Philippine churches: Where Spanish history is written
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
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)