THE HARDWOOD PATRIARCH: SAN AGUSTIN DE TANZA [Part 2 of 4]
By JOSE ALAIN AUSTRIA © 2007, 2014
NOTE: This is the second of a four-part series on the history of the centuries-old wooden image and the devotional culture that developed around it. The original version of this study was published in the UST Graduate School Journal AD VERITATEM (2007) Vol. 7, No. 1: 307-343. Part Two focuses on the various theories regarding the origins of both the statue of San Agustin and the popular devotion. No part of this essay can be reproduced without permission from the author.
THE TREASURE OF BANADERO
Fr. Narciso Manas, the parish priest who allegedly played a role in the establishment of the devotion did not leave any record concerning the image of San Agustin (as well as the miracles associated with it). As a result, oral tradition has been the sole basis of local histories on the image. Of the several variants, there is one oral tradition from the town’s poblacion which is now recognized by the local clergy as the “official history” of the image.
Sometime in 1795, a farmer from barrio Amaya discovered the image of San Agustin lying in the middle of a burnt field called Banadero, near the banks of the Obispo River. The farmer was apparently unaware of the identity of the wooden image and decided to bring it to the town’s gobernadorcillo. The town head, who knew no better, decided to keep the image under the staircase of the pueblo hall where it was used as a tying post for carabaos and horses. A hook was supposedly attached on the back of the image for this purpose. Appalled by the desecration, San Agustin allegedly appeared in a dream to then parish priest Narciso Manas. He requested him to take the image out of the town hall and to enshrine it at the parish church where it can be properly venerated. Since then, numerous miracles and favors were reported in relation to the image, giving birth to a full-scale popular devotion (Montano 1953: 26-28; Austria 2006).
Although popular imagination has accepted the story as fact, the absence of any document written by credible witnesses does not put to rest the issue of its authenticity. The discovery of miraculous santos (images) in remote places has been a constant in the oral traditions of the Christianized lowlands of the Philippines. In this aspect, the story of Tata Usteng’s ephipany in the plain of Banadero is not unique.
Throughout the Philippines, one can find santos that were reportedly found floating on a river, creek or sea, buried in a cave, hanging on a tree etc. In Cavite alone, everal towns accept as fact that their patron saints came to their locale through such unusual means. The icon of Our Lady of Solitude in Cavite Puerto was supposedly found floating on the sea, and the Candelaria image of Silang was discovered by an indio inside a cave (Mendoza 2002; Puansen 1884).
One will also notice that discovery tales are rare among urban-based popular devotions—like the case of Our Lady of the Rosary in Old Intramuros (now enshrined in Quezon City). In these cases, there are clear historical records. This is in stark contrast with the rural counterparts, the origins of which are attributed to some unexplainable phenomena such as sudden appearances / discoveries via the sea, rivers, streams, caves, mountains etc. The case of San Agustin de Tanza falls into the rural category. The lack of any supporting records seems to affirm the sentiment that the story of San Agustin’s discovery in 1795 is nothing but a legend.
There are three basic issues to resolve: 1) Where did the image come from? 2.) Was it really discovered near the Obispo River in 1795? 3.) When did San Agustin become an object of popular veneration in Tanza?
SAN AGUSTIN DE TANZA: PHILIPPINE-MADE
There is a common belief among the people of Tanza that the image of San Agustin came all the way from Spain. In fact, there is a local theory that the image may have been part of the cargo of a sunken galleon in Manila Bay. Although very improbable, the theory suggests that the image floated into the mouth of the Obispo River and eventually found its way to Banadero (Ner, 2001)
It is quite easy to be swayed by this popular conviction. For one, the image is often displayed with full regalia: intricately-embroidered robes (with gold thread), an ornately-designed miter and a silver staff. The sheer bulk of the clothing creates the impression of a stocky, triangular profile very typical of Spanish baroque santos.
Peel away all these trappings of centuries-old devotion and all we have left is a charming wooden statue carved out of a Philippine variety of hardwood: a fine specimen of 18th century Filipino religious art. An ocular study done way back in the 1950’s by historian Esteban de Ocampo suggests that it might be the work of Filipino or Sangley (Chinese) hands (Torres, 2002).
Since the late 16th century, Spanish missionaries employed indio and sangley artisans to embellish their newly-built churches with necessary ornamentation. Primary among these were religious images: santos. Although it is true that the friars brought with them some images from Spain and Mexico, there were not enough to fill the increasing number of churches and religious institutions in the colony. In general, importing images from the peninsula or the New World then was so expensive, time-consuming and wholly-impractical. It was more convenient to employ Filipino and Chinese artisans to produce these votive images.
