It was a long day. The road from the sparkling white beach of Boracay to the massive Miag-Ao Church in Iloilo didn’t come easy. It was only a few hours after the sun shined down on the azure waters of Boracay when we left earlier in the day and the sun was already preparing to close shop as we alighted for the final time at the day’s destination.
I have seen Miag-Ao Church on various travelogues before and had always wanted to see its almost Aztec-Mayanish façade for myself. I haven’t been to South America and I’m not even sure if it does look anywhere near Aztec or Mayan, but that’s what my mind says to me.
Miag-Ao Church has been the recipient of the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription as being one of the four most treasured Baroque Churches in the Philippines along with San Agustin Church in Manila, Santa Maria Church in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur and San Agustin Church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte.
We approached the so-called fortress church. It seemed smaller than what my mind pictured it to be. The architecture is of Baroque-Romanesque type and the whole structure is made of rough-cut cream-colored sandstones. The walls looked indestructibly thick, and indeed it is; almost five feet of stone thick. Really massive.
The façade is almost symmetrical if not for its towers. The left side is a level higher than its counterpart. The sea has a lot to do with the anomaly. The Church of Miag-Ao was constructed during the dark days of the Sulu Slave Trade. Moro raids were common in those days, and to protect the villages, the coastal people of Visayas built churches and tower lookouts that can signal the town for an incoming attack. An excellently detailed exploration of that period can be found at Estan Cabigas’s Tea, Trade and Tears article.
The most interesting thing about the church is undoubtedly the carved bas-reliefs on its façade. On the lowest part sits niches for St. Henry holding a sword and the Pope raising his right hand in blessing with their respective intricate seals above. Innumerable trims and circular faux columns frame the sculptures with flourishes of vines and leaves creeping along its sides.
St. Thomas of Villanueva, Miag-Ao’s patron saint, holds the center of the façade. Encased in an ornately massive niche, the larger than life sculpture is beheld by two smaller folks in reverence. More ornaments rise upwards, Ionic column heads, circular balusters and more trims.
The apex holds a carving that’s unusual for house of worships, trees. Small banana and guava trees growing in jars, papaya trees replete with fruits and a proud coconut tree right smack in the middle with the icon of St. Christopher dressed in local garb lifting a young Jesus Christ on his shoulders.
The artistry of the façade almost makes you forget that there’s more. Walk around the church and you’d find more highly detailed carvings, flourishes, cherub faces, seals, framing its doors and windows. Everything seemed to be cut directly from the same sandstone material that makes up the church and has a genuine patina of time.
I walked further and went inside the dark cool chamber of Miag-Ao. I was delighted to find that the walls were the same cream-colored stone as outside. I know how Filipinos love paint and would gladly gloss anything over with a slather of shiny color, but I was so glad that they left the interiors of the church untouched. It was miraculously unpainted.
The altar however is a different matter. The retablo is finished in shining gold as is customary of churches nowadays. I’m not sure what the original retablo looked like, but I have a feeling this ain’t it at all. Somehow it contrasts with the patina of the rough church walls and looks a bit out of place with its overall surrounding.
The sun had probably retired but heavy drapes of clouds blocked its magnificent light. We hurriedly bid our farewell to Iloilo’s Miag-Ao.
I reviewed the photographs I took and I felt it to be wanting. The church seemed more beautiful than my captures and I left with a deep feeling of unfulfillment. I have a feeling Miag-Ao did not deserve the hurried sidetrip we did but needs a more thorough, unhurried, light-waiting moments that great works of architecture deserve.
Sto. Tomas de Villanueva Church
Address: Zulueta Ave. cor. Noble St.
Brgy. Tacas (Poblacion), Miag-Ao, Iloilo
Telephone: (033) 315-8001
Mass Schedule: Click Here
GPS Location: 10.642119,122.235667
View Location on Google Maps: Click Here