Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Retablos: Art for the Masses

It's not everyday that one gets to see a show dedicated to Catholic art here in Houston. Such a happening would be more expected in the neighboring city of San Antonio, but not here in Bayou City where the art scene is more secular.

Santo Nino de Atocha, Holy Christ Child of Atocha.
From the collection of Bob Riddick.

So, an exhibit on retablos hosted by the Heritage Society at the Sam Houston Park, downtown, is a pleasant surprise indeed.
Retablos: Art for the Masses is an exhibition featuring Mexican retablos, nichos and a handful of bultos or santos. It traces the retablos evolution from the costly paintings on copper created by trained and schooled artisans for the elite society, to the pedestrian laminas, rendered on tin metal by anonymous and self-taught "saint makers" or santeros. It also explores the retablos' Houstonian connection by reminding visitors that the city was once part of Mexico.

It is a small show with perhaps no more than 50 pieces. Most of the featured artworks come from the collection of Bob Riddick- also the show's curator, and the rest of the pieces from other collectors.

The exhibit is presented in a very straightforward manner. Each artwork is by itself, in all its glory-save for a small label identifying the subject and from whose collection the piece is from.

The lack of complimentary texts that explain the showcased objects and their subjects, is rather disappointing for the non-Catholic viewer who has no inkling what it is all about. This is rather unfortunate because there is an interesting story behind each saint.

Fortunately for me who was educated by nuns in a Catholic school, the stories of the lives of saints remain vividly alive in my imagination.

Most notable from the retablos is a simple, Mexican lamina showing a penitent San Nicolas de Tolentino. Here, San Nicolas is shown about to flog himself with a whip and his rotund and plump face (bearing features reminiscent of Hispano-Filipino ivory pieces) registers no concern for the torture about to be inflicted on him. His whole attention is focused on a crucifix he is holding. The graphic quality of the work is flat and comic-like, which in a way is very appealing. Different hues of blue, brown, and red complement the simple and childlike rendering of the saint.

San Nicolas de Tolentino.
Collection of Bob Riddick.

Another remarkable piece from the show is a retablo housed in its tin metal nicho. The nicho simulates a classical church altar with its pediment, nimbus and finials in the shape of an urn and comes complete with a miniature glass chandelier. Inside, is a depiction of Ecce Homo, "Behold the Man" - an appellation used to describe images of the bound Christ when Pilate presented Christ to the people.

Also in the exhibit are a handful of bultos of santos.
Most impressive in this group are the figures of Santiago and a wooden Santo Domingo. The wooden icon labeled as Santo Domingo, is actually a Santo Tomas de Aquino or Saint Thomas Aquinas. Saint Thomas is also a Dominican saint but he is often depicted clean shaven, just like in this sculpture. Santo Domingo, the founder of the Dominican order, on the other hand, is always depicted with a short beard and mustache.
This santo, though unlabeled with a provenance, is most probably from the Philippines. Judging from its base, facial features and overall carving style, it is probably a Filipino santo, sculpted sometime in the 1700s.

Collection of Bob Riddick.

In the sculptural group of Santiago, the apostle is shown brandishing a sword, atop a white horse, and about to trample a supine, fear-stricken Moor. This is a representation of St. James as Santiago Matamoros, James the Moor-killer.
In the days of Reconquista, when Spanish Catholics were fighting for control of their homeland against the Moors, a miracle occurred.
In a glorious apparition, the Spaniards saw Santiago riding on a white steed, fighting off the Moros with his sword. From this episode, James the Apostle became James the Moor-slayer, the protector and patron of Spain. Santiago's popularity in Spain and her colonies are evident in the many places and churches that bear his name.
As gruesome as the sculptural group's subject is, Santiago is ironically, delicately rendered. The santero endowed the saint with soft features: pale skin, an oval face, a small mouth-ajar, baring tiny teeth, flushed cheeks and painstakingly drawn eyelashes and eyebrows with every single strand of hair rendered with a single stroke of the brush.
A silver, wide brimmed, traveler's hat crowns his handsome head symbolizing the fact that Santiago, is also the patron saint of pilgrims. In fact his shrine in Compostela, Spain has been an important pilgrimage site from all over Europe, since time immemorial.

Retablos is an utter delight to the eyes and to the soul. Aesthetically and spiritually, it is an enchanting exhibit for everyone to see. Retablos runs from May the 5th to July 12.

