Cover Resurreccion, (unsigned), circa 18th century, molave

One of the key impacts on our country’s art form is the Catholic influence brought to us 500 years ago. We look back at how religious art in the Philippines was born and how it continues to shape the local art scene to this day

Religious art has been one of the most effective tools by propagators of any faith, such as the Catholics. Through paintings, sculptures, metalworks and architecture, the scenes from the Bible and other dogmatic teachings of the Church were introduced and engraved into the consciousness of the catechised people. It is no wonder then that the Filipino artists learnt to master the visual arts from the Spanish friars, espousing European standards of sublimity for such creative form.

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The Museo de Intramuros, built on the old site of the San Ignacio Church and convent, takes care of preserved and curated pieces of religious art from different parts of the country for the public to appreciate. Giving a glimpse of the devotion of the Filipino people to the Catholic faith, the artefacts date back to the early 18th century, with some perhaps older. Dino Carlo Santos from the museum’s Cultural Properties Conservation Division explains why, apart from the Catholic faith, we also owe our formalised art form to the Spaniards.

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Ethnic art forms like weaving, pottery and metalwork with gold ores have already been prevalent throughout the country prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. But it was the Chinese, our primary trading partner, who introduced newer forms of art like painting to Filipinos in the 17th century through talleres (workshops) initiated by the Spanish friars. Though there are no religious paintings credited to Chinese artists found in recent history, the Sinitic influences in brushstrokes for the facial details could nevertheless still be seen.

The Spaniards introduced Western painting, as well as wood and ivory carving of religious images. Mastery to these new techniques were not achieved overnight. At the Museo de Intramuros, there are folk sculptures that were believed to have been used for Catholic worship traditions but resemble primitive and indigenous images. The Spaniards called these mamarracho, a derogatory term for the early works of the indios that ridiculously represent religious images.

Fernando Zobel in his 1963 book, Philippine Religious Imagery, classified the Filipino art pieces of Catholic tradition into three: popular, classical and ornate. Popular styled pieces made by unschooled hands are characterised by native elements like primitive-looking faces, disproportionate limbs and symbols replaced with Philippine iconography like the carabao for San Isidro Labrador’s ox. Classical styled santos and paintings are more realistic and refined. Ornate are those with decorative embellishments like jewelleries, metallic threads of silver or gold and intricate embroidery. These styles are apparent in both paintings and sculptures of Catholic art.

The techniques in painting, sculpture and metalwork with silver evolved through the centuries, with the more refined and detailed works found at the latter part of the 19th century. With the absence of the galleon trade at this point and the boom of haciendas (plantations) by Filipino mestizos (mixed blood usually referring to Spanish), parish churches exhibited their affluence with silver plated altar tables, candelabras (candleholders) and flower-like ornaments. Thanks to Japanese silversmiths, Filipinos have also learnt to work with this metal aside from gold.

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Other central figures of attention in churches are the altar frontals, retablos (altars) and relleves (bas reliefs). As a sign of a family’s social status, an oratorio (prayer room) is built inside the house, adorned with urna (double-doored or fully-opened urn made of wood) encasing fine sculptures of saints made of wood or ivory. These urnas usually follow the style of the retablo found in their parishes.

The provinces each had distinctive elements in their art. Like the red and orange motif on the Boholano paintings of saints, the Virgin Mary and the Stations of the Cross; the diamond-shaped stars of Iloilo’s depictions of the Virgin Mary; the linear outlines and simplistic colour palettes of paintings from Cebu; and the use of bahay na bato architectural details in biblical settings in Simon Flores’ paintings.

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Notable personalities in early Filipino art history include Simon Flores for painting and Juan de los Santos for sculpture. There were also Jose Loden, Tomas Nazario and Miguel de los Reyes, whose still life paintings of flora and fauna were commissioned by the Spanish botanist Juan de Cuellar. Damian Domingo, the mestizo priest from Santa Cruz, Manila, developed tipos del pais watercolour paintings of Philippine life, customs and fashion. Jose Honorato Lozano later developed this technique to letras y figuras where the watercolour paintings of people form letters of words, names and places. Continuing religious art until the dawn of the 20th century were Justiniano Asuncion in the field of painting and Isabelo Tampinco in sculpture.

From attending the workshops by the Spanish friars to finding their own schools of art, the pioneers of this art form shaped the artisan culture of many Filipino heritage towns. Not only did their works leave behind educational and artistic legacy but more importantly, they introduced the Catholic faith and ingrained it into the Filipino psyche. Through symbols we were educated on the lives, patronages and martyrdoms of the saints, the canticles of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her call to us to pray the Holy Rosary and wear the brown scapular, as well as the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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Even after the Spanish regime, Catholicism remains to be one of the many influences in Philippine art. We have seen the National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco take a creative depiction in 1965 of the First Mass in Mazaua Island (now officially identified as Limasawa, Leyte) as chronicled by Antonio Pigafetta. In the contemporary arts, the late Joey Velasco was known for his renderings of Jesus Christ in modern-day settings after his famous painting Hapag ng Pag-asa (2005) made big waves locally and internationally. Just recently, mural artist Guerrero M Saño made history by painting the largest altar-mural in the Philippines depicting Our Lady of Fatima’s Miracle of the Sun in Cova da Iria, Portugal in 1917. The mural for the altar of the Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Caloocan City was made as a tribute to the frontliners fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

These religious artefacts are a testament to the indelible mark of the Catholic faith on our nation-building. Venerated and adored throughout generations, these images as well as the other numerous ones still in the safekeeping of various churches, are not mere man-made gods. Rather, these inspire millions to look for God in the darkest and most victorious moments of their lives.


This story was originally published in the May 2021 issue of Tatler Philippines. Download it on your digital device via Zinio, Magzter, and Pressreader.

  • PhotographyFranz Sorilla IV (Museo de Intramuros collection)