Miagao Church is at its best at dawn when the first mellow streaks of the morning sun cast a golden tinge on its 219-year old façade of coralline limestone quarried from the mountains of Igbaras and Sitio Tubog in San Joaquin. The golden hour highlights a massive triangular pediment on the church’s squat silhouette, revealing an elaborate relief of a scene set in a tropical environment.

Amidst papaya and guava trees, San Cristóbal carries the Child Jesus while holding on to a coconut tree for support. Legend has it the giant man dutifully ferried on his shoulders, across the river, an inordinately heavy child who unbeknownst to him was the Christ—a powerful allegory for Spanish evangelists carrying the gospel of their Lord Jesus across continental seas and oceans.

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A monument of three pillars topped by a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus—donated by a group called Centro Catolico Apostolico Romano in 1923—sits at the center of a roundabout fronting the Miagao Church. The intrusive object interrupts the church’s vista from the eclipses the central niche below the pediment where a replica of the 1700s statue of Santo Tomás de Villanueva, Miagao’s patron saint, stands. The proliferation of cheap, white concrete urns on pedestals surrounding the church, on the other hand, is a recent and equally unnecessary addition.

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The church is flanked by two hulking campanarios of unequal height built at different periods by different parish priests. The taller tower on the left served as a bantayan or watchtower against Muslim marauders active in coastal areas. Citing an article written by professors Randy Madrid and Jorge Ebay for The Miagao Church Bicentennial Yearbook, 1797-1997, Eugene Jamerlan of the Iloilo City Cultural Heritage Conservation Council recounts the church’s history for BluPrint in 2011:

“This was the third church built in Miagao. Construction started in 1786. Since the first two churches built on lower ground were susceptible to plunder and pillage, the third church, finished in 1797 after 11 years of construction, was high up on the promontory facing the mouth of Miagao River. Thirty-three years later, a fourth story was added to the left tower disrupting the symmetrical balance, but a necessary compromise for a seaward watch. The church foundation goes down six meters into the ground. The one and a half-meter thick walls buttressed by four and a half meter-base supports hold the church side walls and bastion towers.”

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Themes that suggest movement, such as figures portrayed in a strenuous position or activity, are characteristic of the Baroque style. In Miagao Church, a sculptural relief of San Cristobal struggling to carry the Child Jesus. Surface accumulations, possibly from acid rain, dirt, and grime, have turned the faces of the religious image black.

For centuries since 1797, Miagao Church was not only a stronghold of the Christian faith but also an indomitable refuge for citizens of the coastal town during the Spanish-Moro wars. Siege after siege, its walls stood steadfast like San Cristóbal under the weight of a centuries-long struggle between the Spanish colonizers and the Moros. Today, the series of battles is long over, but Miagao Church now fights enemies far more treacherous than the Moors it held at bay.

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Coralline limestone

The tropical region was never friendly to stone churches. The hot and humid climate accelerates the deterioration of stone, which adds to the church’s romantic weathered patina but weakens its load-bearing capacity. Situated along a typhoon belt and the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Philippines is ravished by an average of 20 typhoons yearly and experiences frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Seismic activity causes fractures and fissures on the walls where moisture from rainwater seeps in. Flooding also causes water to be sucked into the stonework by capillary action. The moist conditions not only deteriorate the porous stones but also allow microorganisms, moss, and algae to thrive, and birds and rodents to settle in.

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Relative to its elaborate principal façade, Miagao Church’s sidewalls are plain. Compared to most local historic stone churches, however, Miagao is remarkable for also having fine (as fine as one can chisel a rough material like coralline) tasslework running along the cornices, and decorative carvings crowning its pilastered side doors and arched windows. The thick buttresses or contrafuertes running the length of the building, along with low and wide walls, are distinct structural features of Earthquake Baroque, a local variant of the Baroque style found in countries prone to earthquakes like the Philippines.

Lying close to the Miagao River and the Panay Gulf, the Miagao Church is constantly exposed to a punishing environment. Coralline limestone, the church’s primary building material, is a calcareous sedimentary rock formed from petrified corals. Of the stones commonly used in Spanish colonial churches in the Philippines, it has one of the highest porosity—more porous than adobe (volcanic tuff) and sandstone—which means there’s more room for moisture to seep in.

Exposure to acidic environments further increases its porosity. (To determine whether a stone is adobe or coralline limestone, conservators on site use hydrochloric or muriatic acid. A few drops of the chemical on limestone results in effervescence or fizzing bubbles on the stone’s surface as carbon dioxide is released.) Owing to the saline environment, salt crystals formed from moisture evaporation find their way into the pores of the limestone, causing further damage.

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Master builders often apply a layer of palitada or plaster over the stone walls as protection against moisture and the elements, but it is unsure whether such was used on Miagao Church when it was built. Moreover, after the Second World War, the transmission of traditional building methodologies was broken. Portland cement became a popular building material at the time, and was applied on Miagao’s walls, presumably to strengthen them. As proper restorers would know, the plaster used on historical structures was always intended to be a sacrificial layer, never stronger than the masonry on which it is applied.