For more information regarding the show, please vist:
The Heritage Society.

Images from the Heritage Society website. Text, Victor Ancheta

Monday, June 29, 2009

Snapshots of Houston: Anita & Main Sts.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Hot N Cold

It's officially hot as hell here in Purgatory!
The mercury here in Houston has hit 104°F. That's 40°C for you metric snobs, err, I mean the rest of the world. Today, by the way, is only the third day of summer! It might even get hotter as the season unfurls. The highest ever on record for H-Town is 109°F back in September 2000.

So once again, it is the time to stay indoors, cool off, bring out the fans, turn on the AC's, over-eat, and gain weight from inactivity.

And while you're munching on something cool, why not pair your cold dessert with something homemade and fresh from the oven?
Admit it, you've been sitting in front of the TV for hours watching reruns of SpongeBob. So get at it, get up from the couch and start baking some pies, or cake, or whatever pastry for your ice cream or whipped cream.
Yes! Bake! Think of it this way, baking is exercise.
It quells the guilt.

I did. And right now, I'm in heaven with my warm apple pie and cool chocolate-swirl ice cream. The temperature maybe hot outside, and the water in the shaded pool a bit too cool for my liking, but here I am inside my house enjoying the best of both.


Monday, June 22, 2009

A Glimpse Of San Ignacio In Its Full Glory.

The Jesuits' Lost Golden Dream may once again become a reality.
News of implementing a decades-old plan, spark excitement and new hope for heritage-conscious Filipinos. The plan to rebuild the church of San Ignacio seems promising. Spearheaded by the Intramuros Administration under Bambi Harper, the project calls for reconstructing the church and turning it into an ecclesiastical museum as Museo de Intramuros.

Known as the Jesuit's Golden Dream, San Ignacio church was renowned for its graceful façade and an interior beautifully decorated and richly clad in tropical hardwoods. One of the last churches to be built on Intramuros, it replaced an older church, La Compañia, that formerly belonged to the Jesuits before their expulsion from the Philippines and other Spanish colonies in 1767.

La Compañia
Ruins of La Compañia in Intramuros, Manila.

Built on Calle Arzobispo, San Ignacio church was designed by Filipino architect, Felix Roxas, whilst its interior was furnished by Isabelo Tampinco, Manuel Flores, Crispulo Hocson and other Filipino artisans. Agustin Saez, director of Escuela de Bellas Artes in Manila, contributed to the project by designing the retablos and pulpit.
The cornerstone of the church was laid on February 9, 1878 and was completed, inaugurated and consecrated 12 years after in July 27 - 30, 1889. (Reseña Histórica)

The church was a celebration of Philippine art. From its architect, to the artists that decorated it and to the materials it was made of, it was a treasure chest of everything Filipino.
San Ignacio was a source of pride for a country then beginning to develop a sense of patriotism. An obra maestra to the eyes of locals and foreigners, it was considered a must a see sight for any visitor in pre-war Manila, and even a popular wedding destination.

San Ignacio church met its demise during World War II. The war imposed its horrors to the country and San Ignacio was no exception. During the Battle for Manila in 1945, the church was razed by the Japanese.

Today a ruined shell, San Ignacio church awaits the time when it will arise from its slumber, so that once again, the Jesuits' Golden dream is a reality.

While we await for San Ignacio's eventual restoration to its former splendor, let's take a look back at its original form.

Let us start from the outside.

Filipino architect Félix Roxas who designed San Ignacio, opted for a façade done in the neoclassical style. (He had previously designed a Gothic church for Sto. Domingo in Intramuros, another beautiful church rich in history, grandeur and importance but also lost in WWII.)

The main element of the façade is the pediment. It is supported by four pairs of twin columns; the bottom columns are rendered in the Ionic order, while the top are in the Corinthian style. The use of twin columns in church facades has been described as distinctly Filipino.("The "City of God"")
Flanking the pediment are graceful, twin towers.

The walls separating the church compound from Calle Arzobispo are laced with wrought iron grilles and the posts are topped with ornate faroles.

Enter the church and the rows of arches and columns direct the faithful's gaze straight to the high altar, Retablo Mayor, designed by Agustin Saez.

Where San Ignacio de Loyola is enshrined - the founder of Compañía de Jesú, the Jesuit order and the church's patron saint.

