ROADSIDE WORKSHOPS. It was a searing summer weekend when I stepped out from a provincial bus prematurely on my way to Betis to the dusty road of Bacolor in Pampanga. What prompted me to halt the bus driver and walk under the fierce midday sun and inescapable dust were the life-sized statues that lined the woodcarving workshops clustered along the main highway.

There I imagined how this place must have looked like when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991. Dormant for 600 years, the notorious volcano ejected volcanic material of Biblical proportions that altered weather patterns worldwide and literally obliterating several towns in Zambales, Tarlac and Pampanga from the map including the historic town of Bacolor.

HALF-BURIED CHURCH. The town of Bacolor have seen better days. Being an ancient town said to be founded by a group of immigrants from Sumatra led by cannon maker Panday Pira and then first and oldest town in Pampanga that was founded by the Spaniards, its old culture is legendary. As described by friar Juan de Medina to be the best pueblo in all the islands with the best meadows for cultivating rice, wealthiest and best-dressed inhabitants, and a celebrated church of stone and brick with a famous crucifix.

The church of San Guillermo Ermitaño was built in 1645 on a land donated by a wealthy landlord named Guillermo Manabat. It became the center of the mission with Betis, Macabebe, Apalit, and Candaba as its visitas. With the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the church is buried up to one-half with its main entrance lost to lahar.

VILLA DE BACOLOR. I entered the church through a door which was formerly the upper window and walked on new concrete floor under layers of lahar beneath it. Its old convent houses the church museum of old religious statues and narratives on the town’s days of glory during the colony’s war with the British. From 1762 to 1764, Bacolor was the seat of a colonial government in exile of Governor Simon de Anda.  With the town’s role in the reclaiming of the colony, the King of Spain gave the town the title Villa de Bacolor and honored with bearing the royal motto Non Plus Ultra.

By the 19th century Nothing Greater has rivaled with the royal town. It was a wealthy center for commerce in Pampanga and a capital for culture with its zarzuela groups and its writers of Pampango Literature, foremost were revolutionary leader Juan Crisostomo Soto and Proceso Pabalan. This cultural tradition continues to this modern times when the half-buried church, its ancient bell tower, and woodworking workshops were used as backdrop for different sorts of film and television shows.

WOODCARVING TRADITION. Just like its Tagalog cousin Paete in Laguna, Betis is historically the chisel town of Pampanga until the onslaught of the Pinatubo eruption when the Kapampangan woodcarvers went out of business and moved to Bacolor in the recent years. Betis is still known for its ornate European carvings on furniture and Bacolor for santo-making.

Back to the dusty highway I almost forgot about the scorching afternoon sun as I strolled leisurely and in amazement seeing the life-sized statues in wood and concrete casually displayed on a single file in storefronts. I entered one random woodcarving workshop to another so I could avoid totally getting sunburned and see the woodcarvers’ activity.

BUSY SHOPS. Woodcarving workshops in Bacolor hummed with activity. Inside the busy shops the sound of chisel-tapping and fine wood dust fill the air. Here I observed the step-by-step process and stages of sculpture from the carving from a block of wood with a rough sketch and the careful detailing using medium and fine chisels to the smoothing and sanding and applying of encarna.

Encarna is another set of process in finishing a sculpture from applying escayola or gesso as primer to spraying paint. The role of the encarnador is to apply details using a fine paint brush to make sculpture life-like. The term ecarna is from the shorten Spanish word encarnación which means to become flesh.

SANTO-MAKING TRADITION. The santo-making is folk art that survive the Spanish colonial period. The Spanish friars introduced the craft of carving religious icon and statuary from hardwood by showing the natives religious images from printed reproductions of prayer books and estampitas and teaching them the rudiments of carving.  The santos were important teaching and visual aids used by the friar missionaries in spreading the Catholic faith.

Though Lent is the busiest season for the santo carvers of Bacolor, wood carving and restoration is a year-long labor. In workshops busy with activity, the wood carvers were kind enough to allow me to observe and talk to them while they work on repairing heirloom santos and creating new ones for the processions around the country for the Holy Week and year-round fiestas. In one of the stores, I was led by its owner to their warehouse where I gasped in awe at an army of santos in a bodega-like dungeon awaiting to be mounted in altars or on carrozas.

VISUAL FEAST. Santo-making traditions has contributed extensively to the artistic tradition of the country. The sculptures in Bacolor are mostly Baroque and Classical reproductions  that were copied from European images of saints, angels, and the Virgin Mary as seen in the works of Isabelo Tampigco and Maximo Vicente.

It is a visual feast to find pieces with unusual themes and were guided by the sculptor’s personal feelings and imagination like a Roman bust made of santol wood and a santo head that upon close inspection it has a semblance to the face of the sculptor who made it. When I asked the sculptor, kayo po ba ito? He just smiled and confidently uttered ako yan!

EPILOGUE: RANDOM SHOT. Summer is my favorite season for photography using my simple, uncomplicated point-and-shoot camera. Without filter and special lenses and a little adjustment in brightness and contrast, random photos turn out golden, crisp, and dramatic like this cherub’s face hand-carved from cement I found casually laid on a table at a santo-maker’s workshop in Bacolor, Pampanga.

-1 May 2017 | Feast of San Jose

Published in: on May 1, 2017 at 9:18 am  Leave a Comment  

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