Thursday, October 4, 2012


SOME KIND OF WAWA-NDERFUL. The altar and retablo mayor of Guagua Church, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. The mesa altar and the sagrario are covered with precious frontals of beaten silver. Ca. 1915.

When Augustinian missionaries descended upon Pampanga, they lost no time embarking on building churches. This religious order—first to arrive with Legazpi’s expeditionary group in 1565—is credited with constructing the most number of churches in the country.

The first visitas were made from indigenous materials—nipa, bamboo, hardwood trees—but with grants from the Real Hacienda, income from church services, free labor from the system of polo y servicio, churches soon evolved and grew into magnificent structures, with lavish decorations that rivalled those of Europe.

Nowhere is this more evident in the main altars of old Pampanga churches. Apparently, Filipinos and Spaniards shared a common interest in the decorative arts; just 50 years after Manila’s foundation, it was noted that the progressive city had churches adorned with rich silk fabrics and altar fronts covered with expensive silver.

Indeed, the altar became the most outstanding feature of the church in terms of artistry and opulence, for they were designed to attract attention and direct the gaze of the devotee to the tabernacle that housed the Holy Eucharist. The sagrario (tabernacle) was flanked by gradas (tiered panels) where decorations like ramilletes ( bouquets of silver or wood) and silver candeleros (candle holders) were placed.

 The altar mayor featured the mantel-covered mesa altar, on which the priest said Mass, his back towards the audience. The Second Vatican Council of 1962 made significant reforms in the conduct of liturgical services, including changes in the physical make-up of the altar space. Altar tables were moved to the foreground, so that priests can celebrate the Mass, facing the audience. Retained were the magnificent retablos behind the mesa altar, frontal structures carved with period decorations and designed with nichos to house santos of wood and ivory, as well as paintings and relieves (relief carvings) showing Biblical and other holy scenes—all meant as visual aids in the missionaries’ oral teachings and in their attempt to convert people to Christianity.

The churches of Pampanga reflected the spirit of this gilded age, the combined power and glory of Art and Faith serving a higher purpose. The church of Lubao for instance, has a retablo mayor carved in florid Baroque style, with Augustinian santos enshrined in niches, leading one admirer to write that it is ”one of the most sumptuous in the Islands”.

The Santiago Apostol Church in Betis, likewise, boasts of a baroque wooden retablo carved with the most refined details, and infused with rocaille motifs—shells, curlicues, sinuous floral patterns. Once installed in the central niche was the figure of the patron—St. James as a peregrine, or pilgrim, now replaced with the Risen Christ. Angels playing musical instruments are scattered about the retablo, with the all-seeing God the Father, lording it all.

The church of Bacolor, dedicated to San Guillermo and touted as Pampanga’s biggest church in 1897, once had rich silver works with beautifully-gold leafed altar. The sunken retablos have all been restored after the Pinatubo eruption—sans the real gold gilt. Apalit has an intricately ornamented altar surmounted by a dome, replicating the church’s signature dome feature. The altar of San Simon is carved with floral splendor, with the figure of the Holy Spirit hovering above. Sta. Rita’s claim to fame was once its gilded main altar, while that of Masantol had Renaissance style carvings. The ancient church of San Luis also has an impressive retablo done in baroque, while Guagua’s altar frontals were once adorned with beaten silver (pukpok), made from precious silver coins.

The grandeur of our altars have been somehow dimmed by the ravages of time and the cataclysmic workings of nature—floods, earthquakes, volcanic upheavals. But though begrimed with dust, covered in lahar and engulfed in flood waters, it is before these altars that we always fall on our knees, intone our prayers for succor and help--and find our faith again.

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