Monday, October 10, 2016

A Morning at the Museum -- San Agustin Museum in Intramuros

August is "Buwan ng Wika at Kasaysayan" or National Language and History Month.  My recent
trip to historic Cavite had stirred up something in my nationalistic soul so before the month ended,
I decided to dig a bit more into the past. 

A visit to San Agustin Church and Museum was long overdue.  It had been over five years since
my last visit and my good friend,  the Kastila told me that the museum had been renovated extensively in the past 2 years.  So one early August morning, on the feast of St. Bartholomew to
be exact, we went to San Agustin in Intramuros -- getting there a few minutes ahead of opening hours.  The museum is right beside the church and is accessed by a separate entrance.

The church's  intricately carved doors were still closed.  Can you see the figures of St. Augustine 
and his mother, Sta. Monica carved on the postigo or postern?  Above St. Augustine is the logo
of the Augustinian order  -- a flaming heart that symbolises the saint's burning love for Jesus.
Floral motifs  give this otherwise imposing entranceway a light and graceful beauty.

When the doors of the museum opened at 8 a.m., there were only three of us waiting to enter.
The first thing I noticed was this large painting of Fray Diego de Herrera,  one of the first Augustinians who came to the Philippines in 1564.   This painting is not an antique  -- it is newly painted from a few years back.
Because there are no existing paintings or portraits from those early times, the museum has had to commission painters to re-create these images so that museum-goers can better appreciate the story of the Augustinians and their very significant role in the history of the Philippines.

There are several rooms in the museum with different exhibits.  Very near the entrance is a room dedicated to the Galleon Trade with a scale model of the famous Manila galleon -- ships that made the long and tortuous voyage between Mexico and the Philippines in the 1500s.

Years of elementary and high school Philippine history had me familiar with the name of 
Fray Urdaneta, who arrived in the Philippines along with Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565.  
What I didn't remember (perhaps I wasn't paying that much attention in school)  and which I 
found out by reading the plaque next to this painting was that Fray Urdaneta was the navigator 
of that voyage from Spain to the Philippines.  
Miguel Lopez de Legazpi may have been the captain but this very talented Augustinian friar was 
the helmsman who guided the  journey.  What an amazing man!
On a side note, the two men were cousins and both were Basques.  I remember from my visit to 
the Basque country that our very informative and entertaining guide Iker had said that Basques 
were natural sailors which is why they travelled and settled in all parts of the globe.

The museum's covered cloisters now serve as a gallery for more paintings showing the notable Augustinians who first arrived in the Philippines.  Since there were very few visitors this early in the morning, I was able to enjoy viewing each one in a relaxed and unhurried pace.

The cloisters surround this green garden with palm trees that I personally would have preferred to do away with.  They are too tall,  too scrawny and detract one's eye from the sweep and expanse of this otherwise elegant courtyard.

Within the museum is the church crypt -- while there are Augustinians whose remains are interred here, there are also vaults for the laity  that have been owned by families for many generations and are still in use today. 

Adjacent to the crypt area is another special gallery where I am surprised to be greeted by my 
Amigo Santiago.  His spear and sword are gone but there he is, on his horse as Santiago the Moor Slayer.  All the pieces in this gallery are from the significant collection of ecclesiastical art donated by Don Luis Ma. Araneta and family to the  San Agustin Museum.  This carving made of molave wood dates back to the 1600s and comes from Libmanan, Camarines Sur.

This strikingly simple depiction of the Holy Trinity is from the 1700s.  It is made of molave 
and its provenance is Camarines Sur.  This is one of my favourite pieces from the museum.

More of the art is housed on the second floor.  There is only one way to get up and that is through 
this wide stone staircase.  The Kastila points out the newer granite steps that have been used 
to reconstruct and renovate this portion as compared to the original granite blocks which can be still be found on the landing.