Philippine santos are divided into two groups: those for home veneration and those for church use. The ones intended for home use were generally small, crude, and often non-realistic. The sheer size of (more than four feet) and the provenance of the San Agustin image in Tanza indicate that this specimen was not intended for a family altar. Images of this kind were made for something bigger—a church retablo (Gatbonton 1979: 78-79).
Apart from the fully-clothed countenance [debulto], there are other details that point to Philippine workmanship. The meticulous rendition of the saint’s beard, the realistic pout of the lips, the large round eyes…all reflects the artist’s scrupulousness in rendering the saint’s face. This concern for detail (especially for the frontal side) seems to be a form of primitive functionalism—a trait that characterized 17th-18th century Philippine santos (Ibid.)
Images intended for church use then were often installed in altar niches, exposing only the front part of the image to the viewer. Because of this, Filipino artisans often sculpted images with the perspective of the viewer in mind. The intention of primitive functionalism is to make the front as pleasing as possible to the devotee. Thus, the unexposed back of the images (often smooth, unadorned and simply vertical in line) receive less attention. After all, this part of the image would only face the wall—-far from the adoring gaze of the Filipino churchgoer. This is true with the Tanza image (Ibid.).
It was earlier mentioned that a hook is attached at the back of the image. This is still considered by many as a proof that the image was used as a tying post for horses and carabaos—and that the account of the 1795 discovery is authentic. It must be clarified however that images made for retablos normally have hooks at their back. The purpose of this hook is to keep it attached to the retablo niche, to prevent the heavy image from falling off the retablo. (Jose 1991: 121). If this hook proves anything, it is this: the image of San Agustin de Tanza was made for a large altar—a retablo.
The image is life-like. It is obvious that the artist made an attempt to render San Agustin in a classical posture, far from the rigid standing type that typified other contemporaneous images. If one ignores the textile cape (which creates an illusion of stockiness and bulk), one can see that the whole body forms a left-leaning vertical curve from the base to the point of the miter. This contrasts sharply with the straight vertical line seen in many santos. The saint for one is not staring straight or slightly downwards to the viewer. Instead, its eyes are focused on a distant point between heaven and the horizon. The legs of the image (especially the right) are slightly bent, creating an illusion of descent on an inclined plane. This effect is further complemented by simple folds, creating an illusion of the saint’s knees pressing against the vestments. But the feet are rendered only slightly apart, firmly standing on a flat base, making the saint’s pose somewhat artificial.
The San Agustin de Tanza fits the accepted prototype of the Philippine school of religious sculpture: a bearded old man dressed in the long robes of an ecclesiastic; a miter to remind the viewer that he was a bishop, a loosely-closed fist to accommodate a staff, a miniature church standing above a book to emphasize the honor of being a Doctor of the Church. Some specimens on display in the San Agustin Museum in Intramuros show the same features. Since the Augustinian Order used to own vast tracts of land in what is now Tanza during the 18th century, it is highly-probable that they kept an image of their spiritual father in one of their administrative houses (with its own private chapel perhaps).
It is unfortunate that even the identity of the unknown artisan may never be known. It was not the tradition of indio or sangley carvers to sign their works. One cannot help wondering if this unknown artisan ever entertained the thought that this typical San Agustin of his would later be the focal point of a thriving saint-cult?
EXAMINING THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE 1795 “DISCOVERY STORY”
On the altar containing the image, one reads: “San Agustin, 1795”. Apparently, local church authorities accept the 1795 discovery story as a fact. They even celebrated the image’s 200th anniversary with much pageantry (Tanza Town Fiesta souvenir program 1995). So it is clear that the 1795 discovery story remains undisputed in popular lore.
The precise year attached to the event however is not at all a proven fact. This was clarified by Mariano Montano, one of the town’s local historians. In an interview with the author (2001) Montano revealed that the year 1795 is a mere approximate and there are no pretensions that it is the exact date of the discovery of the image. The only thing “certain” is that it was found during the term of the town’s first parish priest , Fr. Narciso Manas. The said priest was supposedly the one who took the initiative of exposing the image of San Agustin in his church—after a numinous dream. Presuming that was the case, assigning an exact year or date can be a tall order: Fr. Manas handled the parish from 1780 to 1817—a total of 37 years!.
