Saturday, June 21, 2014

Captivated by Cebu’s Colonial Churches (Part 1)

Known here and abroad as one of the Philippines’ major tourist destinations, the island province of Cebu is home to numerous Spanish colonial churches that were built during Spain’s 333 years of sovereign rule in the archipelago.

Many of these heritage churches, resplendent even to this day with their unique fusion of European and Asian architecture, dot various parts of the province’s landscape and continue to portray a crucial role in the spiritual development of today’s generation of Cebuanos.

Whenever I’m lost and languishing, I gravitate towards the province, lingering in its premier city, which, through the years, has served as some sort of spiritual oasis for me given the treasure-trove of houses of worship there that I revisit every now and then.

Archdiocesan Shrine of St. Michael the Archangel

Recently, I had a rare chance of seeing for the first time some of the most awesome  churches found in Cebu’s southern towns. Hopping into them was my Plan B, which I pursued when a planned trip to a nearby group of islands went kaput. 

It was a last-minute change that I embraced enthusiastically as I‘d been looking forward to visiting some of the oldest bastions of Christianity not only in the Visayas but in the whole country as well. Also, I wanted to see for myself what’s with these churches that have made them part and parcel of our national patrimony.

Embarking on a visita iglesia long after Lent had passed seems out-of-sync, if not, incongruous for a last summer hurrah. Still, I opted for it because I’ve been yearning for a soul-enriching trip that would feed my faith as the wave of escapades I’ve had lately catered only to my mundane cravings.

Dr. Jose Rizal's monument at the town plaza

To my delight, the spiritual sojourn to that part of the island province had me captivated, cleansed and consummated as a pilgrim of sorts after paying a visit to the churches of Argao, Boljoon, Carcar, Dalaguete and Oslob. 
These four southern towns, as well as Carcar City, have houses of worship—all survivors of the 2013 killer quake that hit Bohol and many parts of Cebu—that are reputed to be among the province’s finest, some of which are historical landmarks and/or cultural treasures.   

Let me take you now to an armchair tour of Cebu’s magnificent churches in the south, which I’ll present alphabetically, starting with Argao. 

Better known for its fine white-sand beaches, Argao was founded as a pueblo in 1608. Since then, it has grown from a sleepy fishing community to one of Cebu’s top tourist magnets at present.

This old infantry barracks now houses Argao's Hall of Justice

I’ve always wanted to explore the place after I’ve first read about its numerous heritage attractions in a travel magazine. Since then, Argao has been in my thoughts whenever I visit Cebu. Plans to go on a heritage tour there, however, had to be aborted several times in the past due to time and resource constraints.

Seen finally for the first time, I was burning with excitement as I explored the town, which, according to legend, was named after a species of trees that the locals call sali-argaw, a highly medicinal herb growing in abundance there. The trees were also said to be a favorite resting place of fisher folks upon their return from the sea.

The two-hour commute to Argao provides travellers with breathtaking glimpses of rugged cliffs, low-lying hills, sprawling fish ponds, new subdivisions and the elongated shoreline and blue waters of Bohol Strait as the bus meanders through Cebu’s southern coastal road, some portions of which are under repair.
For this gadabout, the visit to the beach town turned out to be one rewarding and inspiring experience than he’s ever imagined it to be, made exciting by the myriad discoveries of Argao’s historical and cultural treasures that are, for the most part, unknown to him before.

Casa Real

Not too many travellers (that used to include me!) know that Argao has a cultural ace up on its sleeve—the awe-inspiring St. Michael the Archangel (San Miguel Arcangel) Church. Named after the town’s patron saint, the house of worship was built around 1734 and completed in 1788.

Located a few blocks away from the national highway, neatly tucked within a maze of concrete interior roads, this stunning 226-year old church, which faces Bohol Strait is often missed by those visiting the beach town. 

Thanks to Google® Maps and the friendly trisikad driver who took me there, I effortlessly found my way into the ancient church, which, I learned later, has been elevated into an archdiocesan shrine of one of the most popular archangels.

Facade of the Argao Church
Once a part of a walled pueblo known as Cabecera de Argao, St. Michael the Archangel Church is surrounded with a short concrete fence that has reliefs of the Stations of the Cross.  Inside this former Spanish enclave are a plaza, a municipal hall and a courthouse. A recent addition is a modern-day structure that serves as the legislative hall.

The church's pediment
It was, however, the town’s magnificent heritage church that captured my attention. Shaped like a horizontal rectangle, its simple façade, topped by a triangular pediment, provides visitors nary a trace of the monumental treasures found inside it. 

Niched bas-relief of St. Michael at the pediment

Divided into three panels, the façade has four pairs of twin columns stretching all the way to the pediment. Bearing Chinese influences, the two outer columns feature pedestals carved with sitting lions, each holding a ball on their paws.

At the center of the pediment is a bas-relief of the patron saint, armed with spear and shield, and flanked by two angels blowing their trumpets. On each side of this relief are oversized urn-like finials rising on rectangular bases at each corner of the pediment.

At the lower end of the church’s frontage is a huge wooden entrance. For reasons only the locals know, two iron screen doors, which I found abominable and discordant with the church’s old world allure, are attached to the main door. I have my thoughts about this but I’d rather keep them to myself. LOL!

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Exploring the interior of the Argao Church, I was overwhelmed with the wide array of treasures I saw there—magnificent ceiling paintings, an exquisite main retablo, an ancient pulpit, a wooden organ, among others—that would surely delight the senses of heritage lovers.

Five retablos adorn the church’s interior. But it was the stunning gold-painted (?) main retablo, exemplifying the architectural style called Rococo-Baroque, which awed me when I got inside the church and headed towards the sanctuary.

Made up of four niches, the central retablo contains gilded statues of the three archangels at the lower level: St. Raphael (left), St. Gabriel (right) and St. Michael (center). At the top center stands a sculptor of the Virgin Mary, also painted in gold.

The church's Rococo-Baroque main retablo

As typified by Argao’s church, Rococo architecture makes use of a more flamboyant, jovial and rhythmic approach compared to traditional Baroque, highlighted by light colors, ornate curves and lots of gold. 

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The church’s vaulted ceiling is made of wooden panels arranged longitudinally with cherubs overhanging as corbels. Adorning the ceiling are murals of the angels and archangels, said to have been done by Canuto Avila and Ray Francia, two of the best Visayan church muralists during the 1920s and 1930s.

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Hanging prominently on the right side of the church’s nave is a wooden pulpit with a dome-shaped canopy. Sculpted on it are the painted bas-reliefs of the four Gospel evangelists—St. Luke, St. Mark, St. John, St. Matthew—and the Virgin Mary.

I also noticed a wooden pipe organ hanging on the right side of the church near the choir loft. I’m not so sure though if it’s still working. But I read somewhere it came all the way from Mexico. 

Overall, St. Michael the Archangel Church stands out as one of the most spectacular ancient houses of prayer I’ve ever seen in the island province. I’m just wondering though why it hasn’t been declared a National Cultural Treasure.  Maybe it’s forthcoming. :-D

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