Monday, May 21, 2007


CARVING A NICHE IN HISTORY. The retablo mayor of the Santiago Apostol Church in Betis, is one of few surviving examples of rococo art, characterized by profuse rocaille ornamentations. While funeral rites were going on, it appears that the church interiors were being repainted, dating this photo bet. 1939-1949, during the tenure of Fr. Santiago Blanco.

Betis was already a prosperous settlement when it was accepted as a visita of Tondo in 2 May 1572, making it as one of Pampanga’s oldest towns. In 1591, together with Lubao, Betis had 4 convents and a population of 20,000 souls. Because of its accessibility, Betis was ministered by various priests from Guagua, Bacolor and Apalit. Mention Betis today and you would most likely get the following associations: a reputation for producing the most number of priests from a single place, a major woodcarving center of the Philippines (the other being Paete), and the home of the famed Betis Church, dedicated to Santiago Apostol, named as one of 26 treasured heritage churches of the country. The church and its interiors have survived revolutions, world wars and lootings, to remain a showcase of baroque art that was popular in Europe as early as the 16th century. The art style was noted for its sweeping energy, asymmetrical forms and use of elaborate, swirling patterns.

Fr. Fernando Pinto, a visiting priest from Lubao (on assignment from 1596-1604) is credited with constructing the first buildings of light materials. It is said that the church stands on grounds once abundant with quality lumber tree called "betis" (Bassia betis Merr.) Later, while still a parish priest of either Candaba or Mexico, Fr. Jose de la Cruz constructed a church of stronger materials with the help of the locals headed by Santiago David Tindo, between 1660 and 1670. The transept and façade were completed around 1738.

Rococo —a later baroque style that flourished in France, Germany and Central Europe-- also gained favor in Portugal and Spain, and soon, rococo motifs were being incorporated in Philippine churches in Tanay, Cebu and all over Luzon. Eventually, rococo found artistic expression in the retablo mayor of the Santiago Apostol Church, which, without a doubt, can be considered as one of the country’s finest.The uppermost storey is shaped like a lunette and is replete with folksy heavenly motifs—sun, stars, clouds and 6 musical instrument-wielding angels. The rest of the altar prominently features effusive rocaille (hence, rococo) carvings—twisting columns, irregular designs, shell, garland. leaf and foliage patterns. As expected, Augustinian saints in the nichos outnumber saints from different orders, 9 to 7.

The Augustinians, who left due to some ecclesiastical problems, turned over their posts to the secular clergy around 1773. In a 1790 church inventory, the retablo was described as having been newly installed, still unpainted and ungilded. We can surmise then that the construction of the retablo may have started with the Augustinian’s departure—making this altar the earliest example of rococo decorative style in the Philippines. If validated, this would also make the Betis retablo one of the rarest examples of religious art initiated by the secular clergy. In fact, a secular priest, Fr. Don Thomas Phelipe Gozum was responsible for the restoration of the church at the turn of the 19th century, regilding the retablo in 1812.

Subsequent repair and restoration works were ordered by Fr. Fernando Cuadrado (1855), Fr. Antonio Bravo (1857) and Fr. Manuel Camañes (1868-1898). The latter priest also built the cemetery and dug an artesian well at the plaza center, which still exists to this day. The retablo was last gilded during the Spanish times (1895) by Don Mariano Henson. Fr. Santiago Blanco (1939-1949) is credited with the interior re-painting of the church as we see it today. In 1980, on the eve of the town fiesta, the silver frontals and accoutrements for the altar were stolen. Despite these unfortunate desecrations, the Betis Church still stands today with most of its material heritage intact, a splendid monument to God’s glory and a tribute to man’s boundless artistic skills.
(11 January 2003)

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