Some of the rooms on the second floor have been recreated with period furniture to show how it would have looked like then the Augustinians were living here in the 1600s.   I remember many 
years ago on one of my earlier visits, that this room was pretty much empty,  had virtually little artwork to look at and was definitely not air-conditioned.    

I also loved this gigantic wooden aparador that I found in one of the rooms on the second floor.  
It was nearly 10 feet tall, just a few feet shy of the high vaulted ceiling.   This must have been used 
to store church ornaments, vessels and vestments.  I had brief thoughts of what I could do if I had 
a closet of this size.

Intricately carved cabinets line one wall from end to end.  Since the drawers were uniformly sized, 
I imagine that these were used to store altar cloths and other church linens. I also imagined that a couple of these would make perfectly lovely sideboards. 

There are more pieces from Don Luis Ma. Araneta's collection in the upstairs galleries.  
This is a molave statue of Sta. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine.  This piece came from 
Bacolor, Pampanga and dates back to the 1700s.
The Kastila said that the San Agustin Museum certainly benefited much from Don Luis' 
philanthropy.  Most of these pieces must have come from churches and parishes all over the Philippines.  
Would they have fared better if they had not been acquired by Don Luis?  
They would probably be housed in some other private collection by now.  
Thanks to Don Luis' efforts in collecting and his generosity in leaving all these to the San Agustin Museum, now everyone has a chance to see and marvel at these impressive examples of church art 
that are a vital part of our national culture and heritage.  

The museum is quite democratic.  I am surprised and pleased to see these wooden bas reliefs of 
some Jesuit saints.  These are from Leyte, from the 1700s.  The Jesuits arrived in the Philippines 
in 1581,  later than the Augustinians

Also in the same gallery was this area dedicated to the Dominican saints.  The smaller one is a molave statue of St. Dominic of Guzman and the larger, more interesting one is a statue of 
St. Peter of Verona, Martyr.  He has what looks like a bolo on his head -- rather gruesome but quite intriguing.  
And so,  I googled so you wouldn't have to,  and found out from that St. Peter was an Italian and a Dominican preacher who worked miracles even as he was alive.  His constant prayer was to die for his faith which was answered when he was attacked with an axe by his enemies.

In addition to the admirable church art, there is a respectable assortment of earthen jars and pottery, some of them from pre-Hispanic times.  These exhibits help round out and enrich the collection of ecclesiastical art. 

You can see that the corridors in the second floor have been renovated and reconstructed more than those on the ground floor.   While the galleries are closed and air-conditioned to preserve the centuries old art, the corridors are naturally cooled by the breezes flowing in from the open windows.  Although on this humid August day,  I must admit we stayed longer in the galleries not just to enjoy the exhibits but to take advantage of the cool,  climate controlled air. 

On one length of an entire corridor are paintings of churches established by the Augustinians.  
In the marvellous book "Angels of Stone" written by Pedro Galende, O.S.A and with a foreword by the late Nick Joaquin, Augustinians are credited as not just propagators of the faith but "as builders 
of towns and churches".  
At the end of the Spanish era in 1898, they had established and built around three hundred 
"angels in stone" from Luzon to key provinces in the Visayas.   
How serendipitous to find this painting of San Bartolome Church in Malabon today, on the saint's feast day.  This is a church that I am only too familiar with as I spent my elementary and high school years in St. James Academy which was right next door. 

The Augustinians built many magnificent churches in the Philippines but perhaps the more well known are the ones in the Ilocos region where most have been considerably well maintained and preserved.  Most memorable for me are the two UNESCO world heritage churches of 
St. Augustine in Paoay, Ilocos Norte and the Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion church in Sta. Maria, Ilocos Sur.  

After a  leisurely visit, it's time to head back down the wide and imposing stone staircase.  
The recent and ongoing renovations have greatly improved the museum.  
The San Agustin Museum is a small albeit precious gem that perfectly displays the richness of
the Augustinians'  history and their priceless contributions to Philippine culture.   
I hope you have a chance to visit it for yourself. 

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