Author’s Note: This article uses Apple’s QuickTime technology in providing an immersive experience by means of virtual reality panoramas. QuickTime is required to view the 360-degree VRs. Average VR size is 1.8Mb each.
I love churches, especially centuries-old ones. Apart from their religious significance, I like the tranquility of its ambiance, the intricate architectural designs of its interiors, and the historical and cultural attachment to its community.
Being the only Christian nation in Asia and with over 400 years of rich Spanish heritage, our country is dotted with an abundance of these elegant structures. Built in God’s name, and for His glory, these bastions of Christianity are a testament of man’s faith, devotion, and artistic talents.
The National Commission for Culture and Arts (NCCA) listed the following four churches on November 6, 1992 for inclusion under the UNESCO World Heritage List:
Church of the Immaculate Conception of San Agustin, Intramuros
Church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción of Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur
Church of San Agustin in Paoay, Ilocos Norte
Church of Santo Thomas de Villanueva in Miag-ao, Iloilo
These were subsequently inscribed on December 1993 under World Heritage List No. 677 with the heading “Four Baroque Churches of the Philippines”.
They were selected for inclusion based on their authenticity and qualities. “…As all four churches represent the progressive evolution of the structures of places of worship that has been in continuous use since their original construction”. “These churches are architecture built in response to local natural and climatic conditions by Filipino and Chinese craftsmen with no knowledge of European architecture. The men of God who commissioned them reinterpreted the European Baroque to establish a peripheral Baroque which is deceptively western in appearance but wholly Filipino in spirit and context”.
Baroque being a period as well as a style that started around the year 1600 in Rome, Italy. It is characterized by “exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music.” “The popularity and success of the Baroque style was encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church which had decided at the time of the Council of Trent that the arts should communicate religious themes in direct and emotional involvement”.
Church of the Immaculate Conception of San Agustin
The Church of the Immaculate Conception of San Agustin was the first church built on the island of Luzon in 1571, immediately after the Spanish conquest of Manila. A site within the district of Intramuros was assigned to the Augustinian Order, who were the first to evangelize in the Philippines. In 1587 the impermanent earliest building in wood and palm fronds was replaced by a church and monastery in stone, the latter becoming the Augustinian mother house in the Philippines. As a result the church was richly endowed, with a fine retablo, pulpit, wall paintings, lectern, and choir-stalls. It was the only structure in Intramuros to survive the liberation of Manila in 1945.
VR: Façade of San Agustin Church
San Agustin Church, as it is commonly referred today; is one of two prominent churches within Intramuros. Aside from being one of the favored churches for weddings, it also houses a museum that displays historical and religious artifacts such as paintings, porcelains, vestments, gold chalices, and the likes. It also has in its possession an 18th century pipe organ that is still being use today. There’s also a crypt and a monument in remembrance for those victims of the Japanese occupation during WWII.
VR: Main Stairway of the Church
VR: 18th Century Pipe Organ
Not many people know, Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, who ordered the construction of the walls of Intramuros, founder of Manila, and the first Spanish governor of the Philippines was laid to rest in this very church. His tomb is found near the altar.
VR: Legaspi’s Tomb
Church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción of Santa Maria
Located in the town of Santa Maria in Ilocos Sur, this church is unique among Philippine churches in that it was situated on a hill elevated from the central town plaza. The hill is surrounded by a retaining wall on all sides. The church’s bell tower consists of stacked octagonal horizontal cross sections of decreasing diameter. The patron saint of the parish, which was established in 1765, is Señora de la Asuncion and her feast day is celebrated on August 15, the feast of the Assumption. Enshrined in the church is the Virgin’s statue made of wood in ornate sculptural style, with ivory face and hands. She stands on pedestal of clouds surrounded by angel’s heads.
VR: Santa Maria Church and Monastery
VR: Interior of the Church
VR: The Octagonal Bell Tower
The mission at Santa Maria, founded on a narrow, flat plain between the sea and the central mountain range of Luzon, was one of the most successful Augustinian houses in the Philippines. It served as the base for the Christianization of the northern parts of the archipelago.
Church of San Agustin in Paoay
The town of Paoay is called “Bombay” in early documents, in keeping with the legend that the earliest inhabitants came from India. It is first mentioned in 1593 and became an Augustinian independent parish in 1686. Commissioned by the Augustinian friars led by Fr. Antonio Estavillo, the construction of the church begun in 1694 and was completed in 1710 and rededicated in 1896.
Built of coral blocks and stucco-plastered bricks, the architecture is a unique combination of Gothic, Baroque, and Oriental. It is considered to be the most outstanding example in the Philippines of “earthquake Baroque”, as giant buttresses lined along the sides of the church for protection against earthquakes. A few meters away is the coral-stone bell tower; they were usually built farther away to prevent damage to the church in case it fell down from an earthquake. The tower served as an observation post of the “Katipuneros” during the Philippine Revolution and again by the “Guerillas” during the Japanese occupation.
VR: Façade of Paoay Church
Church of Santo Thomas de Villanueva in Miag-ao
The Augustinian mission station of Miag-ao became an independent parish in 1731, when a simple church and convent (parish house) were built. However, destruction of the town by Moslem pirates in 1741 and 1754 led to the town being rebuilt in a more secure location. The new church, constructed in 1787-97, was built as a fortress, to withstand further incursions. The church stands on the highest point of Miag-ao, its towers serving as lookouts against Moslem raids.
The sumptuous facade epitomizes the Filipino transfiguration of western decorative elements, with the figure of St. Christopher on the pediment dressed in native clothes, carrying the Christ Child on his back, and holding on to a coconut palm for support. The entire riotously decorated facade is flanked by massive tapering bell towers of unequal heights. It was, however, damaged severely by fire on two occasions – during the revolution against Spain in 1898 and again in World War II.
VR: Façade of Miag-ao Church and Bell Towers
VR: Interior View of the Church
These four churches, along with many others are symbols of pride and heritage of the Filipino nation. Protection and preservation should not only be paramount, but education should also play a role. For it is by learning and sharing that knowledge that we can truly start to appreciate these grand masterpieces. The UNESCO sign attached nearby to each heritage site simply reads: “… possesses exceptional universal value that deserves protection for the benefit of all humanity.” Now what can be clearer than that?
These VRs were made possible with the kind assistance and permission of the following: Fr. Pedro Galende, Director of San Agustin Museum; Director Martin Valera, DOT Region I and the Laoag Sub-office; Rev. Msgr. Amadeo E. Escañan, H.P., Parish Priest of Miag-ao Church; and my friend Martin who drove us around in Iloilo. Sources: UNESCO World Heritage website and wikipedia.org. Paoay and Sta. Maria VRs taken on December 2006, Miag-ao taken on May 2007, and San Agustin on September 2007. The writer can be reached at: