Tropical Gothic

Manila Bulletin, April 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

Tropical Gothic


LAST Saturday I went to the San Sebastian basilica in Quiapo and it suddenly dawned on me that I had never set foot in that gothic edifice. How embarrassing, to think that I was born in Manila and had never lived abroad until 1975. Although I had passed by that church many times before, I could draw nothing from my memory file to prove that I had seen its interior. I have received invitations to weddings and anniversaries held there to which I never went simply because the journey to San Sebastian, from San Juan or Makati, threatened to be a horrendous experience. So, when I finally stepped inside the gothic marvel last Saturday, there was not even a tinge of deja vu because that was really my first visit.

I have a predilection for churches made of fossilized corals, a mix of terracotta, egg white and chaff, trunks of exotic trees, based on a friar's baroque fantasy, translated into fortress-like bastions by heathen sangleys and indio animists. The Paoay and Boljoon churches and the 17th century ones in Bohol are so unusual they cannot be found anywhere else in Christendom. I have always thought that San Sebastian's mysticism belonged to a European cityscape where the majestic symmetry of gothic architecture is best projected. In the luxuriant splendor of these sensuous tropical isles, gothic spires stick out like sore thumbs. I used to think that San Sebastian was much too cold and severe and could never imagine praying beneath naves of lifeless, pre-fabricated steel.

On the other hand, there is nothing restrained about the San Sebastian saga for its myriad twists and turns are as florid as anything from the baroque period. The Augustinian Recollects, Discalced Carmelites and Discalced Augustinians who figured prominently in the making of San Sebastian were the progeny of the Catholic Reformation spearhead by St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross in the 16th century. To me, that conjures tales of contentious relations among religious orders which spilled over to their overseas provinces.

What we now call San Sebastian used to be named Calumpang, after flowering trees that grew in abundance in that barrio bounded by Sampaloc, Quiapo, and San Miguel. …

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