Catholicism was embraced by Filipinos when it was introduced in the 16th century by Spanish explorers and conquistadors. Churches emerged in different parts of the country, and the regard for objects of veneration showed a strong religious devotion among Filipinos.
Of religious antiques, the wooden statues of saints, Jesus Christ and Mary, many of which have ivory parts, are the most known and prized. Many of these santos (venerated images) were once reverentially kept in homes and in special tabernacles, commonly called urna, beautifully made to befit the material manifestations of holiness they housed.
Rarely seen nowadays, the urnas are themselves works of admirable craftsmanship and valuable objects of heritage, sometimes even more than the santos. They exhibit different styles in art and architecture as well as hint at the cultural backgrounds of the artisans.
This fascinating aspect of Catholic art and crafts is given spotlight in the ongoing exhibit, “Sisidlan ng Kabanalan” (Containers of holiness), of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) at its first-floor NCCA Gallery in Intramuros, Manila.
The exhibit contains 17 urnas from the 17th to the 18th centuries, which are accompanied by seven antique images of the Virgin Mary, a most beloved Christian persona. These are culled from the collection of the Intramuros Administration (IA), which manages Manila’s foremost heritage site, the Spanish-era walled community by the mouth of Pasig River.
“Sisidlan” serves as a prelude to the 40th founding anniversary celebration of IA and a preview of the planned Museo de Intramuros.
“Thirty-nine years ago, the Intramuros Administration was established through a presidential decree and was mandated for the orderly restoration and development of Intramuros as a monument to the Hispanic period of our history, and along with this mandate was the vision of the administration to establish two museums that would showcase the rich culture of the Spanish colonial period in the Philippines,” said architect Ramil Tibayan, chief of Cultural Properties Conservation Division of the IA.
During its early years, IA was active in collecting art and artifacts from this era, resulting in an impressive collection.
“Back then, during the 1980s, the administration amassed a number of art and artifacts for the establishment of these two museums, one of which is the house museum showcasing the Spanish colonial lifestyle in the Philippines and an ecclesiastical museum showcasing the rich art of Philippine Christianity,” Tibayan explained.
“Today, the house museum, which we all know as Casa Manila, showcases the antique furniture of the IA collection, and the other one, which we will open soon as the Museo de Intramuros, we recently completed the construction of the building. We are now in the process of curating the content and completing the interiors of the building,” he shared. “And after more than three decades, the structure I mentioned earlier, the Mission House, has been reconstructed to house the ecclesiastical collection of the IA and works are still in progress for the interiors and the curation of the museum.”
Tibayan revealed: “This exhibition serves as primer on what to expect in the Museo de Intramuros, which we will open in April this year [in time for] the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Intramuros Administration [in March]. Many of the objects have not yet been seen by the public…especially, I believe, the urnas, this is the first time they are exhibited.”
The exhibit notes explain that this is a “contemplation on the concept of vessels:” “A sisidlan or vessel and the holiness or values it contains can take many forms and be interpreted on various levels: an urna as an artistic and devotional reliquary; the image of Mary as a signifier of the persona venerated in the Litany of Loreto as the Spiritual Vessel, the Vessel of Honor and the Singular Vessel of Devotion; and the museum an entity, both abstract and concrete, dedicated to the conservation, research and exhibition of cultural heritage. The expressions of religious symbols and personas of Christian faith in art emanate from the values that they represent, and these values were, and still are, instrumental in shaping Filipino culture.”
By the early 17th century, households in Intramuros began using urnas to keep their images of the Virgin Mary and the Santo Nino or the child Jesus, especially those with ivory heads and hands. The wooden urna is a miniature retablo (altarpiece) with a niche for the images and intricate designs. The ensemble served as a shrine.
The first urnas were made by Chinese artisans in Parian, an area outside the walls of Intramuros, for the Chinese settlers, which is now considered by many as the first Chinatown in the world. Thus, Chinese motifs were incorporated into the ornate carvings, usually in the Baroque style, in vogue during that time.
The oldest urna in the exhibit, from the 17th century, came from Parian. Said to be once almost completely gilded, the urna has an image of the Tree of Life flanked by Adam and Eve. Among the lush ornamentation are stylized fu dogs, a Chinese element.
Urnas were usually made of the wood of the small-flower chaste tree, locally called mulawin or molave. They were usually painted in polychrome, using the primary colors of red, blue and yellow, and often highlighted by gilding.
The use of the urnas spread into other parts of the Philippines, sometimes incorporating elements identified with the area. Many urnas in the exhibit came from the islands of Leyte and Bohol.
The seven images of the Virgin Mary, some of which with the child Jesus, in the exhibit provide a glimpse of the strong devotion to the mother of Jesus, especially in the island of Luzon. The first image of Mary in the island is said to be the Nuestra Señora de Guia or Our Lady of Guidance, found in 1572. She was often mistaken as the image of the Immaculate Conception, and thus the devotion to the Immaculate Conception became widespread. She became the patroness of the Manila Cathedral as well as many parishes in the country.
Popular Inmaculada images include Nuestra Señora dela Paz y Buen Viaje or Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage of Antipolo City, Rizal, which arrived in 1626 from Mexico and made several successful crossings across the Pacific to Acapulco, Mexico; and the Nuestra Señora de la Soledad de Porta Vaga, found in Cavite in 1667 and the patroness of the province.
In 1646, a Dutch fleet invaded Manila but was defeated. The victory in the Battles of La Naval de Manila is believed to be a miracle made possible by the Nuestra Señora del Rosario or Our Lady of the Rosary. Devotion to her intensified. Manaoag, Pangasinan and Piat, Cagayan, are well-known pilgrimage sites for Our Lady of the Rosary.
Another popular Virgin Mary image is Our Lady of Peñafrancia of Naga City, the patroness of the Bicol region, whose feast day is a grand show of devotion. It was commissioned by Fray Miguel Robles de Covarrubias in the early 1700s, after being cured of a serious illness through the intercession of the Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia of Salamanca. The first priest ordained in Nueva Caceres, now Naga, built a chapel to house the image.
Most of the Virgin Mary statues in the exhibit are those of the Immaculate Conception.
“Sisidlan ng Kabanalan” is an engaging glimpse into how artistry and craftsmanship are used in devotion and religion. It runs from 18 January to 3 February at the NCCA Gallery, 633 General Luna Street, Intramuros, Manila.