Here, a triumphant San Ignacio is exalted into heaven by angelic hosts. This is the Apotheosis of San Ignacio all rendered in wood by Manuel Flores, a noted Filipino sculptor.

The tallado, carved, image of San Ignacio with an upturned gaze.

San Ignacio's Retablo Mayor

What might San Ignacio be staring at the ceiling? A vision of the Holy Spirit in a nimbus of glory captivates his ecstatic attention.

While the central apse above the Retablo Mayor is decorated with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, the adjacent crossing features a recessed, octagonal dome ornamented with medallions bearing the faces of Jesuit saints. ("The San Ignacio")

And radiating from the crossing, the church ceilings are coffered with exquisite panelings all rendered in wood.

The central nave boasts of larger panels,

each decorated with medallions, florid forms and foliage.

These exquisite artesonado ceilings are what made San Ignacio famous and much beloved. Isabelo Tampingco and his atelier rendered all of these in expensive Philippine hardwoods.

After craning our necks at the ceiling, we focus our eyes on the Retablo Menors and the doors nearby.

The Retablo Menors, side altars, are executed following Agustin Saez's plan ("The San Ignacio")and are dedicated to the Sagrado Corazon and Inmaculada Concepcion.

The altar to the Sagrado Corazon houses a Christ enveloped in a mandorla.

Manuel Flores shows Christ atop the world and with one hand pointing to his flaming heart, the other, outstretched to the the faithful.

And with a slightly bowed head, expressing compassion to all humankind.

While the icon of Inmaculada Concepcion smiles demurely and with downcast eyes showing humility.

This sensitive image of the Blessed Virgin Mary is carved by Crispulo Hocson, Tampingco's father-in-law. Hocson sculpted the Virgin with her usual attributes, identifying her as the Virgin of the Apocalypse: a mandorla, a crown, twelve stars encircling her head and a crescent moon at her feet.
But in his tender rendering, Hocson managed to make true the Catholic doctrine of the Virgin's immaculate conception, which this statue represents. She stands on a globe and with one foot trampling the serpent of paradise with its forbidden fruit, symbolizing that she is free from fault- the Virgin Mary unblemished from the stain of original sin.

The Virgin is enshrined in a side altar identical to her Son's.

And the side door near her altar is capped with her monogram.

Another much celebrated feature of San Ignacio church is its pulpit.
Designed by Saez and carved by Tampingco, the pulpit is renowned for its exquisite details. (Miller)

San Ignacio Church's Pulpit

The stairs to the pulpit are covered with panels depicting the Four Evangelists: Sts. John, Matthew, Luke and Mark.

The Pulpit of San Ignacio Church in Intramuros

And the procession of the Evangelists leads to bas-reliefs showing the Descent of the Holy Spirit and Christ's Great Commission, where Christ instructed his disciples to baptize all nations under the Holy Trinity. The likeness of Faith, Hope, and Charity surround both scenes. ("The San Ignacio")

A group of angels struggle to support the entire pulpit.

From here, we say our goodbyes to San Ignacio and to his church and head for the door.
But before we do, let's send out a postcard to our friends, relatives and to ourselves in remembrance of this beautiful church.

Text, Victor Ancheta ©2009

San Ignacio Church

"The "City of God": Churches, Convents and Monasteries." Life's a Journey. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 June 2009. .

Miller, George. Interesting Manila. 3rd ed. Manila: n.p., 1912). Interesting Manila. Web. 22 June 2009.

Reseña Histórica de la Inauguración de la Iglesia de San Ignacio de Loyola. Manila: Imprenta y Litografia de M. Perez, Hijo, 1890. University of Michigan, 17 Feb. 2006. Web. 22 June 2009.

"The San Ignacio." The Philippine Jesuits. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 June 2009.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Tony, Tony, Turn Around, Something’s Lost And Must Be Found.

San Antonio de Padua

"Tony, Tony, Turn Around, Something’s Lost And Must be Found!"
Lost something today? Better pray to Saint Anthony, the patron of lost things. And pretty much of anything that's missing in one's life; children, a significant other, whatever or just plain missing oneself, invoke St. Anthony and he might just help.

