Arts and Culture

In their own way: Artists interpret the Via Crucis

GALá - GALá By Ana P. Labrador -
I’m doing a sculpture," announced Francisco Verano after I asked him what he was up to. It was in one of those interminable exhibit openings, where I was only meant to show face, and was just too glad to find his friendly face. I could not quite believe he has returned to making sculptures after years of painting. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was a renowned sculptor, particularly for his three-dimensional works using bamboo.

Among the most famous of these is the "Bamboo Fugue," that is now part of the Cultural Center of the Philippines collection. He abandoned sculpture for sometime, focusing instead on painting. Verano, who is now the head of the Saturday Group of painters, is also a gifted watercolorist and does mostly abstract, minimalist art. His revelation came as a delightful surprise. Doing sculpture again, it seems he is turning full circle as an artist.

As it turns out, his ambient passage back to sculpture was also meaningful. Verano described to me the setting of his rejoining work.

"This time," he volunteers, "the figure is cast in bronze."

That is an even more remarkable news since in the past he was not especially known for sculptures that require modeling or shaping. When I finally saw it, the work made me realize Verano’s strong foundation in figuration that made him exceptional in creating abstract art. Another case, I then thought, of figuratively knowing how to walk before learning to run. This has contributed to my growing awareness of excellent sculptors with keen hands in drawing realistic forms. Eventually after seeing others’ works next to his, I had a good point of comparison for representational sculptures.

Accompanied by his wife Elvira, who happens to be my colleague at the UP College of Arts and Letters, we went to the launching of Verano and 13 other artists’ sculptures at Magallanes Church, also known as the St. Alphonsus Mary de Liguouri Church, in Makati City.

The presentation of sculptures was actually the blessing of what is now known as the "Garden of the Way of the Cross." The timely celebration took place on Palm Sunday with the Bishop of Antipolo, Rev. Crisostomo Yalung as guest of honor. As each sculpture was being blessed, he led the parishioners and other guests on a pilgrimage of each station. The other participating artists, according to station numbers, were National Artist Napoleon V. Abueva, Abdulmari "Toym" De Leon Imao, Jr., Ros Arcilla, Raphael Arcilla, Tito Sanchez, Jose Mendoza, Ramon Orlina, Juan Sajid, Priscillano Vicaldo, Jr., Solomon Saprid, Eduardo Castrillo, Antonio Mondejar, and Dom Galicia.

Taking the form of the Way of the Cross, which is sometimes known here as the Via Crucis or Via Dolorosa, the sculptures were set in a garden just outside the church. Roman Catholics commemorate Jesus Christ’s Passion and Death through 14 contemplative markers. These stations each focus on an aspect of His suffering before and after death. After seeing the artworks, I found the sculptors’ choice of scene to work on remarkable. They were recreating the followers’ imagery of each way of the cross, encouraging further meditation.

For instance in Verano’s case, he selected to represent the Ninth Station, "Jesus is Nailed to the Cross," by depicting a muscular but proportionately formed Jesus Christ fastened to a large cross. He attached this diagonally on a slab of slanting concrete rather than positioning it upright, as might have been the usual way of portraying this scene.

Verano’s Christ-on-the-cross figure draws allusions from the numerous anonymous religious images of the Renaissance period in Europe. These are mostly found inside churches.

Responding to the commission to make a sculpture outside the church, Verano opted to create a solitary figure. This represents Christ helplessly fixed on his cross, looking upwards as he hangs on it dying. With Verano’s manner of positioning his figure, he made it stand out, not only amid the trees in the garden, but also between sculptures that flank his. In contrast to his work, both of them are arranged vertically.

According to one of the younger sculptors involved in this project, the measurement of the work was limited to four feet, minus the base. Toym Imao, who has had monument projects with the National Historical Institute, believes the sculptures’ size restriction contributed to the contemplative atmosphere in the garden.

His younger brother, Juan Sajid, is also part of this project. He was one of the youngest among those who won a commission to make public art at the Bonifacio Global City in Makati. For Sajid, his work for the Magallanes Church is significant, having just lost his peripheral vision and is gradually going blind due to a rare eye condition. His interpretation of "Jesus Meets the Pious Women of Jerusalem" evokes the scene in a narrative composition.

Sajid’s work, like those of his fellow sculptors, blend with each other without having to compromise their integrity. Had the sculptures been bigger, they would have competed with each other. It could have also turned into an art exhibit or fair.

In terms of the linear fashion with which pilgrims or onlookers would visit the site, the comparison with a museum exhibit is not too far-fetched. Visitors would ponder each sculpture as in a museum, interpret them and sometimes, upon going away, discuss their experience of the artworks. It is little wonder that the museum is likened to a church.

The concern for creating the appropriate sculpture for the right context may not affect artists working on the Way of the Cross inside other churches. But making site-specific artworks have challenged sculptors’ more than painters. This is especially the case when the size of the commissioned work is meant for public gaze. Moreover, its three-dimensional form requires space and a carefully planned area.

It takes a designer with a clear vision into the future to ensure the perpetuity of public monuments. The issues surrounding the relocation of the late National Artist Guillermo Tolentino’s Bonifacio Monument would not have been up for discussion had its planners been sensitive of its future. It also takes concerned officers and members of the public to care and maintain for such an important memorial that has made Monumento a landmark.

The sculptures in the Garden of the Way of the Cross will probably not suffer the same fate as a result of the numerous support that it has received.

Credit should go to parish priest Monsignor Ernesto P. Cruz, who, with his parishioner and landscape architect Ildefonso Santos, began discussions about the sculpture project some three to four years ago. Despite some criticisms from members of the parish, they gradually reclaimed a portion of the church road for the garden.

Santos planned the plants that would go with the sculptures and designed a curvilinear landscape to soften their sculpture’s hard materials.

Dom Galicia, who was the architect of Magallanes Church’s Adoration Chapel, contributed to this effort, citing the need to ease and also reclaim the strong angles of the church design made by the late National Artist Leandro Locsin.

Galicia depicted the 14th Station with a black granite fountain that resembled a tabernacle with a wide, white marble basin on its top. Behind it is a wall of local marble that has a niche on the side. This represents the empty cave following Christ’s resurrection. In these installations, Galicia placed engraved texts to encourage further the faithful’s journey to introspection.

It is worth noting Santos’ resistance to an offer from one of his sculptor-friends to do all Stations of the Cross. He said he felt there should be more diversity on the road to contemplating Christ’s passion.

Moreover, Monsignor Cruz’s enthusiasm for the project was a result of wanting to inspire people to reflect and to make them think. This would only be possible with different artists interpreting an aspect of the pilgrimage. He believes art is another way of refreshing the spirit.

This maybe one reason why the project did not lack sponsors. With the exception of sculptor Solomon Saprid, who voluntarily donated his work, each sculpture was financed by patrons.

The Parish Council also helped in raising funds for the landscaping. As a truly public art, the Garden of the Way of the Cross have many stakeholders who may ensure its long term maintenance and upkeep.

Amid the din of heavy vehicular traffic along South Super Highway next to Magallanes Church, lies a garden project that inspired Verano, an established painter, to go back to making sculptures.
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