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Earthquake Baroque Churches in the Philippines

In late 16th century, Spain built the City of God in Manila. Shielded in a thick fortress, its massive and ornate buildings heralded the might of the sword cloaked in the sanctity of the cross. These ecclesiastical structures sheltered its faithful converts and made it the nucleus of more than 300 long years of rule in the Philippines.

As its conquest and evangelization of the Catholic faith became expansive across the archipelago, Spain constructed more huge and beautiful churches led by friars who brought inspirations of monastic architectures from the Antilles. These massive architectures were laid stone after stone by native laborers and skillful Chinese artisans incorporating indigenous materials and various folk influences creating a unique Asian adaptation of the popular 16th century Baroque artistic styles.
As the Philippines belongs to the Pacific Ring of Fire where earthquakes are frequent and seriously destructive, many ancient churches were constructed to be quake-resistant giving it an additional dimension to its ornate architectural styles called Earthquake Baroque.  It is characterized by shorter and wider proportions, thicker sidewalls and heavily buttressed on the sides. The interiors are heavily painted with illusory effects of frescoes and adorned with gilded sculptures.
UNESCO listed 4 earthquake baroque churches in the Philippines as World Heritage Sites. These are the San Agustin Church in Manila, Santa Maria Church in Ilocos Sur, San Agustin Church in Ilocos Norte and Santo Tomas de Villanueva Church in Iloilo. These structures still stand to this day as active churches nurturing the souls of the Catholic faithful inside a grand monument of colonial ecclesiastical art.
San Agustin Church (Intramuros, Manila)
Originally known as Iglesia y Convento de San Pablo, San Agustin Church was founded in 1571 and stands at the heart of the walled city of Intramuros as the country’s oldest church. The façade is less dramatic with only intricate hand carvings on its doors but its ceiling and walls have opulent trompe l’oeil frescoes. The heavily gilded retablo in the altar and the intricate iron works all around speak of its history of power. 
San Agustin Church has been administered by the Order of the Augustinian Friars since its inception 441 years ago. It has been reconstructed several times after enduring earthquakes and wartime bombings. Its museum holds many of the country’s exquisite Catholic reliquaries. On the church’ easternmost transept lies the tomb of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, the founder of the City of Manila. San Agustin is declared a national historical landmark and national cultural heritage not only for its religious significance but also for its contribution in building the nation.
Santa Maria Church (Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur)
Among the four UNESCO recognized earthquake baroque churches, the church in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur is the only one prominently constructed on a hill. It can be ascended on a wide flight of stairs made of ancient granite rock called piedra china. Unlike in most Spanish settlements where the church is in the center of the quadricula layout, this church is purposely built as a defense fortress from marauding pirates.
Dedicated to Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion or commonly known as Apo Baket, it was built in 1765 in the finest Ilocos bricks and mortar. Huge pilasters and buttresses support its curvilinear façade. The octagonal bell tower capped by a cross on a cupola stands separately about 30 meters behind from its façade. On its right side wall is a bas-relief image narrating the Virgin’s peregrination on a tree where the current church now stands.
The church’s interior is surprisingly bare, missing the real-life frescoes in many other churches. Its gilded altar serves as the focal point but its large stained glass windows create the dramatic play of light inside. Santa Maria is one of the most successful missions of the Augustinians where it served as the base of indoctrination in the northern part of the Philippines.
San Agustin Church (Paoay, Ilocos Norte)
With its colossal pyramid finial façade, San Agustine Church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte has become the most iconic of all earthquake baroque churches in the Philippines. It was built in 1694 by the Augustinians in baked stucco-plastered bricks, coral blocks, tree sap and lumber. The church’s theatrical play of light and shade from its wide stained glass windows is a classic characterization of late high baroque art called chiaroscuro.  
Among the four earthquake baroque churches, San Agustin has the most enormous buttressing gracefully rising from the ground to the roof. The bell tower on the western façade served as the Katipuneros’ observation post in 1896 Philippine Revolution against the Spaniards and the Guerilleros’ during the World War II against the Japanese.
Framed by beautifully manicured gardens, San Agustin Church is certainly one of the region’s most picturesque sites. On its side is a prayer garden for visitors and pilgrims filled with local shrubs and blooms.
Santo Tomas de Villanueva Church (Miag-ao, Iloilo)
The town of Miag-ao in the Province of Iloilo is a great example of Spain’s colonial grandeur in the south of Manila as evidenced by the surviving Baroque-Romanesque church of Sto. Tomas deVillanueva.
Built in 1787 by the Augustinian friars, this massive building built of “igang” or sandstone and bound by lime mortar is supported by thick buttresses and flanked by twin defense belfries. The façade of Miag-ao Church displays highly ornate bas-relief sculptures depicting the stories of its faith, culture and time. Inside, the gold-plated retablo is done in intricate design and is illuminated by the streaks of light coming in from wonderful stained-glass windows. Its design influences are from medieval Spanish motifs, Chinese and Muslim idioms and Ilonggo folklore.

The heritage churches in the Philippines are undoubtedly showcases of the religious, economic and political empire that Spain built in the East. It left unique architectural legacies that blend cultural expressions. Today, these ecclesiastical monuments of colonization still stand and continue to evangelize its faith amidst the endless threats of the earth’s tremors, changing weather and urbanization.
  • Wikipedia
  • UNESCO Home Page
  • San Agustin Home Page
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