Born in August 15, 1195 as Fernando Martins de Bulhões in Lisbon, Portugal, he died on June 13, 1231 as Anthony in Padua, Italy. Making today, June 13, his feast day. A Franciscan saint, he is popularly known as Saint Anthony of Padua, much to the dismay of his fellow Portuguese, who are always quick to point out that Anthony is from Lisbon and as such, should be called "Santo Antônio de Lisboa."

San Antonio de Padua

A retablo depicting San Antonio de Padua

Either way, St. Anthony has become much beloved and considered by many Catholics all over as one of their favorite saints, as proven by the many churches and chapels that bear his name. The fact that his canonization into sainthood in a little less than a year after his death remarkable and attest to his popularity even with his contemporaries.
And like many people, St. Anthony has a special place in my heart and altar. So it is not surprising to know that his depiction is one that I have sculpted most thus far. Well, perhaps second or third after that of the Virgin and Jesus Christ.

San Antonio de Padua San Antonio de Padua San Antonio de Padua San Antonio De Padua Antonio

San Antonio santos I've created through the years.

St. Anthony had became identified with lost things so much so that Catholics through out the ages invoke his aide whenever they lose something
What's rather amusing is how he became the patron saint of lost things. According to legends, St. Anthony had lost a favorite Psalter. It turns out a novice who had grown tired of monastic life, had left the monastery and in his leave, had stolen Anthony's book. St. Anthony prayed for the return of his precious item and soon after, came a terrified novice with the book in hand. The shaken novice recounted that a terrible demon threatened him if he did not bring back the book!

San Antonio de Lisboa
A San Antonio santo sans its Niño, Christ Child.

And in a reversal of roles, a peculiar practice that is also associated with St. Anthony involves hiding something from the saint; removing the Christ Child figure from the saint's arms.
St. Anthony's images always carry a Niño, the depiction of the Young Jesus as part of Anthony's established iconography.
Women who wanted a husband or children would remove the Christ Child figure and hide it from St. Anthony, murmuring into the saint's ears that they would only return his precious Niñoif their petitions have been granted!

All over the world today, the popular and much beloved St. Anthony is celebrated. ¡San Antonio, ora pro nobis!

Text & Photos Victor Ancheta ©2009


Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Originally uploaded by bleak!
Retablos are small pictures of saints and of Christ painted on tin, copper, wood and on other surfaces. In the past, they were created by artists for the consumption of Catholic devotees. These artists were usually anonymous, as only a handful ever signed their works. They view their works not as artworks rather as devotional objects that are meant to help a devotee pray. Retablos are catechetical
Retablos, or laminas, were created in vast quantities. The art of making Retablos was specially prolific and popular in Mexico and Latin America. Retablos were also made in the American Southwest. Most were made by local amateur painters out of necessity because of their distance from Mexico. Surprisingly, nowhere today is the art of Retablo enjoying a huge popularity than in New Mexico. Today, there are many New Mexican retablo makers, twice fold than it used to be centuries ago. The art form also reached the shores of the Philippines. Though Santos, statues of saints, proved to be more favored by devotees in this Catholic Asian nation.

Pictured here are two retablos of Sta. Maria Magdalena and Señor San José. It's been almost a year since I started painting them. Unfortunately, like with my other paintings, they've been put in the back burner. But, I am more than excited to finish them this summer.

Painting retablos is quite formulaic. Saints each have their own attributes, symbols, that must be present in all of their likeness. These attributes help a devotee to be able to identify a particular saint. Eliminating one attribute from a likeness of a saint, or even adding one, could lead the devotee and viewer in confusion.

For example, Santa Barbara and Santa Catalina de Alejandría are two popular ancient saints with similar attributes. Both carry palms and swords as symbols of their martyrdom. And both can also wear crowns, either as an allusion to their wealthy background, royal birth, or to their sanctity. But what set these two apart are the other attributes they carry or are illustrated with them. Santa Catalina is always shown with a spiked wheel, either broken or whole. This is a reference to an instrument of torture her scorned suitor, Emperor Maxentius, devised for her in her non acceptance of his proposal and of her refusal to denounce her Christian faith.
Barbara, on the other hand, is shown with a small tower with three windows. This is the tower where she was locked up by her Pagan father. And the three windows themselves, symbolize the Holy Trinity, making Barbara's tower a symbol within a symbol.

Retablos are not just pictures of saints. They serve as windows to heaven, offering the devotees here on earth a glimpse of celestial delight, of the promised paradise here after.

Text & Photos Victor Ancheta ©2009