Baroque Churches in the Philippines: 500 Years of Christianity (Part 1 of 3)

On 21 March 1521, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Visayas. Some say the landing was an accident. For others, the arrival of Magellan in Cebu was a necessary event in the history of the archipelago. Whatever perspective one believes, one thing is clear: Magellan’s arrival commenced the 333 years of divide et impera in the islands.

It also signalled the destruction of indigenous religion and the introduction of a new one: Christianity through Catholicism. With the introduction of Catholicism, forced labor and taxation became rampant in city centers to construct massive temples to worship the new god: the Catholic God.

Since independence from Spain in 1898, Catholicism remained a legacy of Hispanic colonialism. But one thing is certain about this legacy: it is neither Hispanic nor absolutely indigenous.

Over five hundred temples (churches) inspired by the baroque, gothic and rococo traditions of Europe were built in the archipelago during the Hispanic colonial era.

Many of these churches are well preserved and are still being used as places of worship. Many of these are protected by the national government by inscribing them as either National Cultural Property or National Cultural Treasures.

Today, four baroque churches stand out: Church of the Immaculate Conception of San Agustin (San Agustin Church) in Intramuros, Manila; Saint Augustine Church (popularly known as Paoay Church) in Ilocos Norte; Church of Our Lady of the Assumption (popularly known as Santa Maria Church); and Santo Tomas de Villanueva Parish Church (popularly known as Miag-ao Church) in Iloilo. In 1993, these churches were elevated to the status of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (with modification of boundaries in 2013). They are collectively identified as Baroque Churches of the Philippines. According to UNESCO, these churches are peculiar because their unique architectural style is a reinterpretation of European Baroque by Chinese and Philippine craftsmen.

This post is a celebration of these heritage sites and a celebration of the Catholic heritage many Filipinos perform every day. However, the post is also meant to pay homage to the natives who experienced “slavery” through the forced labor in order for these massive temples to be constructed. Some of these individuals even died believing that their death was a necessary sacrifice for their family members. Many believed that through their death, their family members were already provided with “gate passes” to enter the Kingdom of God (heaven).

I will start talking about two of the four Philippines Baroque Churches with the status of World Heritage Site: the San Agustin Church in Old Manila and the Santa Maria Church in Ilocos Sur.

San Agustin Church was the first church built in Luzon, after the Spaniards (through the leadership of Miguel López de Legazpi) conquered Manila. According to some sources, the church was patterned by the Augustinians from a church in Nueva España (today Mexico). Built by the Augustinians in 1571 within the district of Intramuros (Walled City of Old Manila), the original structure was made of wood and palm fronds, which later were replaced by adobe stones from the provinces of Bulacan (next province north of Manila) and Rizal (next province south of Manila).

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Inside the adobe stone structure San Agustin Church in Old Manila (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Replacing the church with massive stones was strategic. The original wooden structure was gutted in December 1574 on the occasion of the Chinese Pirate Limhawong’s invasion. When the structure was completed in 1604, it became the official convent-house of the Augustinians in the Philippines. A huge monastery was also erected adjacent to the Church. Today, this structure is a museum curated by the Intramuros Administration.

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At the choir loft of the church (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Since the Philippines is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, Manila has been encountering several natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons. Several natural disasters in the past destroyed several parts of the Church but these parts were immediately reconstructed. During the 1863 Manila earthquake, the Church was used as a hospital for the victims of the devastating quake.

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The grand staircase of the monastery (now a museum) (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

However, during the Japanese occupation of Manila (Second World War), San Agustin Church became a concentration camp. The Japanese troops held hostage the Augustinian friars and members of the congregation for about three months. Several of these hostages died from the hands of the Japanese. In 1945, Manila was heavily destroyed by both American and Japanese troops. Almost all structures of Intramuros were annihilated save San Augustine Church. For the faithfuls, this was a miracle.

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The hallway leading to the choir loft (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Some of the famous burials in this church are: Miguel López de Legazpi (the first Governor-General of the Spanish East Indies and the person behind the creation of Intramuros as the colonial capital of the Spanish East Indies); the soldier Juan de Salcedo who had a romantic involvement with the local princess Kandarapa; Guido de Lavezaris, the second Governor-General of the Spanish East Indies who succeeded de Legazpi; and the Filipino painter Juan Luna, who had a very important role in the Philippine revolution against Spain in 1898.

Santa Maria Church. Most of the Hispanic churches in the Philippines followed the Spanish tradition of sitting them on the central plaza. Santa Maria Church is one of the few churches (and convents) which did not conform to this tradition: it is located on a hill surrounded by a defensive wall (almost fortress-like).

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The facade of Santa Maria Church; on the front buttress is the relief of the Assumption and adjacent the Church is the three-storey and free-standing belfry (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

From the main hi-way (or “national road”) of Santa Maria, the church and the convent are reached by climbing a stairway made of granite with 85 steps. From the back of the church, there is a narrow roadway leading to a courtyard. Another wide stairway, similar to the front, leads down from the courtyard to a brick walkway that leads to an old abandoned cemetery. A few yards from the brick fence of the walkway are the ruins of an old chapel and graveyards.

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The relief and the side entrance of the church (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

The belfry of the church is freestanding located on its side. Just beside the belfry is a relief image of the Lady of the Assumption, believed to be miraculous by the locals. Some say that at nighttime, the image comes down from the side of the church and becomes an ordinary individual who leads people who seem to be losing track of their destination in the right direction.

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The staircase made of granite leading to the front of the Church (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

According to another legend, before the Santa Maria Church was built on its present site, the Lady of the Assumption was enshrined at a different place. The frequent disappearance of the Virgin Mary from her previous place of enthronement only to be found perched on a guava tree that grew where the present church is located, had led the townspeople to move the church to its present location. Some say that the tree which appears in the relief on the buttress of the church is, in fact, the guava tree.

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The granite staircase from the back of the church leading to the old chapel and old graveyard (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

In the next days, I will post my entry on Paoay (Ilocos Norte) and my entry on Miag-ao (Iloilo). In my opinion, these churches are the grandest and the more aesthetically sublime.

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