There is proof however than an image of San Agustin was already enshrined in Tanza even before Fr. Manas was assigned in the pueblo. The clue was a passing reference in Regalado Trota Jose’s conference paper “Reconstructing the Succession of Secular Priests in Cavite” (published in 2005). The passing reference to an indio-tagalo priest opens a new perspective in the reconstruction of the devotion’s history.
Prior to the arrival of Fr. Narciso Manas in 1780, Fr. Vizente Gavino (parish priest of San Francisco de Malabon) as the acting pastor of the visita of Tanza, wrote a document describing the state of the small chapel that would eventually become Fr. Manas’ parish church. Jose noted that the documents described the small church as made of “thatch, bamboo and wood. There was neither a bell-tower nor a baptistery, and there was only one retablo. An image of San Agustin was mentioned” (Jose 2005).
Is this particular image of San Agustin, and the one venerated in the current church one and the same? The author personally saw this handwritten-document during a visit to the Archdiocesan Archives in Intramuros (sometime in 2008). Part of the document [from the late 18th century Santa Visita bundles] includes an inventory of the furniture and other properties inside the small church. A wooden image of San Agustin was included in this inventory. Gavino however did not elaborate further. There’s no mention of its “discovery”, not a single word on its origins.
The author is convinced that this image is the beloved San Agustin de Tanza. There are two possible scenarios. First, the “miraculous” discovery of the image near the Obispo River happened much earlier than previously thought—probably before the year 1780. Second, the image of San Agustin de Tanza was a legacy of the original owners of the Hacienda de Santa Cruz de Malabon—the Augustinians. The second scenario seems to be more plausible.
THE HAZY GENESIS OF A POPULAR DEVOTION
The 1795 oral tradition maintains that it was through a dream that Fr. Manas was “ordered” by San Agustin himself to enshrine the image in the parish church for people to venerate. The above findings however seem to indicate that some form of devotion already exists even before Fr. Manas came to Tanza in 1780. While there is no doubt that there was a devotion to San Agustin prior to 1780, the question now is whether this was “significantly-popular” for the people of Tanza then?
Again, the known facts are meager. There is no record of wide-scale religious practices in honor of the saint in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. But there is one detail that seems to suggest that devotion to San Agustin was of great importance both for the clergy and the people of Tanza prior to the arrival of Fr. Manas.
The Archdiocese of Manila chose a very auspicious day for the elevation of theTanza to full parish status. Records show that Fr. Vizente Gavino officially relinquished his authority as vicar of the visita of Tanza on August 27, 1780. Fr. Narciso Manas was installed as Tanza’s first real parish priest on August 29, 1780. Note that the day between these two important occasions—-August 28, 1780—was in fact the feast of San Agustin.
There were three questions to consider. First, since the proposed parish’s official name is Parroquia de Santa Cruz de Malabon, why did ecclesiastical authorities not schedule the establishment of the parish on the 3rd of May of 1780—the feast of the Holy Cross? Second, what’s the relevance of Saint Augustine’s feast (August 28) for it to be chosen as the proper date for the visita’s elevation to a parish? Third, why was there a one-day gap (a grand fiesta perhaps) between Fr. Gavino’s official farewell to the community and Fr. Manas’ first day as Tanza’s official pastor?
There’s a strong probability that the image of San Agustin was already a venerable object of devotion for the people of the Tanza hacienda—definitely much earlier than the Dominican purchase of 1761, the establishment of the town (1770) and the parish (1780). But still—-more questions: Did the Augustinians directly introduce the devotion to their tenants during their stint as landowners? Was the devotion so strong that it remained an integral part of hacienda life even after the Augustinians lost the estate in the mid-18th century? The author thinks it’s wonderful if local historians in Tanza will conduct further research on this.
How about the story of the image being found in Banadero sometime in 1795? Well, there will always be a lingering thought among historians that the farmer’s “miraculous encounter” with the wooden image of San Agustin is simply a legend—in the mold of “foundling stories” which was very common in colonial towns of the Tagalog region [and the rest of the Christian Philippines]. However, legends do not invalidate the authentic experience of the people re San Agustin’s benevolence. In fact such legends are responsible for the irresistible mystique of Tanza’sTata Usteng.
End of Part Two
Photo No. 1: “Close-up of the face of the original 18th century image of Saint Augustine of Hippo, or more popularly known as Tata Usteng. From an estampita / devotional card (c) Santa Cruz Parish - Tanza, 2014.
Photo No. 2: “A priest blesses the image of San Agustin with incense (c) Santa Cruz Parish - Tanza, 2014.
*Special thanks to the Santa Cruz Parish, Tanza, Cavite for giving the author permission to publish these fairly-recent photograps.