets) or dusty kamaligs (barns).
Taking visual cues from estampitas (holy cards) and religious prints, thousands of local and Chinese carvers tried their hand in crafting santos of all shapes, sizes and medium. As proposed by Fernando Zobel de Ayala in his seminal book on santos, “Philippine Religious Imagery”, the handful of santos that have come down to us can be classified by style: Popular (products of self-taught hands, characterized by naïve or even primitive elements), Classical (santos that conformed closely to mainstream religious art and iconography) and Ornate (profusely decorated santos, often referring to ivories).
Santos were carved mostly in the round or de bulto. Others were of the mannequin types, with joints that can be posed (de gozne). Those that were made to be dressed often had nothing but a conical framework of pegs from the waist down, which was then covered with fabrics. Upon carving, the santo was primed with gesso or plaster of Paris mixture, then is painted in a process called encarnacion. There is another finishing technique called estofado, in which a layer of gold was applied on the body and then painted over. After which, intricate designs were incised, showing off the gold. This simulated the textures of rich embroidery on the clothes.
Santos were then outfitted with human hair wigs (cabelleras). It is said that the wigs of smaller ivory santos encased in glass virinas were made from the hair shorn from young novices. Abaca, jusi or piña hair also made suitable replacements. The eyes of santos were fashioned from glass (nowadays, these are made from broken fluorescent lamps or plastic bottles), made more realistic with eyelashes (made from human or dog hair). Plateros then fitted the santos with metal emblems and pieces of jewelry of tin, brass, or precious silver and gold--- from diademas (diadems), coronas (crowns), rostrillos (facial aureoles), potencias (head rays) to gargantillas (earrings) and bastones (staff or rod). The garments of ornate santos were created from fine fabrics like satin, damask or velvet stiffened with abaca lining. The robes were then elaborately and painstakingly embroidered with gold and silver metallic thread, further enhanced with sequins, gold spangles and tassels. Macabebe and San Luis ace embroiderers are known province-wide for their exquisite work in dressing up santos especially for processions.
Paete in Laguna and Quiapo, Manila were the acknowledged woodcarving centers of the country. The Sto. Entierro in the Mabalacat Parish is attributed to Aurelio Buhay of Paete town. Along Hidalgo Street in Quiapo, Maximo Vicente and Graciano Nepomuceno opened their talyeres, specializing in santos. But Pampanga santeros were no less masterful. The predominance of hardwoods and other trees suitable for carving---like narra, molave, batikuling, and even santol--- spurred our province’s artisans to further the cause of religious art. Betis was, and still is, Pampanga’s woodcarving capital. From Betis emerged several generations of master carvers, among them, the Flores family who still practice their craft alongside the furniture industry, for practical reasons. It is interesting to note that the Don Gregorio Araneta santo collection includes several outstanding santos of Pampango provenance, among them a complete Calvario scene from Bacolor, and some Stations of the Cross “relieves” (relief carving) from Betis. Mr. Araneta had a Kapampangan helper who scoured Pampanga’s decrepit churches and crumbling altars, salvaging santos in the process.
Sasmuan’s Sta. Lucia, Minalin’s Nuestra Señora de la Correa, Angeles City’s Nuestra Señora del Rosario, Masantol’s San Miguel, Baliti’s Virgen de los Remedios and Apalit’s San Pedro Apostol (Apu Iro) are perhaps the more familiar santos in Pampanga churches today. Apu Iro was in the news recently when the century-old ivory icon was nearly engulfed by a flame that razed the building in which it was kept. Just as revered though are the thousands of santos whittled from backyard trees and meant for home devotions, which today are being prized by collectors and cultural activists alike, not just for their religious significance but also for their artistic and cultural value. After hundreds of years, in all their scarred and disfigured beauty, santos are the fullest expressions of a people’s religious conviction, treasured legacies from the days when our faith was more unwavering, more profound.
( 17 August 2002)