By By Ramonfelipe A. Sarmiento
Simbahan Art and Politics (Last of three parts)
posted 25-Jun-2010  ·  
1,566 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

Let us clarify the title before we round off this series. Simbahan art is relatively easy to grasp: it refers here to the material, that is visual, forms seen in the church as place of worship. It involves the architecture and the decorations, including the icons or the mga imahen for which the Catholic Church is unique. The "politics" of the title is the one that needs more explaining. As used here, the "political" is anything that involves the use of power. If all human relationships are power-laden, then everything in the social sphere is political, including religious institutions.

In the first two parts, we have belabored the point that religious art is reflective of religious ideology or ways of thinking. Changes in the ideology result to changes in the artistic expression. The current neo-baroque trend we are experiencing in Catholic religious art is accompanied by a corresponding neo-conservatism in Catholic ideology. This "going back to the old ways" we interpret as a move by the Church to reassert its identity in the midst of pluralism and liberalism brought about by forays into modernism.

Any change of outlook or thinking in an institution also changes the relationship between people and groups in that institution. So this whole business of using art in the institutional set up such as the church becomes a political matter. In this series, the whole point is that art is never neutral of political content. In this specific case, I argue that modernism in art reflects a particular way of thinking (liberalism) which is associated with democracy wherein power is widely distributed. A move away from modernism, in this case a neo-conservatism, can mean in the context of the Church a reassertion of its institutional primacy (or power), which necessarily compromises its democratic aspirations.

For this last part, I will discuss specific neo-baroque features in the Cathedral of Virac in terms of their symbolic (meanings expressed) aspects, especially on how they project the assertion of institutional primacy. Let me start with the Episcopal "throne" which because of its highly symbolic function is a good indicator of ideology. In the second part, I have already commented on its aesthetics. This time, I will elaborate on its signification of meanings. Again, art is never an innocent effort to beautify. It is always pregnant with meanings, a representation of something else. The first thing we notice about the "throne" is its transfer from the side to the center. In many cathedrals I have seen elsewhere, the "seat of power" occupies a nook on the left side of the altar (as seen from the pews), as indeed it has been in the Virac cathedral since the inception of the diocese. This low-key location can be interpreted as a de-emphasis on the ecclesiastical prerogative, a way to highlight the importance of the role of the laity in the Church, which was a cornerstone of the Vatican II reforms. Bringing the symbolic chair to the center of the altar can only mean a reversal of the populist aspiration. The message is unmistakable: the institutional Church takes the upper hand in power and majesty. In the case of the Virac cathedral, this message is multiplied many times over courtesy of the excessive proportions of the "throne" vis-à-vis the rest of the altar and the way its design calls so much attention to itself. A screaming presence as I put it in part 2. So much so that it occupies space in the worshipper’s mind even more than the properly "spiritual" features of the altar.

Let’s now tackle the planned reconstruction of the cathedral building itself. In an interview with the parish priest of Virac, the reason given was practicality. Supposedly, space in the present church is not anymore enough for the growing needs of the cathedral parish, both for offices and worship services. But is there really such a pressing need? The cathedral as it is now is big by any standard, even bigger than those of dioceses with larger populations than our own. In fact, most Sunday masses in the cathedral are not filled up. As for office space, a good rehabilitation of the old ICA building will provide more than enough for the purpose.

If practicality is not a tenable reason, how do we make sense of this gargantuan project? It is easy to simply attribute this to the compulsion of the current neo-baroque pa-uso that is the rage all over Philippine Catholicism. In our case here in Virac, this fad seems so overpowering on the local church leadership that a simple paste-on compliance seen mostly elsewhere is not enough. But then, as we have been arguing, art reflects ideology. And granting that such a trend is indicative of neo-conservative thinking, then it would follow that here in our province the "going-back-to-the-old" orientation is also taking a stronger bite. For if this neo-conservative impulse is foreshadowed in such moves as bringing back the "chair" to the center of the altar, so much more do we see it in the reconstruction project itself, especially in the planned dome.

