Cover The exteriors of San Pablo Church, Isabela

In his final book, the late historian Benito Legarda Jr tried to bring to light what makes our Spanish-era churches truly Filipino

Distinguished economist, historian and scholar Benito Legarda Jr had devoted his writing career in promoting Filipino culture and history. He served as deputy governor of Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, among many others. The prolific historian focused his essays and articles on the Spanish colonial galleon trade, the Philippines’ 19th-century economy and the Second World War in Manila, which he had witnessed and experienced during his teenage years.

With his passing last year at the age of 94, the Ortigas Foundation Library decided to publish his architectural study from the ‘60s about Hispanic Philippine churches. Complemented with modern photographs from the Ortigas Foundation’s extensive collection, Hispanic Philippine Churches: An Architectural Study was finally published.

“Bringing this essay to light for a new generation of Filipino scholars is a fitting tribute to Benito J Legarda Jr who contributed so much to the intellectual life of the country he loved,” Jonathan Best, senior consultant to the Ortigas Foundation Library, wrote in his foreword.

The Church played a significant role during the formative period of the Filipino nation, Legarda believed. He wrote that the never-ending search for the “Filipino identity” also happens through learning more about our heritage churches’ architecture and design, and understanding that they are not just mere imitations but celebrations of our mixed culture.

“The Filipino element is not a passive object…but a dynamic process…foreign and native, and continually reshapes and recombines them into objects which are Filipino,” Legarda wrote. Through a harmonious blending of “indigenous and immigrant elements”, the churches have become storytellers of our aesthetic, spiritual, and moral journey as a nation.

Legarda pointed out that there is a lag in the development of art in the former Spanish colonies, including the Philippines. Aside from the long journey across the Atlantic, Mexico and the Pacific, the Filipinos possessed an “intellectual innocence” of the faith being introduced to them.

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Above Retablo in General Trias Church, Cavite

In the Philippines, the churches—from the baroque structures of the 16th century to the neoclassical ones toward the end of the 19th century—were most commonly built with adobe (volcanic tuff) taken from quarries, unlike that of the Latin American kind that was oven-made. In coastal provinces, coral was preferred for being light and simple yet tough enough to withstand the elements.

Legarda identified five types of religious structures in the country. There were spacious monastic churches that housed friars from various Spanish religious orders. Parish churches, on the other hand, were smaller in comparison to these. Third were sanctuaries with thicker walls and bastions that served as fortress churches. Cemeteries and funerary chapel, meanwhile, had remarkable designs of unusual shapes and entrances. Lastly, bell towers which were noteworthy for their unique designs.

According to Legarda, “The lack of master architects led to simplicity in layout” for churches built at the onset of the colonisation.

“There was no great concern for what might be called the architectonic elements of mass, space and planes.” The historian, however, cited some artists—such as Antonio Herrera, Félix Roxas and Father Domingo Fortó, to name a few—whose mastery in architecture, design and engineering gave us some of the surviving iconic Hispanic Philippine churches built in the latter part of the Spanish Colonial Period.

Evolution of style progressed “from simple to elaborate and back to simple—late Renaissance in the late 16th and the 17th centuries, to Baroque and Rococo elements in the 18th century and early 19th, thence to Neo-classical, the latter accompanied in its later phases by Gothic and Romanesque revivals”, wrote Legarda. Icons of the Trumpet of Doom and the Book of Judgment, different saints, coats-of-arms and royal escutcheons like the Habsburg eagles, and more have been popular in many religious structures. But perhaps the most enduring is the building of grottos to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as seen not only in religious structures but also in streets and homes.

Each province would have its own definitive style. The most important to note are Cagayan’s spiral or grooved columns called salomónicas or almohadillas and Bicol’s central bell towers that pass through the main doors.

Lastly, Legarda also took note of retablos  found in Hispanic Philippine churches for having stylistic evolution. From polychromed wood with Baroque or Rococo details to more majestic ones with gold decorative features, these retablos  remain as striking interior centrepieces of Catholics’ place of worship.

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Legarda finished his book with high hopes that these churches would be re-appreciated in our modern time. The ubiquity of highly visual and aesthetic churches from the past fit in our era today as we “now look with favour on audio-visual techniques” for learning. He also wrote that one reason why these churches are looked down by some as mere imitations is because of our “uncritical colonial-minded belief that foreign goods are invariably superior to the native”. But as much as this should be changed, our thinking that nationalism is based on mere nativism should also be revisited.

The Hispanic Philippine churches are “a continuing testimonial to this country’s resilience and flexibility, to the strength of its native spirit and institutions, and at the same time to its open-mindedness to constructive influences from abroad. In short, to creative Filipinism”, Legarda concluded.

  • PhotographyBetty V Lalana and Lino P Arboleda Jnr / Ortigas Foundation Library