By By Ramonfelipe A. Sarmiento
Simbahan Art and Politics (First of three parts)
posted 12-Jun-2010  ·  
1,959 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

The Lenten season in Virac had everybody gazing up the two sides of the cathedral’s façade, not for some heavenly apparition but to look at two tarpaulin canvasses containing front and back views of the plan for renovation of Virac’s premier house of Catholic worship. As it appears in the illustrations, there would be three big changes. First is the fitting of a dome, second is the addition of a second floor to the wings, and third is the almost total facelift of the façade itself. By all indications, it will be a major renovation. When finished, one will hardly find a trace of the present structure.

This prospect of the cathedral taking on yet another round of sweeping changes sent me to a swift recollection of the almost fifty years of my own intimate experience of the simbahan ning Virac. I grew up practically under its shadows, it being very near my home. What more, in the five decades of my Catholic life, the simbahan took on a series of gross overhauls. I witnessed up-close how the old Spanish baroque structure gave way to the modern building that it is now. I saw how the altar and other aspects of the interior evolved into different styles, how saints changed places rigodon-manner, or disappeared altogether only to make subsequent come-back; how the kampanaryo got encased in a prefab decorative walling and later on stripped bare again to its former erectile glory.

Looking more keenly into these changes, one realizes that they were not exactly products of whimsical decision-making by the religious powers-that-be. They were the physical manifestations of more fundamental changes in the Church’s broad outlook or orientation. Church thinking is not constant and eternal, and so are its material components. So we can attribute the past changes in the building, altar, and other visible aspects of the Virac Cathedral to changeable Church mind. But to say this is not to fault the Church for being fickle-minded: like any other social institution, it is subject to the vagaries of historical forces. Changes in the Church can best be understood in the broader context of history. And so, it is with this framework that we will try to make sense of the present batch of impending changes. So we ask ourselves: What current changes in Church ideology and the concomitant historical forces are bringing forth these new set of physical transformations?

But before we tackle the present, let us go through the changes of recent memory, those that happened in the last half a century. In the late 1960’s, the old church of Spanish baroque built was torn down and on its place rose the present one. I had a vivid recollection of it all. I was in my primary grades then. From my home in San Juan, we could hear the incessant pounding of maso by a legion of workers, chipping away stone by stone formidable thick walls of coral and lime that stood unperturbed for centuries. One dramatic moment of this task of leveling the old church was when they got rid of the pediment, that triangular crown of the façade that holds the roof. With most of its base line chipped off, the pediment looked like a mushroom with only a small part left connected to the rest of the wall. Then they tied it with steel cables attached to a heavy equipment vehicle that tried to pull it down. After several attempts, the structure crashed down with a loud explosion, stirring up clouds of dust. After things settled, we found a deep and huge hole in the ground where it fell, exposing a great quantity of human bones! It proved the common belief that the church patio was a cemetery in former times.

I was too young then to realize the uncanny metaphor of that scene. Of how the physical perfectly coincided with the non-material: the breaking down of tradition disturbed the peace of the dead, the dead past. I remember how this whole exercise of destroying the old church for a new one was met with so much resistance by the old guards, the venerable sa-gugurang, aged denizens of the church such as cantoras in dark veils bent down by the weight of kilometric rosaries, scapularios, medals and volumes of novenas. But how much can they muster to hold back the tides of change? All they could do was watch seething with despair.

But it was not something unique to our place. All over the Catholic world, things were changing. It was the time of the Vatican II reforms. In the early 60’s, then Pope John XXIII summoned the Church elders to forge a new set of guidelines on how the faith may be lived according to the challenges of the modern times. By the late 60’s and into the 70’s, the effects of this new outlook started to be felt in the Philippines. And certainly the winds of change blew into the isle of the eastern seas.

The reason offered for the replacement of the Spanish-styled church was that it was already too small for the growing congregation, which I believe had ample basis. But there was more to sheer need for worship room. Somehow, the dark interior of the old church, its musty, moldy and dank smell, or its host of bejeweled but pensive mestiso saints housed in ornate retablos, did not go well with the new outlook. And while the old structure was giving way to the new, other aspects of the religion of our forebears were also being swiftly revised or altogether rid off. Masses were said in English or the vernacular with the priest facing the congregation. Liturgical music was likewise updated, there were even the so-called a go-go masses featuring rock music to the accompaniment of drums and electric guitar. Traditional practices such as the palong-palong on Holy Tuesday had their last run. Even the well-loved kagharong during Christmas or the procession of the pasos and aleluya during the Holy Week were shunned during the initial years of Vatican II reorientation.

