By By Ramonfelipe A. Sarmiento
Simbahan Art and Politics (Second of three parts)
posted 16-Jun-2010  ·  
1,251 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

In the first part of this series, we called attention to the planned major renovation of the Virac cathedral. We asserted that changes in the physical aspects of the church reflect changes in its more fundamental religious ideology. The replacement of the old Spanish structure some 40 years ago with a new building was inspired by the reforms of Vatican II which was meant to make the church more responsive to the challenges of modernity. In this second part, we demonstrate that the present plan is in step with yet another shift, albeit subtle, in church thinking. We could speak now of a neo-conservatism creeping into the Catholic way of seeing, and there is a corresponding manifestation in ecclesiastical art, specifically the getting in vogue of a neo-baroque style. Here, we discuss first the former and then tackle the latter.

While John Paul II’s becoming Pope in the late seventies represented a breaking from tradition (his being relatively young; his being non-Italian; the curious way he named himself; his refusal during his investiture to wear the tiara and ride the sedan chair, two symbols of majesty and authority), the latter part of his papacy was characterized by increasing conservatism. Prominently figuring out in this trend was one Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. In charge of matters of faith and doctrine in the Pope’s family, among his moves was coming up with a new edition of Catholic catechism designed to make plain and clear the basic tenets of Catholic belief. What brought about this was the perception that after years of Vatican II-inspired experimentation, the core Catholic teachings had been muddled up or worse marginalized in the minds of many of the practitioners. Instead, according to the vanguards of Catholicism’s "purity," what was cultivated were the twin "evils" of liberalism and relativism.

In liberalism, which means freedom to do what one sees fit, the individual had become too empowered, deciding for him or herself what beliefs to uphold and practices to observe according to taste and "conscience." The Catholic religion has become a kind of buffet table where people choose what putahe to take. It results to as many types of Catholicism as there are practitioners. What the purists complain about is that the supposed essentials of the faith are being neglected. So therefore we see throngs of communicants during masses but the confessional is almost always abandoned. Or hear of many Catholics disregarding Church teaching on contraceptives. As for relativism, standards of behavior become too flexible where good and evil are not anymore absolute and universal ethical matters but determined according to the popular phrase "it depends." It creates the situation where the One Great Truth cannot anymore be peddled as people live in their own personal truths.

Both liberalism and relativism are aspects of modernist philosophy that erode the authority of religion to rule on matters of human behavior and thinking, thereby posing serious challenge to the power of religious institution. Basically, there are two directions by which the Church can deal with this. One is to accommodate and the other is to reject, and things can only swing back and forth on these two extremes. The Vatican II reforms were a way to embrace modernity. After some two decades however, the enthusiasm has settled down and indeed the move to the other direction, conservatism, has gained ground. What horrifies the purists who are at the forefront of this movement, is that modernization had afflicted the Catholic Church "too much" to the extent that it had already looked and sounded more like protestante. Like you can mistake many Catholic simbahan for protestant houses of worship, with their plain and austere appearance and the santos banished from their pantheons. Or like the way many Catholics are taking Christ as savior "too personally," confessing sins directly to Him, trying to gain salvation without resort to the sacraments exclusively dispensed by authorities, indeed like what the protestante does.

With the death of John Paul II, namesake of the two popes who saw through Vatican II, and his replacement by Cardinal Ratzinger as Benedict XVl, conservatism as a trend took a solid boost in the Church.

The growing conservatism in the Catholic Church would seem to be occasioned by the need to reestablish clear boundaries in view of the increasing mix-up with other faiths. So it manifested as a reassertion of Catholic identity in the midst of modern pluralism. And what better way to do this than to call back to life aspects of the past, especially those more visible ones such as practices and visual art. As an example of the former, we have the recent restoration of the Latin mass. In the latter, we have the comeback of baroque ecclesiastical art.

Baroque art flourished in Europe from as early as the 16th century. According to historians, this sort of art developed during the so-called Counter-Reformation Movement waged by the Catholic Church to hold back the tides of Protestantism. Art, as manifested in church architecture and interior design, was mobilized to fire up and sustain the interest of the people through visual extravagance. Baroque as a style is characterized by dramatic designs and heavy ornamentation, appealing more to the emotional than to the rational sense. In church architecture, it is typified by the retablo motif (the familiar cake-like layering of the facade) with an abundance of decorative and structural features. The retablo is repeated in the altar featuring the hierarchical niches of saints and with even more florid decorations, usually of highly intricate carvings or metal works. The Spaniards brought baroque religious art to the Philippines which could only be most appropriate in winning over the natives. Our forefathers were so enamored that we developed a great liking for the baroque as we had for the religion.

