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Baroque Catholic Churches
Philippine Cultural Heritage

The Philippines' Baroque catholic churches are cited on the World Heritage List because of their unusual interpretation of a major artistic style.

Baroque architecture, which was the dominant western style from around the mid-16th century until the death of France's Louis XIV shortly after 1700, reflects a life dominated by the desire to impress through exuberance and extravagance.

Although the style has produced celebrated works, it takes its name from barroco - Spanish for a large, irregular, and expensive pearl considered bizarre rather than beautiful.

Baroque evolved as Europe was undergoing relentless religious wars; architecture and its ornamentation became tools to woo a congregation's loyalty.

The Filipino brand of baroque began in the late 16th century when Catholic missionaries came from Spain and Mexico. The local version contrasts with courtly Europe's rendition - although at first glance, there are the familiar gilding, florid floral themes, fully decorated pillars and fancy backgrounds.

Four catholic churches in particular are considered of unquestionable importance to understanding the baroque attitude and human creativity.

Miag-ao, Iloilo Cultural Heritage

In Central Philippines, on the island of Panay, is the Vicarate of Miag-ao in Iloilo Province. Its Church of Santo Tomas de Villanueva is an Augustinian mission station built as a squat, massive fortress to protect townsfolk from Muslim invasion.

Made of a distinct local yellow-orange sandstone, the fortress-catholic church took ten years to build, beginning in 1797.

Miag-ao's church is ""the most outstanding example of the peripheral baroque style blended with embellishment [from] naïf folk motifs found in the Philippines,"" according to the 1992 report of Jorge Gazano, an architectural expert of ICOMOS, the United Nations' International Committee for Monuments and Sites.

Any visitor will be able to translate the jargon into layman's language just by looking at the profusely ornamented church-front. Reigning over its fully hand-sculptured pediment is St. Christopher, dressed Filipino-farmer style with his pants rolled up, and carrying the Christ Child on his back.

The holy figures stand beside coconut, papaya and guava trees ready for harvest. They were rendered by folk artisans working from their imagination and whatever guidance the priest, who had no architectural training, could offer. No similar tropical-Asian composition exists.

Sta. Maria, Ilocos Sur Cultural Heritage

Another mission that doubled originally as a fortress is Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion in Santa Maria town of Ilocos Sur, a province on the country's northwestern seaboard. The citadel complex was the hub for evangelizing pagan peoples living in adjacent highlands.

The best way to appreciate the catholic church's architectural mood is to ascend the church's grand stairway of 85 wide steps starting at the town proper.

Another stairway descends to a circular cemetery overwhelmed by exuberant foliage and an air of romanticism.
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Paoay, Ilocos Norte Cultural Heritage

Moving northwards into the adjacent province of Ilocos Norte is the Church of San Agustin in Paoay town. Built from 1694 to between 1702 and 1710, this catholic church is the premier example of Philippine Earthquake Baroque, an architectural solution to the area's challenging, natural setting.

Both sides of the nave are lined with the most voluminous stone buttresses seen around the islands. They are decorated with huge scrolls, and topped by decorative pinnacles.

A coralstone belltower stands a safe distance away to spare the sanctuary in case of collapse. Originally, the church roof was thatched; and it is conjectured so that buttresses not only support walls but give roof access during fire and typhoon.

Intramuros, Manila Cultural Heritage

While the mission trio projects fine folk aesthetics, the last of the churches selected as baroque model is a grande dame of metropolitan achievement for the late 16th century.

Built from 1586 to 1606 inside Intramuros, the Walled City where the city of Manila began, San Agustin Catholic church is the oldest extant Christian sanctuary in the Far East, and the Philippines' oldest stone edifice. It marks the start of using permanent materials in contrast to indigenous, lightweight architectural media.

A plain exterior hides a sanctuary that attempts to bring heaven, in all its visual splendor, down to earth. The nave is a marvel of 19th-centry handpainted trompe-l'oeil. The magnificent retable is alive with antique images tucked into gilded niches.

Throughout the sanctuary, in the convent and rooms converted into museum displays, are rare works of art accumulated from Asia and the Philippines over the centuries.

In a chapel beside the main altar, the last conquistador, Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, is entombed.

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catholic churches

Santo Tomas de Villanueva
Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion
San Agustin Church, Paoay
San Agustin Church, Intramuros

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