Visual history | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Visual history

/ 12:12 AM February 14, 2014

Bohol is one of my favorite places in the country because it has something for every taste and budget. If you want sun and sand, Bohol’s beaches will not disappoint. If you want nature, Bohol has the Chocolate Hills, tarsiers, and fireflies that light up the darkness in the Loay river better than Chinese-made Christmas tree lights. If you want cultural heritage, Bohol has impressive stone churches complete with interior furnishings and  santos  that escaped reuse as home decor in Forbes Park.

But alas, after a recent earthquake Bohol’s heritage churches are no more than heaps of rubble and a fading memory. Of course, we can rebuild these churches, but they will never be the same. At best they will be replicas, so instead of lamenting what we lost maybe we should concentrate on what we still have.


Iloilo has many Spanish colonial churches, but the interiors of many have since been renovated, with most of the furnishings peddled off at the height of the antiques trade many years ago. The most famous of the Iloilo churches is that of Santo Tomas de Villanueva in Miag-ao; it was originally built in 1731 but was burned along with the coastal town during a Moro raid in 1741. Rebuilt, it was again burned down in yet another Moro raid in 1754, leading the people to move to a hill overlooking the sea named Tacas (an apt name, if we are to understand it in Filipino to mean “escape”). On this site a massive new fortress-church was constructed from 1768 to 1797. It has since escaped destruction, including two fires that swept the interior at the turn of the 19th century.

Squat and built with two bell towers that also doubled as lookout posts (this explains why a town like Tanawan in Batangas got its name—its church’s bell tower served as a “lookout” or “mirador” for impending Moro raids), the church of Miag-ao is often cited as the best extant example of what historians call “fortress-baroque.” It is rightly famous for its facade, which is described by scholars as the “eruption of rococo.”


Few churches in the Philippines have stonework as elaborate as the church of Miag-ao, with the notable exception of the church of San Joaquin a few kilometers away, whose facade depicts the Battle of Tetuan. Completed in 1869, the “Rendicion de Tetuan” was carved into a facade of coral stone quarried from Igbaras, reminding parishioners in visual form of the Spanish-Moroccan War of 1859-60. That war was won by the Spanish in the Battle of Tetuan under Leopoldo O’Donnell, the first duke of Tetuan and prime minister of Spain who defeated Sultan Muhammad IV. This forgotten battle is also memorialized in two Manila street names: Tetuan in Santa Cruz and O’Donnell in Binondo.

The church of San Joaquin is a spectacular sight, different in style and flavor from Miag-ao’s church. When I last visited, its facade was partly obscured and in need of immediate conservation.

The Miag-ao church’s facade is significant as a major example of the indigenization of foreign influences. It shows how Filipinos took Western decorative motifs and transformed these into something distinctly Filipino. The central niche in the Miag-ao church’s facade holds the patron saint, Tomas de Villanueva; it is dwarfed by the frieze or upper triangular portion which is occupied by the image of San Cristobal (St. Christopher), the patron of travelers and reckless Filipino public utility and taxi drivers.

San Cristobal is shown ferrying the Santo Niño (Christ Child) on his back through a river. In the original Western story, the saint earned a living carrying travelers through a river without a bridge. At one time, the non-Christian giant was bowed down by the unusual weight of a child, who turned out to be the Christ Child carrying the weight of the world. The saint maintained his balance using a wooden staff that miraculously sprouted flowers.

In the Miag-ao church, San Cristobal does not cling to a staff but to a coconut tree. Furthermore, the scene is ornamented by guava and papaya trees—fruit-bearing trees not found in Europe. Leaves and flowers fill the empty spaces, giving the church facade a lush tropical flavor. The facade is divided in two parts by a balustrade the shape of which resembles the spindle type found in Philippine houses.

Some significant Spanish colonial churches in the Philippines have been a battleground among parishioners, clergy, and heritage advocates because one camp sees these as cultural heritage, one as tourist attractions, and one as living houses of worship different from the empty churches of Europe. Colonial churches should be seen in their original context: They were heavy-built to resist earthquakes and typhoons; they were designed as fortresses to provide refuge in times of Moro raids. These churches are like books; the ornamentation is a visual text that was understood by everyone in an age when many people could not read.

Long before the virtual we had the visual—the stunning facades of the San Joaquin and Miag-ao churches provide visual history and catechism. The Miag-ao church’s facade reminds the faithful of their patron saint, Tomas de Villanueva, as well as the legend of San Cristobal that suggests conversion to Catholicism. For us, San Cristobal holding on to a coconut tree illustrates the evangelization or the ferrying of a new faith from the West to the Philippines.


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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Bohol, churches, column
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