While traveling along the old Olongapo-Gapan Road, furniture workshops display their exquisite woodworks on the side of the road. We’re in Betis, a quiet town in Pampanga that has been known for its church murals and mastercarvers of European-design furniture.
Being one of the oldest towns in Pampanga, Betis’ exact history is difficult to trace. If historians have given different dates to the town’s foundation, ranging from the 1570s to the early1600s, local folklore has inspired the origin of the town’s name.
According to one legend, the town was named after a giant tree known for its scientific name as Bassia betis Merr. This hardwood once stood in the site where Betis Church now stands. It is said that the tree was so huge it cast its shadow on the nearby town of Guagua. When it was chopped down, the timbers were used as the framework of the church of Betis.
Despite being 300 years old, the church of Betis is well-preserved. The original church made of light materials was built around 1660 and was placed under the advocation of Santiago Apostol (Matamoro). Fire broke from inside the church several times that the Augustinians erected on the same site a church of stone in the 1770s. The church is listed as a National Cultural Treasure.
Detailed woodcarvings on grand old timber adorn the church’s interior. The intricately-carved wooden door depicting the Dreams of Jacob from the Old Testament and the elaborate retablo furnished with authentic statues are fashioned of beautiful lumber. Whether they belong to the legendary betis tree no one can truly say.
Spectacular murals interpreting the scene from the Bible adorn walls and the entire wooden ceiling.
Painted by a team of local artists when the church was renovated in the 1970s, Victor Ramos (who heads the three-man team) used old photographs to simulate the trompe l’oeil effect on arches, vaults and frames based from the original pre-war design by Macario Ligon.
Exiting the church, we passed by the first artesian well in Betis. Built by Father Manuel Camanes to provide water to the entire town, it is now protected by an iron fence.
On the courtyard, a familiar scene cast in stone of the Holy Family in their carpentry shop in Nazareth. It symbolizes Betis’ devotion to the Catholic faith and to the time-honored woodcarving tradition.
The rich tradition of woodcarving in Betis dates back to Spanish times when the locals became engaged in woodcarving, carpentry and shipbuilding. Woodcarving was a craft that the locals learned from migrant Chinese artisans. The woodcarving industry became a thriving business as a result of the demand for the Spanish colonizers for retablos and religious statues for churches. Replicating altar pieces gave Betis woodcarvers (mandukit) their earliest exposure to European art and designs.
With the rise of the wealthy townspeople who went on trips abroad, bringing back with them the latest European influences, a new demand for manufacturing of European-design furniture flourished. This new clientele wanted the interiors of their houses to emulate the homes of the affluent Europeans.
By the latter part of the 20th century, the much-revered mastercarver Apong Juan Flores gave prestige to Betis as a producer of world-class furniture. He created masterpieces that won him acclaim both locally and internationally. This fame drew the attention of then first Imelda Marcos who commissioned Apung Juan for furniture and artworks for Malacanang.
-Feast of Santiago Apostol | July 25, 2009