The Beauty of San Agustin Church

As my travels in Asia have continued to evolve, so have my interests and sights I intend to see when I travel. Initially, I looked for skyline photos and other modern aspects that compliment and often overwhelm the Asian mega city. While captivating skyline photos are still near the top of my list when I travel, a new form of building to see in former colonial cities now tops my list of places to see: Catholic Churches. This may surprise some readers 3when you find that I am not Catholic, but the intrinsic beauty and Architectural components within many of the colonial-era Catholic churches in cities like Manila and Macau are ripe with these buildings and all the history attached to them.

Many buildings in Manila’s Intramuros had fantastic, vibrant colonial-era exteriors and architecture, but San Agustin Church (founded in 1607) was a cut above the rest. Its unique form of beauty, both on the interior and exterior stole the show for me.

When I did research about Manila before my trip last weekend, I was immediately mesmerized by the brightly colored, almost florescent stucco exterior of the San Agustin Church. Images online all showed the Philippines’s oldest adobe building adorned with  pink, peach, red, or yellow walls and white window frames and pillars. The feeling was distinctly Spanish and colonial, so I could not wait to see it. When I first arrived, I was in for quite a surprise: the colors were GONE and the bare, four hundred year old walls, were fully exposed to the outside world. While some may have been disappointed (I certainly was), reflection has allowed me to realize the true beauty and character of this church.

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While it was disappointing, the exposed exterior shows the amount of craftsmanship and skill that went into constructing a stone church the size of San Agustin. Everything from the mortar to the pillars and regular facade had a lot of wear, the type of erosion which only buildings with immense character hold.

After passing through the double doors on the right side and entering the church, I entered the interior courtyard of the church, which, although as bare as the exterior, exuded a similar sense of beauty in its plainness. The palm trees and fountains provided another unique scene.

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After entering another set of doors in the back side of this plaza, More stone corridors were waiting for me, and somehow the cool temperature of the hallway and the accompanying oil paintings of Catholic leaders in Manila through the centuries showed a different sense of plain beauty. All of the hallways in San Agustin resembled this one in one way or another, with ceiling heights varying slightly between floors. It was the first time I have seen hallways like this in a Catholic Church since I set foot in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem back in 2013.

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At the end of this hallway, another first inside of a Catholic church awaited: a completely bare, bricked dome. As I have visited more and more churches, I have become accustomed to ornate mosaics or paintings at the top of many domes inside of these churches, but San Agustin was so different. There was no artwork at the top of this dome. The cool, dark hallway, only illuminated with a chandelier and sunlight provided yet another, different, backdrop for another amazing piece of architecture in Manila.

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After entering the second floor of the building, I encountered the church organ, and then to my right, a spectacular view of the altar and pews of San Agustin.

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As you can tell from the ceiling’s stonework and the woodwork style, San Agustin boasts a baroque style of architecture certainly unique to this part of the world. One of my family friends is an organist, and I could think of him playing this centuries-old organ as the pews fill on hot and steamy Sunday morning in September. The view over the railing was spectacular.

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High ceilings, dimmed and off chandeliers, simple painting on the ceilings, and an acoustically pleasing main hall accent an ornate and spectacular front altar. In the aforementioned paragraphs, the simple, historic, and cultural implications of San Agustin make this one of the most beautiful Catholic churches I have ever seen. Next up on the tour was the main floor.

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The altar was as spectacular as the rest of the church. High ceilings, marble pillars, and Spanish paintings dominated the main hall. The ornate masonry and stone carvings on the ceiling were the highlights of the architectural components of the main floor in San Agustin.

Even though I was initially met with disappointment surrounding the exterior of San Agustin, I am so happy that I continued to explore the interior of the oldest stone church in the Philippines and certainly one of the oldest churches in Asia. The high ceilings, palm trees, plazas, and bare, stone walls created a very different, memorable, building for me. Much different than other churches in Asia and North America, San Agustin stands alone for several reasons.

When you stop in Intramuros, I hope you take a few minutes to tour this fantastic church.

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Of Rosaries and Intramuros – Manila (Part 1)

You can often tell a lot about a country by the first thing you notice once you step out of the air side of an airport and into the nearest taxi, train, bus, or transit vehicle. For me, I instantly noticed something that would set the tone for the rest of my trip last weekend in Manila: a rosary hanging on the rearview mirror inside the vehicle I took from the airport to my hotel.

