Save the Paete murals
PENMAN - Butch Dalisay () - April 19, 2010 - 12:00am

I have no connection to Paete, Laguna, other than the fact that Beng and I take a drive around Laguna de Bay every other summer or so and stop over in Paete occasionally to buy papier-mache horses or wooden angels to decorate the house with. This is how many of us know that town — as a haven for craftsmen and artists, particularly where woodworking and sculpture are concerned. Indeed, its inner streets are lined with small shops selling everything from Sto. Niños to Marilyn Monroes in their full upskirt glory.

Last Black Saturday, however, on another of our lakeside sorties, we discovered another treasure in Paete well worth visiting — that is, if they can first be saved from decay and destruction.

The St. James the Apostle Church in Paete was built in 1646, so that the church itself is a site worth visiting, but among its treasures are three murals or large wall paintings (actually four, including an earlier one closer to the altar) near the main entrance. Two of the murals have been attributed to the local artist Jose Luciano Dans and dated 1850; the third one — a fresco that literally came to light when they lifted the San Cristobal mural off its moorings — is unsigned, but details in the painting strongly suggest it to have been done by the same artist. From the entrance, the two on the left depict San Cristobal (St. Christopher) fording a river with the Child Jesus on his shoulder; on the right is a towering, phantasmagoric rendition of Langit, Lupa at Impyerno (Heaven, Earth and Hell).

The artistry in all three works is superb, the kind of detailing and nuancing you could mull over for hours, seated in a chair in front of the painting. However, all three — indubitably national treasures — are in dire need of restoration.

The slightly newer San Cristobal is in the worst state, the wood beneath the paint having rotted away and sloughed off in parts, especially at the bottom where a large hole now exists. It’s truly sad, because the periphery suggests that the lost portion also contained charming but now almost invisible details as fish poking their heads above the water.

The fresco that was originally beneath the painting is in the best relative state, having been hidden for so long; its colors remain sharp and vivid. However, the stone or plaster surface has chipped off in parts, and early attempts at slapping concrete over these patches and painting over them have only accentuated the damage — if not, in fact, adding to them.

The magnificent Langit, Lupa… has retained most of its fine details, but like the old Sistine Chapel ceiling, the painting has been darkened by more than a century of grime and, ironically, sunlight, which has grayed out what would have been a vibrant vision of the cosmos from a 19th-century Paeteño’s point of view.

Beng cringed when she heard one of the church assistants suggest — no doubt with the best of intentions — that local artists might be able to “restore” the paintings themselves with some wood here and some paint there, Paete after all being famous for its exquisite folk art.

It’s a complication that Beng and her fellow restorers have had to deal with too often in this country of churches; knowing no better and without the funds to undertake proper, scientific restoration, too many priests and parishioners have eagerly painted or cemented over precious artworks and buildings, thinking that a fresh coat of enamel or concrete is all that’s needed in these cases. These haphazard gestures sadly can’t be undone in most instances. I keep thinking of a Botong Francisco mural reportedly buried under a wall of paint in a private college in Quezon City whose sisters apparently didn’t realize what a treasure they had tired of looking at.

Aware of these issues, parish priest Fr. Joseph de la Rosa told us that he had approached the National Historical Institute for help, but that the National Historical Institute had asked him to raise P500,000 for the restoration, an amount well beyond his parish’s capacity to produce. (In fairness to the NHI, I’m not sure if this was meant to be some kind of local counterpart fund.) I advised Fr. de la Rosa to approach the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, which has also financed the restoration of other important artworks in churches such as the ceiling paintings in Jimenez, Misamis Occidental and the camarin of Sta. Ana Church in Manila.

I surmised — hopefully correctly — that if the NCCA could splurge on such projects as an influential senator’s hometown initiatives and the staging of certain plays abroad, then it could spare a few million to rescue these priceless, 160-year-old treasures from certain destruction.

Not incidentally, it’s also unfortunate that Paete’s town bosses decided to put up a concrete stage or grandstand right in front of the church — or actually, along its length — blocking it from view. Laguna’s governor did the same thing to Pakil, whose lovely church is now obscured across the street from the Dalena house by some kind of multipurpose hall whose only purpose at the moment seemed to be to serve as a garage for the municipal dump truck. What ignominy!

* * *

Speaking of saving valuable cultural sites and objects, I was very happy to find — during our recent writers’ workshop in Baguio (about which more, next week) — that the historic Casa Vallejo hotel on Session Road near SM has been massively renovated and has reopened for business. When I say “massively” I don’t mean that they’ve changed everything. From the outside, it’s still pretty much the old Vallejo from Baguio’s colonial American years (it first opened in 1909); but they’ve redone all the rooms and the old ballroom, modernizing the place while keeping tastefully to the old design.

Guests taking any of the 24 rooms (whose rates range reasonably from P1,900 for a standard room to P3,000 for a double queen) will appreciate the new toilets and the flat-screen TVs, but also the ceiling fans and the round, old-fashioned alarm clocks on every bedside table. The floors remain the old wooden planks, sanded to a new life. The old fireplace has also been refurbished and is fully functional.

Easily the most distinguishing feature of the new Vallejo is the Hill Station restaurant that sprawls where the old, dank ballroom used to be, with wide glass windows and a menu featuring such to-die-for entrees as crispy duck flakes on a bed of rice and enormous servings of tasty lamb chops, punctuated by homemade ice cream.

Restaurant manager Mitos says that more improvements are underway — Baguio poet Padma Perez will be opening a bookshop in the hotel soon, and a function room good for about 20 people is also being finished. For information and to make your reservations, visit http://www.casavallejobaguio.com.

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E-mail me at penmanila@yahoo.com and visit my blog at www.penmanila.net.

ANA CHURCH BOTONG FRANCISCO CASA VALLEJO CHILD JESUS MDASH NATIONAL HISTORICAL INSTITUTE OLD PAETE SAN CRISTOBAL
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