The beautiful and ancient church of San Agustin San Agustin, the oldest stone church in the country has the distinction of being made entirely of stone and the first earthquake-proof structure to be erected on Philippine soil. It is solid, compact and well executed that it has survived earthquakes, bombings and both natural and man-made disasters in its 400 years of existence.
San Agustin: Art and History, 1571 – 2000 by Pedro Galende, OSA and Regalado Trota Jose, both noted and respected figures of Philippine colonial church history and its ardent supporters and proponents, is a wonderful book on the oldest stone church in the country. It is a follow-up to the first author’s work, San Agustin: Noble Stone Shrine, which was published 10 years before this title.
Chinese fu dogs/lions guard the portals and the patio of San Agustin: four located at the facade with one (not shown) have a broken part of the head, and two at the front entrance of the low fence around the patio. One figure is holding its baby while two other figures seem to be playing and holding a ball. These are interesting since these are clearly Chinese in origin but is part of a Christian religious structure.
Just before one enters San Agustin, one is already introduced to the massive and richly carved portal bearing the symbols of the Augustinian order as well as the carvings of the order’s founder and his mother. It awes. Its rocaille embellishments, said to be a characteristic of Rococo, a successor to the Baroque style, are highly stylized forms of leaves, rocks and shells.
The trompe l’oeil paintings found inside of San Agustin is just impressive and awe inspiring. However because of the height of the ceiling and the often unlighted interior especially if there are no masses, some wonderful details can often be missed. Take for example at the crossing of the transept and nave where a faux dome is painted, two doves (left) can be seen between two pillars.
The bell El D. Nombre de Jesus (The Most Sweet Name of Jesus – a reference to the Augustinian province) (left) inscribed with the words FECIT BENITVS REGIBVS, the latinized name of its caster, Benito de los Reyes, used to hang from the now demolished belfry. This bell is dated 1829 during the incumbency of the prior Fray Manuel Grijalbo. Three other names of Augustinian friars can be discerned but quite faintly.
The belfry can be accessed through a narrow but short passageway at the antecoro, the room just before the choirloft. This passageway is a spiral staircase of adobe with a balustrade at the upperhalf made of hardwood. The first level leads to the rooftop while the bells can be found at the second level. Note that in 1854, it was agreed in a meeting that this second level be added for aesthetic reasons.
The choirstalls (left) at the choirloft is one of the intriguing works at San Agustin. The detailed woodwork calls to mind the intricacies of the pulpit and the motifs found makes it all the more valuable. Just imagine, strapwork done in the Renaissance style combined with Oriental emblems that attests to the uniqueness of religious art in this part of the world.
The choirloft of San Agustin is another notable part of the church that should be seen and visited not only for a closer look of the trompe l’oeil and the organ but, more importantly, a peek of the original colors of the church that was fortunately preserved and the exquisite and very detailed carvings of, circa 17th century silleria or choirstalls and lectern (18th century).
The gran escalera or the main stairway is the access path connecting the ground and second floors and it is one part of the monastery complex that always awes. Maybe it is because of the impressive brick vault atop, said to have special acoustical characteristics, the solid and wide granite slabs and everything in it that gives one a feeling of being transported to some bygone era.
How the original ceiling paintings of the nave of San Agustin is not known, or I haven’t come across a document that details it, yet. Galende and Trota in their book San Agustin Art and History 1571 – 2000 however included a photo (left) of a portion of a corinthian capital in bright greens, yellows, reds and oranges that the authors wrote is reminiscent of baroque Mexico.