Citadel Confronts the Challenges of Time

The ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru.  The walled city of Avila in Spain.  The Church of Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur.  What do they have in common? 

They are three of the 93 sites in 47 countries that comprise the 2010 WMF Watch, a biennial list of structures that are both significant and imperiled.  WMF, or World Monuments Fund, the prestigious New York-based non-profit organization, made the announcement in October last year. 

The Church of Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion, or Santa Maria Church, is one of three such sites in the Philippines, aside from the Ifugao Rice Terraces and Manila’s Basilica of San Sebastian (featured in the recent Sacred Spaces issue of BluPrint).

Santa Maria Church is also one of the four “Baroque Churches of the Philippines” that comprise the 1993 UNESCO World Heritage List inscription, joining Paoay, Miag-ao, and San Agustin.  Santa Maria is perhaps the least known, under the radar, even as it sits on a hill 19 meters above sea level.

The town of Santa Maria lies on a plain between the South China Sea and the mountains of Abra.  It was a simple Augustinian visita, or mission outpost, in 1567.  But by 1765, when construction of the church began, it had become one of the most prolific Augustinian missions in the Philippines. 

Near the intersection of Col. Reyes Ave. and the Santa Maria-Burgos Road, 80 or so granite steps rise eastward.  They taper from 13 meters wide at street level to 1.5 meters narrower at the top, resulting in a perspectival illusion of greater distance.  They rise gently, with deep treads and low risers.  Three landings allow us to catch our breath, and contemplate the upward sweep of man’s spiritual aspirations.

A staircase as the main approach to a church is not entirely unusual.  The Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome and the St. Paul ruins in Macau (BluPrint Vol. 7, 2009) are examples.  Unusual in Ilocos Sur is that we approach from the side; the stairs are parallel, not perpendicular, to the façade.  From this angle, the curved buttresses and the curved pediment, framed by the corner drums, come alive.

As described by Regalado Trota Jose in his 1992 book, Simbahan, the climb also presents the unique spectacle of a church separate from its convento.  At Santa Maria, they confront each other, separated by a narrow entrance courtyard but connected by a one-storey brick wall at the far end, through which another staircase directs us to the ruins of the camposanto, or cemetery.

The citadel contains the church, convento, and bell tower on roughly 1.25 hectares of hill.  A retaining wall 1.6 meters thick stabilizes the hill, augmented by stone buttresses at every 10 meters.

Corner drums anchor the main façade of the church.  Engaged pillars divide it into three bays, and, together with the corner drums, elicit deep shadow.  Across the main façade, a stringcourse extends from one corner drum to the other.  The only fenestration of the façade is a trio of windows between the stringcourse and the arched opening of the main door.   Above the stringcourse, curved buttresses sweep up from the corner drums towards the central bay, and meet the segmental pediment in the middle.

Decorative urns punctuate the corner drums and the engaged pillars.  Together with the curved buttresses, they remind us of Italian Renaissance architect Giacomo da Vignola’s façade design for the church of Il Gesu in Rome, which served as model for several colonial churches in the Ilocos.  (The Gesu that we see in Rome today carries the façade designed not by Vignola but by his successor, Giacomo della Porta.)

Beyond Vignola, the front façade suggests the inventiveness of the later master of the Baroque, Francesco Borromini.  It is exuberant, and specific about its precedents.  In comparison, the lateral elevations and their massive brick-clad buttresses are reticent.  There is something both modern and ancient about them, reminding us of the American architect Louis Kahn and his First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York.  The notion of the “immeasurable” in architecture was central to Kahn. 

Inside, the nave’s vaulted ceiling springs from nine pairs of Ionic pilasters, dividing the interior elevation into eight bays.  Stillness abides here in a way that inspires prayer and worship.  There is something profoundly evangelizing about daylight streaming into this vaulted space, thanks to the structure’s authenticity and integrity.  The structure retains its role as the vessel of a sublime message from man’s deep past.  Santa Maria Church has been blessed with stewards who have seen fit to repair and restore, and not to renovate.

According to Jose’s book Simbahan, “a church normally had two side altars or colaterales to complement the altar mayor, though of course the larger parishes could afford more.  The sanctuary in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur, has an unusual arrangement: a series of smaller altars, three on each side of the apse, flank the main altar.  These were said to have been erected for the numerous priests who had been stationed there, before proceeding to proselytize among the Itnegs in the nearby Abra mountains.”   

Whereas one set of exceptional qualities underlies Santa Maria’s inscription in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, other circumstances lead to inclusion in the WMF Watch.

At least a dozen serious cracks have been observed in the retaining walls, in particular the north, north-east and south-west sides.  A 2003 Detailed Engineering Study, or DES, prepared by Engr. Angel Lazaro, sounded the alarm and outlined corrective measures.  Unfortunately, other concerns prevailed, diverting attention from the retaining walls.  When a powerful typhoon hit in August 2008, the north-east retaining wall collapsed.  It was eventually repaired but at a cost greater than if repairs had been preventive.  The WMF listing aims to draw attention to the critical condition of the retaining walls, which literally are holding the hill together.

On the right side elevation of the church, a bas relief depicts Mother Mary in a tree.  According to legend, a Marian statue from a nearby chapel kept appearing on a guava tree on this hill, inspiring the assumption that Our Lady wanted a church to be built here. 

There is an additional story, told by the site’s two cross-axes that intersect at the main door, creating a cruciform: the North-South axis consisting of convento and church, and the East-West axis of stairs and the old cemetery. 

The east leads to the ruins of the old Spanish camposanto, shaped like a perfect square, sitting at the edge of a rice field.  At the far side of the camposanto, the ruins of a funerary chapel protrude into the field, its façade a miniature version of the main church.

Church and convento confront each other not as antagonists but as interlocutors in a discourse between sacred and profane, partners in an event that repeated, like sunrise and sunset: the daily routine during colonial times, when the convento was the residence of friars who celebrated daily mass at the church.

In contrast to the church-convento axis, the east-west axis moves in one direction.  Emerging from the South China Sea three kilometers away, bisecting the town of Santa Maria, climbing the 82 steps, pausing at the church door, walking through the courtyard gateway and down the other side, this axis ends in the cemetery, suggesting the trajectory from birth to death.

One axis speaks of the cycle of the day.  The other axis speaks of the cycle of a life.  It is the kind of dialogue that is at its most eloquent in places of exceptional character and authenticity, places of outstanding union of man and landscape, places like the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru, the walled city of Avila in Spain, and the Church of Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur.

(Published in BluPrint October 2010)