San Agustin Church and Monastery

Aka Monasterio de San Agustín or Monasterio de San Pablo el Hermitaño: The oldest extant colonial church in the Philippines, the claims of churches elsewhere not withstanding. Begun in 1587 and completed 1607, the church survived the bombardment of Manila. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, under the title “Baroque churches of the Philippines,” the church’s excellent record of survival marks it as a marvel. Because of its antiquity the church and the adjacent monastery is an excellent museum of religious and ecclesiastical art.

The earliest Augustinian church in Intramuros dates to 1571 when a church of wood, bamboo and nipa thatch was built. This church lasted until 1574 when it was burnt, succeeding churches also of the same material were burnt in 1583 and 1586. In 1587, the Augustinians friars decided to build in stone. Work commenced on 1587 under the supervision of Juan Macias. A tradition dating to the writings of Fray Gaspar de San Agustin claims that a son or nephew of the famous Juan de Herrera, architect of El Escorial, worked on the church. The tradition has since been proven to be mere legend, and not supported by documentary evidence.

Much of the church and the adjacent cloister have survived.

The church is a simple box or barn and rather plain. Characterized in Spanish documents as de camarin, that is like a storehouse, the box plan is found all over the Philippines.

The church’s squat façade was improved and augmented when two bell towers were constructed in 1861 following the plans of Luciano Oliver. The left hand tower cracked badly during the 1863 earthquake and was torn down. It was never rebuilt.
Because of limited space, the weight of the church roof is supported not by buttresses but by the stout pillars separating the side chapels from the nave in the same manner as the “wall pillars” of German Baroque. The church has a barrel vault, shallow dome and arched vestibule, all of stone, features not found in other Philippine churches.

The church interior was painted in grisalle and trompe l’oiel by two Italian scenographic artists, Cesare Alberoni and Giovanni Dibella in 1875. Their painting scheme covered an earlier painting scheme in crimson, blue, yellow, and gilt, more akin to Mexican colonial styles. Remnants of this earlier painting was discovered when the pipe organ of San Agustín was dissembled for restoration. A portion of this older schema can now be seen through a glass window cut in the restored organ’s pipe box.

Alberoni and Dibella set a trend of decorating church interiors, especially among the Augustinian churches. Churches in Pampanga, Batangas and the Ilocos has painted interiors.

The first cloister built to south and west of the church was contemporaneous with the church. It enclosed an inner garden. A second cloister was built 1623-88 and linked to the first cloister by a passageway. Oliver added a third story to the second cloister in 1861. The third cloister was built intermittently between 1713 and 1828 and was an extension of the first cloister. The second and third cloister were destroyed, leaving only the wall of the three-story second cloister.

In the second cloister was the famous garden of Fray Manuel Blanco, whose botanical research created a garden of Philippine flora. Specimens in this garden and others collected by Blanco are documented in the folio volume, Flora de Filipinas, illustrated by prominent Filipino artists.

The church and monastery are repositories of the Philippine religious art. The cloister adjacent to the church (first cloister) is a museum. The museum tour begins at the porteria of the monsatery and proceeds following a route marked out in the guide given at the gate. An entrance fee is charged.

Aside from the Pagrel Collection on permanent display in the monastery cloister, the church and cloister itself has some priceless works. Noteworthy are the earliest dated retablo, carved by Juan de los Santos, a gilded Baroque pulpit decorated with a pineapple finial, 25 huge paintings by Fuster and Enriquez, a 17th-century carved and inlaid choir stalls, a 17th century facistol or lectern carved in Macao and ivory images of the Virgin, San Miguel, a crucifix carved by Juan de los Santos in the 18th century.

The Baroque organ in the choir loft has been restored. It plays on Sunday mornings and special liturgies. San Agustin Museum organizes annual festivals featuring the organ. A charming feature of this organ is the rueda, which is a paddle wheel to which are attached tiny bells. Wind from the organ bellows are directed to the wheel to produce the tinkling sounds of bells.

During the course of restoring the organ, the metal pipes were taken down revealing a portion of the church wall that had not been covered by the paintings of Alberoni and Dibella. The color scheme and design of the painting show strong Mexican influences as the walls and pilasters are painted in brillant colors of red, blue, green and yellow with touches of gold leaf. When the organ pipes were returned, a peephole was made to allow a view of the colorful walls hidden by the organ pipes.

To appreciate San Agustín fully, a museum tour following the itinerary suggested by the museum is worth the time. The tour begins with the cloister’s lower floors, leads to the choirloft, returns to the first floor and ends in the chuch where the tomb of Legazpi and other founders of Manila are in a side chapel, beside the sanctuary, opposite the sacristy.

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