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

This is the final narrative (Part 3) about the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Philippines collectively known as Baroque Churches of the Philippines. In the previous two posts, I have presented three magnificent Baroque churches, all of which are located in the Philippine largest island, Luzon: San Agustin Church in Intramuros in the National Capital Region, Santa Maria Church in Ilocos Norte, and Saint Augustine Church in Ilocos Norte.

In the first post, I talked about the San Agustin Church and how during the Second World War, the church stood unharmed whence almost all the structures in the walled city of Intramuros were destroyed.

In the same post, I narrated how the Santa Maria Church defied the Hispanic tradition of building churches just across the city hall. As told in the post, the church was constructed on top of a small hill because the Virgin Mary “told” the folks to do so.

Finally, the post about the Paoay Church is a discussion regarding the relationship of the archipelago with the Austronesian people during the peopling of the Pacific and the Philippines’ relationship with the Southeast Asian region.

From Luzon, this post travels to the Visayas, particularly in the island of Panay to talk about the fourth and last Baroque church inscribed as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1993: Santo Tomas de Villanueva Parish Church or more popularly known as Miag-Ao Church.

Our journey to Miag-ao begins in Iloilo City, the largest city in Panay Island. It is important to start the journey there for two simple but important reasons. First, the nearest airport to Miag-ao is the Iloilo International Airport. Second, the province of Iloilo where Miag-ao is one of its municipalities has a colorful colonial history paving the way not only for the construction of the Miag-Ao church but other significant baroque churches which are found en route Miag-Ao.

The central facade of the Church and the two huge buttresses that double as belfries (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The left buttress doubling as a belfry (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
An obligatory pose in front of the massive and beautiful church
Details of the beautiful facade (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

Miag-ao is 41 kilometers southeast of Iloilo city. When you reach Iloilo City, treat your journey as a pilgrimage (if you are Catholic) and/or a history lesson. Some of the marvelous churches that you need to see prior to Miag-ao are: Jaro Cathedral (the belfry is free-standing), Molo Church (the only Church in the Philippines where Catholic figures are all females), Guimbal Church (popular for its floral carvings in the facade) and Santa Barbara Church (the only Church in the province where the convent is still attached to the church structure). There’s another Church that you might want to consider visiting after seeing the Miag-ao Church: the San Joaquin Church located at the Southmost municipality of Iloilo. For me, it’s a must-see Church after Miag-ao. The facade is reminiscent of the Miag-ao’s. The relief on its facade is also worth mentioning here: its a reconstruction of the Hispanic victory over Moroccan forces in the Battle of Tetuan.

Now, we go back to Miag-ao. En route to the church, I was fortunate to be with one of my best friends who incidentally is also a resident of Iloilo. Along the way, I got acquainted with some historical accounts – thanks to him, who happened to graduate with a degree in literature and history. Accordingly, the architectural style is often attributed as a Baroque Romanesque architectural style. Like most Baroque churches in the Philippines, Miag-ao’s color is dominantly ochre due to the materials used in constructing the church: adobe, egg, coral, and limestone. There are thick buttresses on both sides of the church which meant to protect it from Moorish invaders in the 16th century.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site marker (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
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One of the side entrances of the Church (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
A view from the back of the Church (Photo: SAP Tiatco)
The interior of the Church – reconstructed after the second world war (Photo: SAP Tiatco)

My favorite part of the church is its facade, which consists of ornately decorated bas-relief sculptures. The complex of bas-relief sculptures is a mixed influence of Medieval Spanish, Chinese, Muslim and Ilongo. A prominent part of the facade is a coconut tree, which according to my friend is a depiction of the tree of life. There’s also the figure of St. Christopher, which is intentionally dressed in local and traditional clothing. He is carrying the Child Jesus on his back. Other significant images in the facade are the significant everyday materials of the people of Miagao during the time it was being constructed: the flora (like papaya, coconut and palm tree) and fauna. There’s also the image of the town’s patron placed above the main door and just below the image of St. Christopher. 

In my view, the facade makes it the most celebrated, the most beautiful and the most localized Baroque church in the entire archipelago.

My friend told me that when the Church was being constructed, the contractors only needed egg whites. Instead of throwing away the yolks, the locals lined up to get the yolks and used them for cooking. Because of this, any food with egg yolk as its base dominated the province. On the other hand, Iloilo is known for its delicious pastries (i.e. traditional cookies, the butterscotch-isque bread/pastries, and the barquillos). Legend has it, locals learned to cook these traditional pastries as early as the 16th century.

In 2021, the Philippines will celebrate 500 years of Christianity.  No one can deny that Christian faith has become a significant part of Filipino heritage. However, as we celebrate 500 years of this colonial legacy, let us also not forget the dark history of Catholicism and Christianity in the Philippines. Let us also remember those who died from the hands of the Catholic Church.

Most importantly, let us also commemorate the genius of the locals who in a way, are the unsung heroes of the massive places of worships. These are the artists who sculpted the amazing artworks that make these marvelous architectural wonders truly Filipino.

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