Basically, the premise of the reforms was that too much traditions accumulated through the centuries by the Church were distracting the believers from the essentials of the faith. All of those extravagant rituals and borloloys were taking attention away from the center of belief which is Christ. What else, such trappings were already being observed more for their cultural value (read: entertainment) rather than for the enhancement of spirituality. Couple that attitude with the modernist spirit, which is the rule of the rational and practical, and it resulted to the basic formula of subtraction and simplification, and the abandonment of anything that hinted of the old ways in the practice of religion. In the Philippines, this break from the past was bolstered by nationalism and the resentment for the Spanish colonial regime.

In physical terms, all these push for reform involved depopulating the altars of too many saints who went with their heavily ornamented niches. Favored in place was a minimalist altar design featuring a simple cross. Only a few, simple decorations and trimmings were maintained for that austere look which was thought to be more conducive to meditation. Churches that had to be newly built avoided any baroque or classic motif and embraced modernist styles. Old ones were stripped off as much as possible with vestiges of the antique. But some others had their centuries-old structures leveled to the ground to give way to brand new ones. Such as what happened in Virac in the late 60’s.

The coming of the "new church" was heralded by a billboard near the entrance of the old one, in same way that the tarpaulins do now. It featured a perspective drawing and indicated that it was designed by one Architect Tuburo (tugang ni Dr. Mely?) Young as I was and without the baggage of nostalgia for su mga kaidtu, I got excited about the prospect of a new church building. Despite resistance, I guess many people too welcomed it. Besides, the Viracnons, or indeed the entire province, were eager to give up the idyllic and laid back existence, raring to be swept by the currents of progress. This aspiration was literally "concretized" through a frenzy of construction work filling up the island with concrete roads, bridges, the public market, the JMA theatre, etc. it actually made people nervous na baad maglubog ang isla. All these were financed by the patronage politics of the Albertos who were cornering a good chunk of largesse from the national budget. So, rumors had it that the Albertos contributed a large part of the financial requirement of the church project. Construction started right away and in a few years, it was finished. But then came super typhoon Sening in 1970 and the entire roof of the new church, still smelling of fresh paint, was blown off and dumped on to the oma. People saw this as an act of God’s displeasure, although it was not clear as to what peeved Him, whether the tearing down of the antique church or the use of dirty money for the building of His new house. Anyway, the church somehow got a new roof later, and perhaps from more acceptable funding since no typhoon ripped it off again.

In 1974, Catanduanes became a diocese and so the Virac parish church had to be called a "Cathedral." The first bishop, Msgr. Jose Sorra undertook to build up the infrastructural complex of the new diocese. Young as he was then, Bishop Sorra was modernist in sensibility and taste, so his building projects such as the new chancery office, the Fiat House and the Risen Christ chapel near the CSC, were thoroughly modern and in full complement with the cathedral itself. In addition, there was also a clear partiality for naturalism as motif, as seen in the generous use of rattan as material, in the cave chapel at Fiat House, in the high relief sculpture on the altar of the Risen Christ featuring foliage and nature scenery, and in the current altar design of the cathedral itself featuring the "fisher of men" motif (complete with baklad fence!).

One really good effect of modern church design in Catanduanes was that it allowed the flourishing of creativity among production designers for special occasions such as fiestas, Christmas and the Holy Week. The almost neutrality and minimalism of modernist church altars made them receptive for any design concept rendered for these special observances. In Virac, we enjoyed the creative outputs of such designers as Noli Rodrigueza, Tom Amata (tabangan ning Diyos), Ompee Mendoza and Daisy Lianko. Such dynamic creativity would spill over to other religious practices such as in the making of tinagba and kinalobong street-side shrines which formerly were ruled by traditional conventions. In the past twenty years of exile to Manila, I would get excited about going home to Virac for these special religious occasions, in anticipation of new designs that Noli or Ompee had cooked up. Indeed, these artistic heroes had raised our aesthetic tastes to higher levels. But this may not have been possible if our church building and interior remained Spanish baroque. The fixed style, itself already heavily ornamented, would have limited what can be done in decorating the altar for special occasions.

There would be major renovations on the cathedral in subsequent years. There were the finishing of the interior walls with cut limestone, the fitting of the stained-glass windows (among the best I’ve seen anywhere in the Philippines), the addition of the chapel of the saints, the conversion of the old baptistery into an adoration chapel (now closed again), and the rehabilitation of the old kampanaryo. But in all that, there was no altering of the basic form of the Tuboro building as the changes all conformed to its stylistic integrity. In the latest plan for renovation however, the building itself will take on a new basic form and style, one which may be called neo-baroque, a form of revivalism. A going back to the past, but not quite because it is being brought about by new historical forces working on the Catholic church as an institution. It is, again, the physical telling us of things beyond the physical. In the next two parts of this article, we will try to figure this out.

(To be continued)

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