Preparing for Visita Iglesia | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Preparing for Visita Iglesia

/ 05:09 AM February 16, 2024

Visitors to the San Agustin Museum in Intramuros walk through hallways filled with ancient images of Catholic saints, many of whom they do not know nor recognize. Then there are wood reliefs and pieces of furniture with wood reliefs that depict biblical stories, or even scenes from 18th-century life in Candaba, Pampanga: Aetas hunting deer, giant snakes hunting boar, Chinese water-peddlers, even men at a cockfight.

On the small door of a writing desk, we see two naked figures under a tree, obviously Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. One cannot make out the fruit on the tree but it is not a bright red “delicious” apple from China—that apple is for Snow White, not Adam nor Eve. If you care to check out the story in Genesis, no fruit is named nor described as the one offered Eve by the serpent. Our only clue is that when Adam and Eve bit of the forbidden fruit, they realized they were naked. Ashamed, they covered themselves with fig leaves, so the fig may be the forbidden fruit. One invented tradition declares it was a luscious yellow Philippine mango!

Philippine folklore has its own forbidden fruits, the most famous being lanzones. Did lason, the Philippine word for poison, come from the fruit? In grade school, I learned that all it took was a pinch from a virgin, that can either be the Virgin Mary or Mariang Makiling, to make lanzones sweet and temper its venom.

Looking at all the “santos” or religious imagery in San Agustin Museum, you realize that everything on them has a narrative, a meaning. The clothes they wear, the objects they hold in their hands, the animals that lie by their feet are clues to their identity, their story. The most Instagrammable saint in the museum depicts “San Pedro Martir” or Peter of Verona who is shown with a bolo on his head. He was martyred by stabbing and a blow to the head, so he has become the go-to saint when you have a headache. Santa Lucia has her eyes on a plate. She was a virgin who had a persistent suitor who complained that her beautiful eyes tormented him. To ease his agony, she tore her eyes out of their sockets and sent them to him on a plate as a present. Santa Lucia is invoked against diseases of the eye.


Saint Agatha had her breasts cut out, so she is depicted with her breasts on a plate. She is invoked against diseases of the breast, and also became the patron saint of bakers and bell-makers, owing to the incompetence or prudishness of santo makers who could not do breasts and ended up with what people mistook for loaves of bread or bells. St. Clare, a Franciscan nun, wears a brown habit and carries a monstrance from which she could see things and places far and wide. For this, she was declared the patroness of television. Santa Monica, mother of San Agustin, is often depicted as an elderly woman in an Augustinian habit, different from Santa Rita, who is younger, and carries a wound or “stigmata” on her forehead. Santa Rosa de Lima wears a Dominican habit and a crown of thorns. One can go on and on, so whenever I walk in a church or museum with religious imagery in painting or sculpture, I review my basic iconography or the visual shorthand that expresses so many stories and, sometimes, even Catholic dogma.

A pity that many of these symbols are physically lost to us, but worse, many of us are unfamiliar with the language of the symbols. When artists created these images centuries ago, they made them for people who knew the legends, stories, and moral lessons. When young people attend a Holy Week procession these days, the symbols are not only alien but alienating to them. Fellow Inquirer columnist Mahar Mangahas has a daily Facebook post that gives short biographies of saints of the day, it is very informative but not for everyone. One would wish his posts had pictures to increase our visual vocabulary.

Not all saints are forever. Saint Christopher or San Cristobal used to be the patron saint of drivers and I used to see him on decals protecting jeepneys and their passengers. Legend is that Christopher made a living helping people cross a river with a strong current. One day, a child asked to be carried across the river to the opposite bank, and to his surprise the little waif grew so heavy he was bowed down by his weight. Then the child identified himself as Jesus Christ and that Christopher had carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. The child ordered him to plant his wooden staff in the ground, and the next day it was found to have bloomed with flowers. This convinced the pagan Christopher to convert to Christianity and preach. He was martyred by beheading. Aside from being patron of drivers, he is also invoked against water, tempest, plague, and sudden death. In 1969, following a reform of the pantheon of saints, Christopher was deleted. However, his image can still be seen in some taxis and jeepneys. Proof that tradition can sometimes be more enduring than church editing of saints.

Last Wednesday was both Valentine’s and Ash Wednesday, it reminded me to brush up on my iconography for this year’s Visita Iglesia.



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TAGS: Ambeth Ocampo column, opinion

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