‘Brown Madonna’ | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

‘Brown Madonna’

One of our demanding theology professors once entered the classroom and predicted: “One day you will return to the Ateneo with a big smile on your face after being told by a member of the Opus Dei that all Jesuits will go to Hell.”

We who were terrorized by him that semester didn’t need to look into the future to imagine that prediction to come true. Jesuits taught us to unlearn much of the blind piety and dry ritual that we imbibed from spinster aunts and tried to make us mature in the faith. I still remember how surprised I was to learn that the “Three Kings” we saw on Hallmark Christmas cards and National Bookstore cardboard Nativity scenes were made up like Santa Claus. We reread the story of Adam and Eve to learn that the forbidden fruit was not a shiny red apple better suited to Snow White. It was probably a fig, and I could not imagine what the fruit looked like outside of Fig Newtons.


People are surprised when I tell them that I was inspired to become an historian by high school Shakespeare and theology. We used the Folger editions of Shakespeare that had the Bard’s text on the left side of the book and the most obscure explanatory notes and illustrations crammed on the right side. My appreciation for useless information probably began in literature class. My iconoclastic or critical view of our heroes goes back to a professor who asked why images of Christ and his Mother in the Philippines were based on pale Castilians when they should perhaps resemble people from the Middle East. Why, asked our professor, can’t Jesus have the physical build or the rough hands of a humble carpenter’s son? He took out a poster of Jesus, covered the mouth and beard, and we gasped because it seemed that the image had been modeled on a woman.

It takes a leap of faith to imagine that the crooks we see on TV and newspapers were made in the image and likeness of God. When you go on visita iglesia or attend processions next week, give the santos and religious images a second look and ask whether these are faithful depictions of biblical characters, or not. With the notable exception of the venerated black images of the Nazareno de Quiapo, the Virgin of Antipolo, the Virgin of Montserrat, and the Virgen de la Regla of Cebu, Christ and the Virgin are almost always white. The rethinking of these images can be traced to 1938, when the painter Galo B. Ocampo (1913-1985) exhibited the landmark work known today as the “Brown Madonna.”


“I painted the ‘Brown Madonna’ myself,” Ocampo said in an interview, “getting the idea from such classical artists like Raphael who used local maidens as his model for the Madonna. So why not the Filipina for the Madonna?” Not content with a darker skin tone, Ocampo pushed nationalism further by having the Virgin Mary wear a tapis and a baro instead of the flowing blue and white garments of medieval cut usually used on Western Madonnas. The background of the “Brown Madonna” has Philippine plants like the anahaw adding rays to the Virgin’s halo. A nipa hut and rice fields are suggested in the background. The only foreign object in the composition is a cactus in the foreground. “Binabati kita, Maria” (the Filipino translation of the Latin “Ave Maria”) is inscribed on the Virgin’s waist.

Furthermore, the “Brown Madonna” was (in)famous because it was flat and two-dimensional. Ocampo’s technique was unfairly compared with Fernando Amorsolo’s masterly use of perspective to produce depth or his way with colors to produce volume. Ocampo argued that his message was that modern art was a reaction to the artistic conventions of the time.

The “Brown Madonna,” according to art critic Alice Guillermo, “may be viewed as one of the first modern efforts to create new Filipino icons with which the people could identify, thus comprising an attempt at decolonization of religious imagery.” It has also been pointed out that aside from nationalism, this indigenization of a religious theme was probably influenced by the French postimpressionist painter Paul Gauguin who used a Tahitian woman for the Virgin Mary in a work known as “La Orana Maria.”

Ocampo took a degree in fine arts from the University of the Philippines and was, at the time, the only Filipino to study heraldry abroad. In the 1930s, Ocampo, together with Victorio Edades and Carlos “Botong” Francisco, formed the so-called “triumvirate” that initiated Philippine modern art. They collaborated on art deco murals for the State and Capitol theaters in downtown Manila, thus producing the earliest interaction works. Ocampo taught at the University of Santo Tomas and Far Eastern University and served as National Museum director during the Macapagal administration. Having studied in the Institute of Liturgical Arts in Rome, he designed stained-glass windows for the Manila Cathedral, rebuilt after the war, and the Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City.

With the “Brown Madonna,” Ocampo broke many artistic barriers and gave us a Filipino vision of the world. Unfortunately, Ocampo was distracted by administrative jobs and was not as active in exhibitions as Hernando R. Ocampo, who was proclaimed National Artist.

Galo B. Ocampo is best remembered for the “Brown Madonna,” a historically important painting, but not his masterpiece. He should be taken out of the dustbin of Philippine art history and given his due as a pioneering visual artist.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Adam and Eve, Alice Guillermo, Ateneo de Manila University, Brown Madonna, Carlos “Botong” Francisco, Castillians, Fig Newtons, Galo B. Ocampo, Hallmark Christmas cards, Jesuits, Manila Cathedral, National Bookstore, Nazareno de Quiapo, Opus Dei, Philippine Art History, Santo Domingo Church, Snow White, Victorio Edades, Virgen de la Regla of Cebu, Virgin of Antipolo, Virgin of Montserrat
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