In the planned cathedral, the dome is a salient feature with its arresting massiveness that will dwarf even the belfry. In the same interview with the parish priest of Virac, the justification given for this dome was, again, practicality: supposedly it will enhance ventilation, lighting and acoustic. But these functions can be derived from other architectural features just as well. There is no compelling practical reason to fit a building with a dome. It is largely for the decorative and symbolic reasons; a giving-in to the exhibitionist impulse.

Apparently, the planned dome is patterned after the one at the cathedral of Florence in Italy, the first dome of its kind in the world which became model for almost all the domes of classic buildings, including St. Peter’s in Rome and the Capitol in Washington D.C. These are both structures that need to project institutional stability, majesty and power: a conservative posturing.

The dome of Florence has a colorful history. Back in the 14th century, the people of Florence have long built a cathedral (itself an architectural wonder) but the space on which they intended to build a dome remained empty for many years, awaiting for the appropriate design to be drawn up. At that time, no engineering technique was yet available to create a dome of the proportions called for by the scale of the Florentine Doumo (cathedral). Until a brilliant architect by the name of Filippo Brunelleschi came up with a technique that solved the problem. When finally built, the dome, apart from its singular beauty, took significance in many respects. Firstly, it represented an advance in building technology. Secondly, it became symbolic of the power not only the Church but of Florence as the world’s center of art, economy and politics. Its building cost was subsidized by the prosperous Florentine merchant class. It served as a way to proclaim a city’s achievements. And how appropriate because the dome was shaped like a crown, a symbol of majesty and glory. It was more of an architectural conceit, a trophy that fed the ego of the economic, political and religious ruling classes of Florence which in those days were closely inter-linked.

The circumstances that will accompany the building of a dome in a reconstructed Virac cathedral do not exactly parallel that of Florence. But we could see both similarity and difference. As to the similarity, we see the same effect of this grand building project of the Virac cathedral with that of its counterpart in medieval Florence: both are symbolic of institutional majesty, power and stability. But the difference becomes obvious on this same respect. While in Florence it involved the institution of the inter-locking ruling elite (economic, political and religious), it will merely concern the religious institution in contemporary Virac because of the separation of the Church and state. And having touched on the societal aspect, we see even more glaring difference. In Florence, the wealth of Florentine society made possible the expensive enterprise. But in the case of Virac, we wonder: who will foot the bill? In this isle of the eastern seas, there is no such prosperity. We are a poor province by any stretch of imagination. Local revenues can hardly finance our public building projects. So how can we afford a fancy church reconstruction?

Surely, we can always look to outside sources. In the same way that most material progress in Catanduanes is financed by outside sources (OFW remittances for private homes and CDF for public infrastructures), so can the church take to soliciting (read: begging for) external funding. Indeed, much of our infrastructures for religious purposes have materialized through this. In addition, the church by its nature, sustain only through the generosity of its supporters. Soliciting for funds is not by itself anomalous. If something is necessary for the propagation and sustenance of faith, then it must be pursued. It becomes questionable when the purpose is off-tangent.

So we ask: is a grandiose new cathedral with an imposing dome such a top priority in making the church in the locality more dynamic and alive with faith? I remember that in the wake of the Vatican II reforms, one of the main battle-cries was that the Church is not the building, as commonly held in the popular mind, but the People. Church leaders then were so emphatic in putting this across and they matched their rhetoric with people-building programs such as the basic ecclesial communities. Now, with the neo-baroque craze and the new and grand building project in Virac imminent, are we getting a change in signal as to the direction the Church is taking? Surely, we do not see here a Church that has already mastered the "people" dimension, not a Church that has ceased to be that of the poor because it is on the way to economic prosperity. What we see, as we have been arguing in this series, is a Church reorienting towards a neo-conservative outlook, one that projects more of the Church Majestic - imperious, glorious, bongga-cious - rather than that of the Pilgrim People of God struggling to live out the Christian values in this materialistic and cruel world.

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