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Looking Back
The Philippines in a Golden Age

By Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:17:00 09/12/2008

Filed Under: Exhibition, Libraries & Museums, history

MANILA, Philippines?Billed as ?the exhibit you waited a thousand years to see,? the Ayala Museum Gold Room is worth a visit. All that glitters is gold?pre-Spanish gold, that is, jewelry made by our ancestors that is jaw-dropping. Before the Ayala Museum exhibit, one already marveled at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Gold Room, a walk-in vault underneath the Metropolitan Museum. This display in quantity and the quality of its presentation set a new benchmark for curatorial design. I don?t normally gush, but I have been to the Ayala show half a dozen times and I have yet to get over my enthusiasm.

On my last visit, I spent a lot of time in front of a computer screen. I ignored the gold because what the Ayala Museum now also has is a ?virtual copy? of the Boxer Codex. This untitled late 16th century manuscript is one of the treasures in the Lilly Library in the University of Indiana in Bloomington, and Filipinos don?t have to go abroad to consult this wonderful illuminated manuscript presently known under the name of its former owner, the eminent English historian C.R. Boxer (1904-2000), one of the authorities on Asia in his time.

Fifteen years ago, I was invited to lunch at Boxer?s home outside London, and he told me with a wide smile how he purchased this treasure cheaply at an auction in the late 1940s. It was listed as an 18th century manuscript on Asia in the catalogue and Boxer sent in a bid of 40 pounds?and forgot about it. Some weeks later, the manuscript arrived in the mail. When Boxer opened the package to examine the new acquisition, he realized that the auction house cataloguer was mistaken and he had stumbled on an unpublished sixteenth century manuscript. Seeing the manuscript on a computer screen in the Ayala Museum brought back memories of that wonderful lunch and the chance to handle the original manuscript.

I went to the museum to look at the text of the manuscript because somewhere on its margins is an illustration of a ?penis implement? first mentioned in Antonio Pigafetta?s account of the Magellan expedition. I ask my students to draw this based on the text and the results are some of the most amazing drawings from their hormone-fed imaginations. In the Boxer Codex we at least have an idea of what this mysterious thing looks like. I was not disappointed.

After this, I went over the illustrations. While there are other printed and manuscript sources on the Philippines, what makes the Boxer Codex stand out are the detailed colored illustrations of sixteenth century Filipinos embellished with gold leaf showing their clothing and ornamentation. Boxer was of the opinion that such a fine illuminated manuscript was custom-made for an important personage in Spanish Philippines, probably the governor-general or even the archbishop of Manila. The manuscript covers Cagayan, Zambales, the Tagalog areas, Visayas and sections of neighboring Indonesia and even China. Some of the illustrations have been widely reproduced in books and have even been used on bathroom curtains and T-shirts.

The Boxer Codex is particularly important with regard to the clothing and ornaments of 16th century Philippines. It shows not only how different ethno-linguistic groups at the point of contact with the West dressed, but more importantly how gold jewelry excavated in archeological sites in the last century were worn.

Most early Spanish accounts of the Philippines mention gold jewelry. Pigafetta was the first to describe pre-Spanish, pre-colonial gold.

In recent years, many gold artifacts have been found in archeological sites all over the Philippines. Unfortunately, these were looted by pot-hunters. Thus taken out of their context, it is difficult to know how these gold pieces were once worn and what other materials were associated with the gold.

Different Spanish accounts provide descriptions of the jewelry and sometimes even note what the various earrings, chains, bracelets, rings, anklets, armlets, leg-lets and toe-lets were called. With both text and illustrations, the Boxer Codex makes it easier for scholars to study pre-colonial gold.

The Ayala Museum gold differs from that of the BSP because the artifacts are supplemented by illustrations all done in an age before the digital camera. Thus the Boxer Codex illustrations can be used for other contemporary accounts, for example Antonio de Morga?s ?Sucesos de las islas Filipinas? (Mexico, 1609) which describes the clothing of the male inhabitants of Luzon thus: ?chains of gold wound round the neck, worked like spun wax and with links in our fashion, some larger than others, bracelets on the arms which they call ?calombigas,? made of gold very thick and of different patterns, and some with strings of stones, carnelians and agates and others of blue and white stones which are much esteemed among them.?

We can only hope that other illustrated 16th century accounts of the Philippines and the Filipinos will come to light in years to come. But for the moment, the richest and earliest visual manuscript on the Philippines in terms of detail and beauty is the Boxer Codex which documents the Philippines, literally, in a Golden Age.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu.

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