The creative and aesthetic abilities of Spanish colonizers are reflected in many colonial churches in the Philippines. This is especially true in Miagao Church - a world-renowned religious structure now included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Miagao Church is one of the Spanish colonial mission churches in the Philippines. The building of the church was executed not by real architects but by friars who came as missionaries via the galleon trade between Acapulco and Manila. The absence of European and Mexican architects in the mission allowed the idealistic friar-builders to try their hands in orchestrating the design and construction of mission churches with the help of native maestro de obras or master builders. There is no engineering innovations in the structural composition of these churches because they are simply built to withstand the destructive forces of nature. It was an architecture which took into account the tropical climate, the frequent earthquakes and typhoons and fires.
Like any other foreign influences, the architecture of many colonial churches has undergone the process of indigenization. This process is carried out by incorporating the prevailing Hispano-American and Medieval Spanish architecture with local as well as Muslim and Chinese touches. Thus, the synthesized topology which developed into a distinct style of mission churches is anachronistic with the unmindful use of decorative elements. It had no distinction in terms of periods or orders. Stability and massiveness along with durability associated with sound architecture, was very common. Thus, mission churches were mostly fortresses built for military purpose with some concessions on their facades.
The present church of Miagao is actually the third church constructed in the town. The first two churches were built in Ubos, but due to frequent piratical raids, it was transferred to Tacas, the highest elevated area in the town. The new church was built like a fortress in consonance with the provision of the Royal Decree 111 of 1573 (Law of the Indies).
The belfries that flank the facade of the Miagao Church are of uneven height and configuration. From a distance, they loomed as a symbol of authority, stability and dignity - a veritable fortress of divine presence. They are reminiscences of medieval gothic towers that served as observation posts especially during piratical raids. These massive bell towers with their rounded, tapering end - buttresses are unabashed imitation of medieval forts. A touch of levity is provided by the delicate tassel-end-lace traceries which mark the different tiers. The ground floor of the right tower was originally the baptistry which could be reached from the end of the nave. The existence of the crypt is evident as a partly concealed stairway that lead downward. This is believed to connect a tunnel or subterranean structure down to the watch tower near the shoreline in Baybay.
Flanked by two belfries is the facade, the most notable feature of the church. It reflects rare extension with the employment of various highly decorative relief motifs which are artistically carved on homegrown carbonaceous limestone of yellow ochre color. A composite of medieval, baroque and local elements, it is moreover, a candid reflection of flamboyance and carefree styling of the 18th century Philippines. It is harmoniously matrixed, arranged and crafted which reflects the refinement skills and talents attained by local artists engaged in the construction of colonial churches. As a baroque structure, it normally adapts these fundamental form with the accompanying pilasters, friezes, cornices and oval openings.
The well-pronounced pediment of the facade is outlined by simple relief mouldings and terminates with a trial cross at the apex. The fenestrations framed with foliate ornamentations are symmetrically positioned resulting to the breaking up of horizontal moulding. The central figure of St. Christopher carrying the Child Jesus on his shoulder, stylized papaya and other fruit-bearing trees planted in vessels are carefully arranged to complete the balanced composition.
The large relief sculptures in the pediment also deserve special attention particularly because they deviated from relevant extent from Christian salvation history as motif. Instead, they depicted the popular legend of St. Christopher who was accorded with a special task in carrying people across the river where there was no bridge. A widely-accepted story narrates that once, St. Christopher carried a child across the rover who became increasingly heavy as he proceeded to the other bank. There he was told that the unusually heavy child he just carried was Jesus Christ who was also carrying the whole world on his hands.
The St. Christopher legend was a powerful motif - an inspiration for European painters of the 15th century. To Spanish missionaries, it embodied a perfect image of their spiritual task which was to bring Jesus from one continent to another. The use of the image of Sto. Niņo since the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan contributed to the selection of this motif.
Right below the pediment is an ornate rectangular vase. Superimposed on the protruding arching dowel is the elaborately framed central niche bearing the statue of St. Thomas of Villanova. The topping rectangular mass is a balustrade composed of spindle-shaped balusters which are a common feature in the Filipino-Hispanic domestic architecture. It does not only appear as to support the pediment, but also to provide continuity in design between the lower and upper section. The ionic lined below the balustrade enhanced the horizontality of the moulding, while the Doric triglyphs and the baroque curves along with the customized pilasters, capitals and foliate ornamentations - all contributed to a very unique artwork rendition in high relief. Aptly described by one author as a unique explosion of botanical motif, reminiscent of Aztec art.
Basically, the church follows the simple, single-nave plan that adheres to church-convent-atrium pattern of Augustinian mode. Its foundation and walls are 1-1/2 meters thick and reinforced with buttresses designed to withstand earthquakes and typhoons. The sidewalls appear like piano keyboards. Each base of the walls stands at an average height of 11 meters from the ground to the eaves. The very simple construction of the single nave and its truss roof is maintained in the outline of the facade along with the sacristy which is now in ruins. It measures 18 meters in length and an average 17.5 meters length in clear interior width. The existing nave has eight bases of approximately 7.6 meters span each and two wider bases measuring 10.6 and 9.6 meters, respectively. Another base which is now in ruins is 11 meters wide.
The windows are beautifully designed, some of which have been transformed into side entrances to ease up the passage of big congregations especially on special occasions. But the real side doors on each side wall can still be recognized. The fenestrations are artistically framed with delicately carved stone segments with the variation to local platework elements.
By and large, for two hundred long years, Miagao Church proudly stands as Iloilo's phoenix. It should be noted that the church was razed by fire before its final destruction in 1700, burned during the Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1898, put to flame during the Filipino-American War and during the Japanese occupation, as well as rocked by a strong earthquake in 1948. Yet, Miagao Church is here to stay. Hers are the numerous deaths and rebirths as well as the weathering of the ravages of time. Nonetheless, it is one of the oldest landmarks in the Philippines - a fitting monument to the Miagaowanons' staunch Catholic faith and undying memory of their country's Hispanic past. It was declared as a National Shrine on August 01, 1973 and accorded with the international recognition recently having been inscribed by the UNESCO, together with the churches of San Agustin (Intramuros), Sta. Maria (Ilocos Sur) and Paoay (Ilocos Norte) as World Heritage Landmarks.
[see also Present Structure of the Miagao Church]
[see also Component Parishes]
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