The Philippines Heritage of Saints

The historic encounter between Filipinos and Spaniards Produced these unique cultural treasures

This creche includes a painted indigenous carabao (water buffalo)

It is 1521,  the year of “discovery” the Philippines by Ferdinand Magellan (for the Spanish crown) by Ferdinand Magellan. Magellan’s chronicler, Francesco Antonio Pigafetta,  writes: “After dinner the priest and many of us went ashore to try to baptize the native queen of Cebu. While the priest was getting ready for the rites, I showed her an image of our Lord, a little statue of the Infant Jesus. When she saw it, she was deeply touched and, crying, asked to be baptized. The queen wanted the image to take the place of her idols, so I gave it to her.” 

This Santo Niño, now enshrined in the Basilica Minore of Cebu, is to this day an object of profound veneration not only by Cebuanos but by all Catholic Filipinos. It is the earliest known Santo in the Philippines.

The Santo Nino de Ternate, brought by Jesuit priests to Cavite province in 1663

Images of household saints, or Santos, grew into a uniquely Filipino art form during the colonial period that imprinted Catholicism and its cultural heritage on the Filipinos. Coming in the 16th century with “a sword in one hand and the Cross in the other,” the Spaniards made one of their first tasks the destruction of the islanders’ gods, in their place raising up the imagery of Catholicism. 

The first images were brought in from Spain and Mexico. But soon enough, Chinese carvers hired by the Spanish were making Roman Catholic artifacts. By the 17th century, the Chinese had begun to pass on their trade to Filipino craftsmen, who produced what the friars accepted as naive but pious copies of European models. Gradual- ly the art of the Santos took on a distinctly Filipino character as the early carvers simply gave their ancient, pre-Hispanic gods a new mutation. 

The pre-eminence, in the early centuries of Spanish rule, of the Dominicans, Franciscan and Augustinians resulted in St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Vicente Ferrer (Domini- can), St. Francis of Assisi (founder of the Franciscan order) and St. Augustine Santos being found in homes in areas where these orders ran community life. But the Santos the masses held close to their hearts were those of saints who protected or blessed them in their daily lives – San Roque, who warded off plagues; San Isidro Labrador, who gave good harvests; and San Pasqual Baylon, who helped barren wives bear children. 

By the 18th century, Santos were commonplace in Filipino homes- not only in the private chapels of the rich but also on the small, candle-lit altar-shelves of the poor. This was equally due to the increased number of practicing Filipino Christians and the acceptance of those clinging to old faiths that the ancient gods had now decided to reside in the Christian Santos. 

In the average Filipino home, Santos is still revered today. They usually represent- in addition to the town’s patron saint Virgin Mary (who is the patroness of the Philippines and has been depicted in all her aspects), Saint Joseph and perhaps a favorite miracle-working saint. In many rice-growing areas, for example, the granary gods of the population found a new dwelling in various Santos of San Isidro Labrador (St. Isidore the Toiler). 

San Jose with the Child Jesus

Without a doubt, these carved images of wood (sometimes of ivory and rarely of stone) bear the stigmata of the Philippine passion. For in the final analysis the Santos cannot be regarded merely as expressions of the “soul” of a colonized and Catholicized Philippines. The anonymous Filipino sculptors who made them and the Filipinos who venerated them used Santos in Iberian capes and catechetic gestures, to keep alive an older heritage of household and community “saints”-the gods of the people’s ancient past.

Photo credit:

About Post Author

Spread the love