There’s no other museum like this one. The artifacts here are priceless and their historical significance makes them even more interesting–they’re among the best preserved in the country, and have left me eager to return.
PHOTOS | WORDS BY MARIANO SAYNO
PUBLISHED July 4, 2013
The San Agustin Museum is located adjacent to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Agustin Church. It is located in Intramuros—the walled city of Manila—and houses most historic religious artifacts, books and statues inside its walls.
The San Agustin Museum, a former monastery during the Spanish colonial era, has two levels of halls and galleries for displaying its collection. Among the notable displays on exhibits at the museum are the large collection of paintings, retablos and religious ivories. Other highlights include prints of Philippine flora and numerous rare books which date back as far as 1522.
The monastery was built by Augustinian friars in the 16th century, and it has survived both man-made and natural disasters better than any other building in Manila. One factor of its survival may be due to the thick adobe walls that were well planned and constructed.
During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II, however, San Agustin Church and monastery was used as a concentration camp. It is said that around 700 residents of Intramuros (old Manila) were imprisoned inside its cloisters.
The garden at the inner courtyard of the museum was named after Fray Blanco, an Augustinian botanist who made extensive studies of Philippine flora. Some visitors come just to spend time in this serene space. This courtyard garden is similar to a Mexican monasteries, in particular Yuriria which was built in 1550.
Guests to the museum will notice that each of four corners along the corridor is decorated with a retablos. These were used for processions of prayers during the old days. The retablos were dedicated to different major saints, each of which was carved with intricate art and elements.
Along the corridor are large paintings depicting important episodes in Augustinian saints’ lives. The earliest of these were created by Rafael Enriquez, Sr., who was dean of University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts in 1909.
The Antigua Sacristia is a magnificent, spacious hall that has been described as the most beautiful in the museum. It has a large altarpiece made of several tiers of niches, which was reportedly San Agustin Church’s first—it was carved by Laguna craftman Juan de los Santos. According to records, the retablo was installed in the main church as early 1617 but was later moved into its sacristy when it proved too small for the main altar. During several wars and looting incidents, some of the ivory statues were damaged or completely destroyed; however they were replaced with images from a collection belonging to Augustinian monasteries in Cebu.
It is recorded that the sacristy has been used as a temporary venue for daily masses since 1875, when the Italian painter Albert Albergoni painted the church’s ceiling. It is also worth noting that during the onset of Manila’s Liberation in February 1945, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes was celebrated here.
Beyond the arch doorway of the Antigua Sacristia is a smaller room called the Antesacristia. In former times, this was where church officials kept all of their church utensils and paraphernalia. This is also where they drew up the terms of surrender for Manila to be given to the Americans. Today, the hall held a vast collection of ivory crucifixes on display.
The Sala de Profundis or Pantion, which means graveyard in Filipino, can be found in the west wing of the cloister. It’s was used as a crypt for Augustinian friars and later on by Filipinos families. The hall is decorated with a centerpiece that serves as a monument to commemorate the Battle of Manila’s victims. The remains of some of Manila’s most prominent families are entombed in the crypt, including those from the Ayalas, Paternos and Zobels. Juan Luna, one of the Philippines’ greatest painters, is also buried here.
The old refectory has been converted into a collection of fine Philippine religious artifacts by Don Luis Ma. Araneta: finely carved santos and old paintings are among his notable finds. It is said that the religious groups would trade religious items for construction materials needed to build churches. The exhibit houses a collection of ivory and wood carvings made by artisans from Pakil, Mabitac and other towns in Laguna province.
The grand staircase of 44 steps leads to the second floor and is made from cut stones. Natural lighting comes in through stained glass windows at the top, creating a warm ambience. The second level was originally used as classrooms and dormitories, but it suffered heavy damage during the war before being extensively renovated. Today it serves as home to several different art galleries and halls too.
One highlight of visiting the San Agustin Museum is its library, which houses thousands of rare books and manuscripts on topics ranging from catechism to medicine—and every major dialect spoken in the country. The library’s gallery is enclosed in glass to preserve its treasures, which include the botanist Fray Manuel Blanco’s Flora de Filipinas.
Visitors who enter the choir loft must pass beneath a bell tower, through a passage that displays an intricately carved wooden retablo. The crucifix in the center dates back to 1602 and was brought by Fray Alonso de Mentrida. The retablo was originally part of the old side chapel of San Agustin Church, which became Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s burial chamber when it was converted.
The choir loft is unique for its 68 carved molave seats called silleria, which are made from a hardwood native to the Philippines. The Prior’s throne sits in the center and is covered by an intricate wooden canopy; on either side of it are ornately decorated lecterns that hold cantorals. The intricate carvings in its surface must have been carved by a Chinese craftsman, as opposed to the more europen baroque style of works.
The San Agustin Pipe organ was originally constructed from wood, but over time it deteriorated and became unusable. It is said that the keys of this organ were made from pieces of ivory, and its pipes used either molave or narra wood. The identity of its maker is unknown—often attributed to Fray Diego Cera, the maker also known for making Las Pinas Bamboo Organ.
The choir loft offers the best view of the San Agustin Church’s interior. Guests can admire its intricately painted ceiling and all of its beautiful details—the Italian painters used trompe l’oeil technique to create a three-dimensional look.
The interior of the San Agustin Church is most beautiful from the choir loft. The ceiling is painted in such a way as to appear three-dimensional, and visitors can admire this effect while they are admiring the rest of the space’s detailed adornments.
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