Modern cement is too tough, heavy, and impermeable for soft, light, and porous coralline limestone. Instead of allowing the masonry to breathe, it traps moisture in, hastening the decay of the already damaged the centuries-old stone walls of Miagao. The National Historical Institute, now the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, has since removed the cement plasterwork and cleaned the bas relief carvings on the façade. However, the agency never replaced the covering with a compatible plaster and instead has left the weathered stones exposed to this day, a composition most townsfolk and uninformed heritage enthusiasts find aesthetically appealing and mistake for authenticity.

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Miagao Church’s stone buttresses–its main structural supports–are infested with thick layers of moss. Moss and plant growth may contribute to the romantic appearance of weathered and aged stone churches, but their presence on soft and porous materials such as coralline limestone exacerbates moisture retention and inhibits evaporation, which leads to the deterioration of the underlying stones.
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Miagao church today

Under the auspices of the National Museum, Miagao Church underwent cleaning and repair in 2010. Its missing and broken stones were replaced with matching units from the original quarry. When BluPrint first visited the church in 2011, the façade showed signs of a recent repointing of lime mortar, which binds the stone units of the church and fills in voids along the joints where water can enter. Sadly, because the walls are left exposed without palitada, the white mortar joints are exposed (even proudly highlighted), delineating the masonry units’ bonding pattern, which runs across the reliefs including the face of San Cristóbal like sear marks on grilled steak.

When BluPrint returned in 2016, the church’s condition had not improved. This time, there were actual leaves growing out of the guava tree relief on the pediment, and shrubs thriving on the upper tiers of the bell towers. Dark deposits, probably from acid in rainwater, have turned the face of the Child Jesus black, and San Cristóbal’s more weary than it should be. The buttresses at both sides of the church, which serve as its main supports, are infested with moss and algae at the base, a result of water steeped in the porous stonework.

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Miagao Church’s single-nave interior is simple and sparse save for the gold-plated Baroque retablo at the sanctuary. The retablo contains a large crucifix at the center flanked by the statues of the church’s patron saints, St. Thomas of Villanueva and St. Joseph. Smaller statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary dating back to the 1780s stand on both sides of the retablo.

World heritage site

The Miagao Church is one of the four Baroque Churches in the Philippines, and the only one in the Visayas, inscribed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site. Like the other three churches, Miagao Church represents an indigenized version of Baroque architecture adapted to the unique landscape of the Philippines as interpreted by skilled Filipino and Chinese builders who worked on it under the supervision of Spanish friars. As conservationist Jamerlan wrote:

“The fortress church of Miagao is a fine example of Earthquake Baroque architecture, which developed in Portugal (Pombaline architecture in Lisbon), Italy (Sicilian Baroque), South America (San Pedro de las Huertas in Guatemala), and the Philippines when these places suffered earthquakes in the 17th and 18th centuries. Baroque architecture itself began in late 16th century Italy, taking off from the Classical Roman Humanism of the Renaissance, and used its vocabulary in a new rhetorical and theatrical fashion.

Unlike Renaissance architecture that is a blend of religious and secular influences, Baroque architecture developed as an expression of the Church’s Counter-Reformation propaganda in response to the Protestant Reformation. Using various shapes, light, and shadow with dramatic intensity (chiaroscuro), Baroque architecture appealed to the emotions and at the same time was a visual statement of the power and influence of the Church.”

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Miagao Church has just undergone restoration when BluPrint visited in 2011, its coralline limestone façade a radiant blend of ochre and coral pink. Five years later, the church’s walls have already accumulated grime, moss, and plant growth. Excessive surface accumulations on porous stonewalls can lead to dangerous cracks and fissures, especially when left without palitada, hence the need for immediate plastering using compatible mortar, and periodic cleaning and brushing.

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In one of its periodic compliance reports to the World Heritage Committee in 2002, our own government lamented that conservation efforts by locals had invariably been “exchanged for their own concept of what this entails—essentially beautification or renovation that is not in consonance with or relevant to the authenticity of the structure.” Two decades after Miagao Church has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, our national and local government agencies should reject the politicking and parochialism that keeps them stonewalling instead of addressing the problem of incompetence rife in their ranks, and amongst those who maintain our cultural and historical patrimony.

The Philippines is not without trained restorers and access to international expertise. Miagao Church is no longer solely the property of the people of Miagao, Iloilo, or even the Philippines. Miagao Church now belongs to the common heritage of mankind, a prestigious and coveted distinction that comes with a tall order on the part of its custodians—the Church, the State, and the townsfolk of Miagao—to ensure that their notion of what constitutes beauty does not jeopardize the survival of the church for generations to come.

This article first appeared in BluPrint Special Issue 3 2016. Edits were made for Bluprint.ph.

Photos courtesy of Ed Simon and Mark Jacob

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