The Ilocos region has an impressive collection of colonial churches. We have seen fine examples of these Legacies of Christianity in our Ilocos tour. These undoubtedly massive structures convey grandness because of their large scale and their essentially Baroque facades with integrated Byzantine, Gothic, Romanesque, Islamic, and Renaissance designs.
Geologists have been identified the Philippines to be one of the countries lying on the notorious Rim of Fire which encircles the Pacific Ocean. But thanks to creative responses to Philippine environment, building solutions allowed these massive and aesthetically impressive structures that we see today withstood natural turbulence. This victory of spirituality working with science and art is what church historians refer to as Earthquake Baroque.
Benjamin Locsin Layug in A Tourist Guide to Notable Philippine Churches identifies Earthquake Baroque style of colonial churches in the Philippines as “generally large, rectangular, and massive church architecture characterized by crowded pillars and columns, and thick buttresses against earthquakes and separate bell towers.”
The cream and white façade of the Church of the Conversion of Saint Paul or the Vigan Cathedral features Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles. However, the cathedral has been classified to be mainly Baroque. Above the main portal are the sword and Bible representing Saint Paul. Above it is a niche occupied by the statue of Saint Paul. The octagonal Italian Baroque bell tower stand 15 meters away from the cathedral.
Two Ilocos churches we visited namely the Church of La Virgen de la Asuncion in the town of Sta. Maria, Ilocos Sur and San Agustin Church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte are listed in the UNESCO World Heritage site. The Church of La Virgen de la Asuncion in the town Sta. Maria, Ilocos Sur has 85-step stairway approach and its carving of Virgin Mary depicted atop a guava tree. According to tradition, the statue of the Virgin periodically disappears from its original shrine in the ermita (chapel) at the foot of the hill, only to be subsequently found atop the guava tree where the church currently stands.
Fr. Pedro Galende in Philippine Church Facades describes the church as “a massive structure brick church perched on a hill.” The 75-meter long and 14-meter wide church is flanked by massive buttresses while edging the façade is a pair of circular pillars at both corners. The façade is described by Galende to be quasi-Romanesque compact with round arches and a round pediment. Completely detached from the church is the four-storey octagonal bell tower, which stands midway between the line of the façade and that of the apse.
Churches in Ilocos province are known for the extravagance and massiveness of their buttresses. In Paoay, Ilocos Norte, the Aztec pyramid-like San Agustin Church is the most notable landmark. Layug describes the façade’s uniqueness as a “two-level triangular façade, divided by horizontal string courses, combines Gothic, Baroque and Oriental designs. The graceful curving and flowing huge scrolled buttresses are Baroque features and the decorative pinnacles are reminiscent of Gothic architecture. Chinese elements are seen in the gable, while the crenellations and five niches topping the walls suggest Javanese influence.”
Drawn along exaggeratedly large volutes and curves, the buttresses of the San Agustin Church in Paoay are some of the most enormous in Philippine colonial architecture. According to Father Pedro Galende in Philippine Church Facades “these volutes are buttresses. They give the façade an illusion of being one huge pediment. They are however, mere prelude to the flurry that is sustained on the side where stairs once served as ladder for the workers.” The rows of leaning buttresses resting on both side of the church ballast the 1.67-meter think coral block walls. The detached three-storey coral stone bell tower was once used by the Katipuneros as watchtower in 1898 and by Filipino guerillas during the Japanese Occupation.
Solitary bell tower built several meters away from the main church building is a rare feature of colonial churches in the Philippines. However, we thought that this is a common characteristic of most churches in the Ilocos region. Alice Coseteng who wrote the first local study of Philippine church architecture in 1972 explains that “bell towers in Ilocos were placed away from the naves to limit the havoc their crashing could cause.” This architectural feature has been exaggerated in Bantay, Ilocos Sur and Laoag, Ilocos Norte where a few hike is needed to reach the church’s bell tower.
The Sinking Bell Tower in Laoag, Ilocos Norte is a striking landmark in the city skyline. Built about the same time the original church dedicated to San Guillermo Ermitaño (Saint William the Hermit), it is located 85 meters away from the church. Constructed from locally manufactured bricks joined together with molasses and juice of sablot leaves mixed with lime and sand, the massive structure stands on a sandy foundation. Hence, it leaned slightly to the north for years. However, the 1957 earthquake has sunk the tower half a storey. Father Galende in Angels in Stones reports that “a man could pass on horseback through the tower’s entrance, and it sunk so deeply now a man can hardly pass through the same door erect.”
The tower’s architectural style is said to have been fashioned after a famous tower in Italy. The ziggurat-like structure with each segment growing smaller as it ascends to the dome are flanked by four massive columns crowned by fascias. Buttresses on the second and third stories end up with Baroque scrolls.
Regalado Trota Jose in Simbahan: Church Art in Colonial Philippines 1565 to 1898 explains that “bell towers are important part of church complex. Aside from calling the people to mass and tolling the hours, its bells announced the coming of important personages, warned of fires and enemy raids, and heralded the significant events in the parishioners’ lives –baptisms, wedding, deaths. The towers themselves servers are lookout posts. It is said that in the Ilocos coasts, flares were lit up from one belfry to another to warn the next town of impending danger.”
The isolated bell tower in the town Bantay, Ilocos Sur stands on top of the hill. Serving as ecclesiastical as well as a lookout posts for approaching marauding bands, the tower could be climbed for a panoramic view of the Abra river and the towns of San Vicente and Vigan. Jose also pointed out in Simbahan that “because they (bell towers) tower above trees, they were most possibly used as landmarks for travelers” much like the Cape Bojeador Lighthouse in Burgos Ilocos Norte.