It was in the early nineties that the revival of baroque religious are became noticeable. It happened that a number of contemporary churches in Manila were being renovated one after another, at least their interiors, in favor of the baroque design. This trend would quickly pick up and soon it was already a pa-uso. So therefore, churches were filling up blank expanses of altar backdrop with old-style embellishments. Plain-looking columns were fitted with Corinthian capitals and cornices were line with elaborate moldings. Retablo niches were constructed, painted with a gold that was more golden than gold, in order to house saints who made their reappearance. Baroque is back and with a vengeance! Indeed some of these church interiors became more baroque than the real thing! To be sure, there are successful attempts, such as the one at the Antipolo cathedral. But it is on account of the fact that the architecture of the cathedral easily jibed with the baroque style and the revered Antipolo birhen itself is authentic baroque.

But in many cases, the results are aesthetic anomalies at best and stylistic disasters at worst. An example is the church of St. Francis at the back of SM Mega Mall. With its layout and exterior that remind one of the Folk Arts Theatre, its architecture is one of the most modern in Manila. Now, with its altar reworked in neo-baroque, itr looks like a European island floating amidst a tropical ocean. It is so disorienting. Another illustration of failure is the Shrine of St. Joseph in Project 3, Quezon City. Newly finished in the early eighties, it was then a fine example of modern ecclesiastical church design with clean minimalist lines. I particularly loved the large carved Christ rendered almost in cubist manner, which is very similar to the one presently hanging at the main altar of the Virac cathedral. In the early years of the new millennium however, the overseers of the shrine decided to bite the neo-baroque pa-uso and surrounded this very contemporary and upbeat Christ with old-fashioned curls and swirls of carved appliqués painted in Chinese (or Saudi?) gold! Eieeew. . .

If you travel around the Philippines, you notice that the neo-baroque has invaded the provinces. And it has intruded into our isle of the eastern seas. Both the Bato and San Andres churches have reverted to neo-baroque altars and interiors. But they may not be considered improper because their buildings remained baroque in the first place. This is especially true of Bato church which is the most preserved Spanish church building in the province. In this case, what has been done was merely a restoration. Personally, I am quite happy about the results. Restorations can never bring back the original, but the Bato case does not have the excesses that we find in some restoration projects (like the Binondo church). Tama lang, tastefully done and classy. For having resisted the temptation to destroy their old church and for restoring it with reason, we are eternally thankful to the people of Bato.

With its impending renovation, it is just a matter of time that the neo-baroque pa-uso engulfs the Virac cathedral. But even before the big project starts, the baroque had already started its creeping return. First, there was the stripping bare of the old kampanaryo after some three decades of being hidden. Then, the modern concrete aleluya kastilyo gave way to the present one which is baroque-inspired. For me, this is a welcome change; its immediate predecessor was a monstrosity that looked like the CSC water tank. Then we have the new adoration chapel built within the premises of the parish office: so-so standard neo-baroque. Most recently, we have the throne-like fixture shoved right into the middle of the main altar of the cathedral. Apparently, it is the symbolic seat of authority of the bishop, "cathedral" being from the word "cathedra" which means "chair." Right above the chair is the bishop’s coat-of-arms. Both of these appurtenances of bishopric authority are rendered in neo-baroque opulence. But I say that the whole contraption is bothersome, at least on aesthetic considerations. First, its scale is too big in relation to the rest of the altar. It is a screaming presence. Second, its neo-baroque style, the design of which and the detailing having clearly crossed over to the realm of kitsch, is grossly incongruous with the style of its larger context. It does not harmonize at all with the modernist baklad "fisher of men" motif of the altar backdrop. It is the final touch to the grand confusion of mismatched elements thrown onto the cathedral altar. To illustrate, just consider the Joseph-and-Mary tandem on both sides propped up in their respective pedestals. Mama Mary is an antique Imaculada, diminutive but imprisoned in a humongous eskaparate, while Papa Joseph is larger-than-life, rendered with more realism but without the glass encasement (indicative of his lesser stature as a secondary patron saint? Well, at least he could freely breathe. . .).

Well, it might be that this scheme of things, after all, is not bothering most of us (ako lang yata). According to art critics, this halo-halo approach to design is something typically Filipino, indicative of our supposed fear of empty spaces. Our basic design approach is addition, and more addition, as can be seen in any Filipino home. Every OFW pasalubong or souvenir, every piece of giveaway during weddings, must all find a place. Our houses are overflowing with things and yet we still must buy the latest hulugan appliance or décor that all have to be displayed somewhere. And so it is the same with the church. The cura paroco must accommodate every donation by devotees: wall clocks, estampas, candelabras, curtains, vases of all kinds, chandeliers, Santo Ninos of varying sizes, a legion of angeles y serafines. And what do art critics cal this tendency? Baroque. Filipino Baroque ,which is our propensity to overdo and mix the most unlikely things. Perhaps, we were baroque even before the coming of the Spaniards. Might it be that our current attraction to neo-baroque is just being true to ourselves?

Perhaps, because how else is it possible for us to easily use last year’s Christmas lights to festoon this year’s Biernes Santo kinalobong?

(To be continued)

Email your comments and suggestions to monxar@yahoo.com.

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