THE minute I upload the last set of my students’ final grades, I’m heading for the churches.
Summer used to spell two months of reading, my reward for working for 10 months.
This summer, I plan to take advantage of the long, dry days to visit first the church of Sibonga. I want to see the face of the devil.
It was my town history editor, Dr. Madrileña dela Cerna, who first told me about this rare depiction in the mural that adorns the ceiling of the Church of the Nuestra Señora del Pilar of Sibonga.
Then last January, my fellow teacher Raymund Fernandez revived the intrigue while chatting about the ways and reasons artists depict religious figures. Mons was then holding an exhibit of his works with this theme. I thought that his sculpted and carven images of the Blessed Virgin had faces or body parts, such as bare feet and a child-swollen belly, I’ve never seen in traditional Catholic literature or iconography.
Mons told me about the devil sharing the Sibonga church ceiling space with God and the other celestial beings. What inspired the artist to create this image of a “pak-an ug sungayan nga demonyo (winged and horned demon)”?
While Mons is understandably curious about art history and theory, I am more drawn to the man behind the ceiling art. Glimpse the artist in this “Point Cebu” profile (www.ngkhai.com): “What is most eye-catching (of the Church of the Nuestra Señora del Pilar of Sibonga) is the yellowish light that suffuses the interior and lights up the predominantly brownish-amber tones of the mural on the ceiling done by Raymundo Francia.”
Who is Francia? Of the young artists that created in the late 1920s the “obras maestras (masterpieces)” in Cebu’s churches built in the Spanish era, Francia distinguished himself.
In an article about the 2008 exhibition on Bohol’s church masterpieces (www.ayalamuseum.org), “Kisame: Visions of Heaven on earth,” Francia is referred to as “Cebu’s Michelangelo”.
This tribute impresses because Francia was self-taught, having never undergone formal training in art.
Two towns away from Sibonga is the church whose ceiling art was painted by “Maestro Canuto”. Arching above the heads of devotees or sightseers in the San Guillermo de Aquitania Church in Dalaguete are scenes from the Bible and religious symbols painted by Canuto Avila on the church’s barrel-like ceiling.
According to art historians, Avila and Francia were commissioned to create the art decorating the interiors of the Spanish colonial churches in Cebu and Bohol during the 1920-30s. Since the Sibonga church ceiling art is established as done by Francia and that of Dalaguete is solely credited to Avila, I want to visit both churches and compare.
My curiosity stems from the puzzle stirred up by the religious artworks Avila and Francia jointly created in the Bohol churches: who was the better artist? Because he was often referred to as “maestro (teacher),” Avila is deemed by some as the mentor. Cannot the mentored surpass the mentor?
Avila and Francia are fortunate to have created art that endures, primarily because their works are part of “living museums,” the Spanish era-built churches that are not just massive and solidly built but continue to sprawl with prominence in our physical and interior spaces.
What about the backdrops Avila created for plays? Where are the landscapes of Francia?
For although Cebu can claim to a wealth of creativity, its people still treat artists and their works as below the level of entrepreneurs and merchants, even not quite at the level of politicians—a back-handed slight to be fervently grateful for.
While I was recently checking papers in our faculty room, a Capitol employee came to borrow the artworks of my colleague, Javy Villacin, for an event the Cebu Province was mounting. As the Capitol employee was carting away the three massive works, I wonder if the fellow or his bosses know the difference between a raw sheet of plywood and a canvass distilling a mystery not even science can solve.
Visit at least the churches while art survives in Cebu.
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Mar. 18, 2012 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column