Philippine churches: Where Spanish history is written

By Lynda B. Valencia

Churches have long played an important role in the spiritual, cultural and social life of the Philippines.

Here, the Spanish colonial history of the Philippines is written. Although now a sparse collection of obscure structures, these ancient monuments of stone and wood can still be found in many cities and towns of the archipelago, their gray, massive presence a constant reminder of a half-forgotten past.

Many of these religious structures are indeed run-down and in various stages of decay; others have been indifferently renovated without regard for their original form; but some, the lucky ones, have been carefully reconstructed and restored as near as possible to their former splendor.

These early edifices stretches back more than four hundred years to the arrival of the first friars who accompanied the successful Spanish expedition to the Philippines, in 1565, under the command of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, although the actual work of colonization and Christianization did not really begin until 1571 with the founding of Manila as the capital city of the new colony.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Philippines was a full blown Spanish colony. Manila was a thriving metropolis, socially, culturally, and architecturally resembling a contemporary Spanish town while retaining a strong oriental flavor in its strange blend of people, customs, traditions, languages.

Situated on a swampy delta at the mouth of the Pasig River, the city was protected by river and sea as a natural barriers against enemy attacks, its thick, massive walls were fortified with ramparts bearing mounted cannons.

Like most Spanish towns, it was laid out on a grid plan of intersecting streets, with the main square – the Plaza mayor — being the focus of the urban plan.

Within this enclosed compound the religious orders built their monasteries and churches, vying with one another in the magnificence of their architecture.

Today, all that remains of the architecture of Intramuros, the city “within the walls,” is the monasteries and churches of San Agustin and Manila Cathedral.

San Agustin miraculously spared the devastation of World War II that obliterated dozens of churches in Intramuros and scores of others.

The present structure of San Agustin was build between 1591 and 1618. The church itself is distinctive for its symmetry, quiet massing, and formal if austere appearance.

The twin belltowers of the facade enhance the architectural character or the exterior, which recalls the severity of Spanish Renaissance style.

The main structural feature of San Agustin is the vaulted roof. It is also claimed that the foundations of the church were built in the shape of an inverted vault, like the hull of a ship, on the theory that the church could thus better resists the terrible earthquakes for which the islands are known.

Actually, one of the twin belltowers had to be torn down after an earthquake cracked it badly in 1880.

The interior of the church is dramatic as the exterior is solid and severe. The main features of the nave (which measures 203 feet in length, 79 feet in width and 59 feet in height) are the astounding low single-span arch supporting the choir loft.

The highly decorated surface reinforces the dynamic movement of space that dazzles the viewer entering the strange, quiet atmosphere of San Agustin.

The richly carved doors of the entrance, the ornate gilden retablos of the collateral chapels, the beautiful pulpit, the intricately worked dark wood of the choir stalls – these all add to the richness and luxury of the interior.

In the beginning these religious structures were simple and made from light materials. But as the churches underwent several reconstruction after being razed by fire and destroyed by typhoon or flood, they began to evolve into the massive and grand structures of stone that can still be seen today.

What emerged was a type of mission-complex architecture composed of the church, the adjacent convent, and the belltower. These are usually laid out in a straight line on a rectangular plan.

The belltower, whether alone or in pairs, was an important feature of the mission complex, its vertical thrust giving a certain drama.

A typical mission church consists of a single nave, making its plan longitudinal. In bigger churches a transept intersects the nave before the section devoted to the altar, situated at the end facing the entrance.

The facade is the most important architectural feature off the mission church. Most of the facades of Philippine colonial churches have been reconstructed or underwent renovations in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

Many features of the Romanesque and Renaissance styles, as well as the Baroque style found in Mexican mission churches, were adopted in the Philippines. (PNA)