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Looking Back

Treasure in Paete

Laguna offers a variety of attractions for tourists. Nature has blessed the province with lush mountains, hot springs, cold pools, and postcard-pretty landscapes. It offers folk crafts and distinct cuisine. It is the birthplace of heroes, and Jose Rizal is its most illustrious son.

If you make a day trip from Manila, you have the choice to relax in the hot springs that gave Los Baños (the baths) its name, or go around the lakeshore towns that form a loop of built heritage. Spanish colonial churches form the center of the old towns that seem to have been positioned for a daylong walk from each other, suggesting that these structures provided hospitality to travellers before we had hotels. The Pakil-born painter Danny Dalena once told me that the names of these lakeshore towns form part of a narrative about the pursuit of a wild boar in olden times: It lost a fang in Pangil, was stabbed by a chisel in Paete, and was eventually captured in Siniloan.


Folk etymology suggests that the town of Paete got its name from the Tagalog word for chisel—paet—which further explains why Paete is famous today for woodcrafts and wood carving. As early as the 18th century, Paete was already exporting the work of its artisans to other churches in the archipelago. It is said that some pieces were so outstanding that these were sent to Rome as presents to the Pope. Paete carvers, however, were not confined to working solely on wood. The facade of the town church depicting the patron saint, James the Great, is a marvel in stone carving. Now a politically incorrect figure, St. James, more popularly known under his Spanish title “Santiago Matamoros” (St. James the Moor slayer), is shown hacking Moors to death with his sword while his trusted horse tramples the rest underfoot.

Paete is so associated with woodcarving that its homegrown 19th-century painter Jose Dans is not well-known. There are three huge paintings on wood that adorn Paete church, two of which have been attributed to Dans. The oldest painting, “Last Judgment (Juicio Final),” was painted around 1720 when the church was built. It is not by Dans and is too faded for further study.


Those by Dans are by the main church entrance. To the right as you enter the door is a huge work on wooden planks measuring 5×3.05 meters. In the center are Adam and Eve in their pure state shortly before Eve is tempted and picks the fruit from the tree of good and evil. Man, descended from Adam and Eve, also fell from grace, but is given the chance to return to paradise through Christ crucified—here shown above Adam and Eve. Dans composed important groupings around the cross: the Virgin Mary on the left and St. Joseph on the right, thus forming the Holy Family. Above the cross are the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and God the Father surrounded by pink clouds, forming the Holy Trinity.

Just below God and all the saints in heaven are the seven sacraments—Baptism, Confirmation, Confession, Holy Eucharist, Extreme Unction, Sacred Orders, and Matrimony—obviously the means that man must use to get to aspire to travel to heaven. But the best part of this painting, closest to the viewer, is the area below Adam and Eve, illustrating the torments of hell. Surely, this must have been a terrifying sight to devout parishioners at the time it was unveiled, and here Dans gave free rein to his imagination and expressed his own fantasies and personal fears.

In hell Dans was not bound by catechism, and he produced all the possible torments using his brush. The painting is referred to as “Heaven, Earth and Hell,” but it should really be called “Heaven, Earth, Purgatory and Hell” because there is an area just below Adam and Eve showing souls being purified in purgatory before proceeding to heaven. Curiously, in this predeparture area there is a place reserved for children. Dans compressed hundreds of pages of catechism and hours of sermons into one potent visual teaching aid that has transcended its original function and become a work of art.

On the left side of the church entrance is a large painting of St. Christopher, patron of travelers, carrying the Christ Child over a river. Christopher (Christ-bearer) was a heathen giant who was converted after ferrying a small child that grew heavier as they progressed over the river. Christopher did not believe the child who identified himself as Jesus, Savior of the World, so the child instructed the giant to plant his staff in the ground. When Christopher complied, the wooden staff sprouted flowers and fruit. Christopher was then told he had just carried the weight of the world. In Dans’ painting Christopher’s staff turns into a coconut tree.

Our story does not end here because some years ago when the Dans painting of St. Christopher was brought down for cleaning, it was discovered that an even older painting of St. Christopher was painted directly on the stone wall. Made by an anonymous native artist in the 18th century, about the time the present church was built, this depiction has a character and color palette different from Dans’ 19th-century work.

This wonderful discovery and the research into its origins and possible author expand our knowledge of Laguna art and artists pushing the parameters of present Philippine art history.

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, art, Jose Dans, Laguna, Looking Back, opinion, Paete, Tourism
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