After meeting my friend and tour guide at the airport, we were quickly on our way to check in at my hotel to change and head off to Intramuros, the historical walled city within the metropolis that is urban Manila. As soon as we stepped into this car, I realized that we were in Asia, but the Philippines were going to be a completely different experience. The rosary would be a mere precursor for how much Catholicism and the Spanish influenced this island nation during its growth and colonial period.

Aside from the rosary, the radio stations were broadcast in English, but with a heavy American accent. It was very nice and actually made me feel like I was back at home for the hour or so ride to the hotel. Given that the Philippines were American territory from the conclusion of the Spanish-American War until 1946, I expected to see a lot of American influence on the islands, especially by means of the English language, but there were more subtle influences waiting around every corner. Streets named Taft (after President Taft, who was once Governor-General of the Philippines), fast food chains, clothing brands, snacks and candies in the convenience store, and even television channels (imagine having Lifetime, Fox News, and HBO in your room) all added American flavor to a city with hundreds of years of Spanish colonial rule.

Light Morning Traffic in Manila

Our first stop of the day was the famed Intramuros section of Manila. Everything online about this historical neighborhood in the city said it was a sight to behold and the most important thing to see in the city. After stopping by the neighborhood for a few hours, I conclude that all reviews and assessments were completely accurate.

As I have continued to travel in Asia, I’ve noticed that my interests and the things for which I look on my trips continues to evolve and change. Ever since I visited Macau in November 2013, my eyes in all new destinations have turned towards architecture. For architectural features and uniqueness alone, Intramuros is worth your visit. The sites therein hold so much history and the moss-covered walls surrounding these sites surely have countless stories to tell of Spanish and American rule and of bombing and warfare to retake Manila from the Imperial Japanese in World War II.

In the plaza portion of Intramuros, many military relics remain as a reminder of the history and military roots within this walled city. Here is an anchor and cannon which are predominately displayed.

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As I turned to the right before we passed through the famed Santa Lucia Gate, I marveled at the pure beauty of the palm trees and plants surrounding two ornate fountains. These images and gardens are unlike anything else I had seen in Asia, except for Macau, which was Portuguese-controlled for several centuries. The Spanish style and influence certainly made Intramuros very special for me from a cultural trace and architectural perspective.

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Behind this fountain, the Catholic influence and tout in Manila reared its head again in the most interesting of ways with this statue on the law of Intramuros.

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As the sweat continued to roll down my face and soak through my shirt, we pressed onward to Santa Lucia Gate and Fort Santiago. As we passed horse-drawn carriages in the street, I took a second to rest and chat with General MacArthur’s statue in the shade before pressing onward.

In the distance, you can see the spectacular Santa Lucai Gate. As soon as I lain eyes on this gate, my mind tried to imagine what types of people and objects had based through it over the past few centuries. From iconic images like American tanks during the Battle of Manila to regular merchants, what kind of stories could these walls share? The walls and gate show their character and age as they are in the process of erosion and destruction, certainly sped up by Japanese assault on the city in the 1940s.  Take a look at the ornate gate and craftsmanship within the stone structure.

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They say, “dead men tell no tales,” but for some reason, I think these disheveled walls have many stories to tell.

After passing through the two-tiered walls into Fort Santiago, more history was upon us in this part of historic Manila. As you can see below, gravestones and monuments overlooked a more desolate part of the sprawling and polluted city. DSC07413 DSC07418 DSC07420

Inside Intramuros near Fort Santiago helps anyone gain a perspective on Manila’s rich history and also helps the traveler realize how war torn the city has been in the past, as well. Inside of this part of the city the sites and sounds are great, but even more elegance, beauty, and history  awaits in other parts of Intramuros, namely in the Catholic churches and sites which are extremely prevalent in this part of the city.

To make it to the Catholic sites, one can take a cab or walk the streets. We decided to walk and had the chance to see many historic and Western-style buildings like nowhere else I have seen in Asia outside of Macau and perhaps Malaysia.

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Bright colors, ornate woodwork, black fencing, and stuccoed exteriors are all indicative of something you would see in Spain or other European settlements in Asia. I even felt like I was in New Orleans as I walked through some of the narrow alleyways atop cobblestone streets.

Architecturally and culturally speaking, Manila is a place like nowhere else I have visited to date. American and Spanish influence looms large in many ways of life, but inside Intramuros, Spanish architecture is King (Philip). After speaking with some locals and seeing photos, I only wish I could have seen Manila before the Battle of Manila in 1945. The colonial buildings would be a world treasure if they still existed and were not bombed out during the war.

I will devote my next post almost entirely to some of the cathedrals I saw in metro Manila last Friday.