A wonderful 45 minute drive to the south from Iloilo City leads to Miag-ao’s church of Santo Tomás de Villanueva, declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1993. One of the most impressive church in the country. It sits on a hill (Tacas) transferred by the Augustinian Padres from its original site because of the brutal Moro raids.
The present church was started by Fray Mayo in 1786, he finished the construction work eleven years later. One could easily notice the difference in the bell towers story, the left tower is one level higher then the left. This addition was made by Fray Perez to possibly increase the towers scope and visibility, as bell towers doubles as watchtowers during those times.
The façade is a mixture of decorative styles–Classical, Baroque, Rococo–all linked by tropical fantasy in a design uniquely Philippine according to the Atenean heritage website Panublion. The bas relief of San Cristobal is an extant example of the blending style of both Hispanic and native art. The relief represents a familiar Catholic symbol represented in local setting – a native farmer as St. Christopher, carrying the child Jesus crossing the river surrounded by tropical trees (coconut, papaya and guava shrubs).
The Miag-ao river could be the inspiration behind the artful façade, so while the church is dedicated to St. Thomas Villanova, Its most famous symbol (San Cristobal) is that of a man crossing the river. Miag-ao River is the route the pirates take to reach their inland victims. It could be said that keeping the faith and the community thriving had been a struggle during the early times because it has always been under pressure from the coastal invaders.
What the Moro raiders failed to destroy since 1786 was greatly damaged during the Filipino American war. It was burned during the clashes between the American and Filipino troops. The interior was partially consumed by fire – the town then embarks on their biggest challenge, restoring their town’s greatest treasure. Restoration would not come easy; it took more than 30 years for it to be finally completed. To this day, Miaganons are constantly confronted with deterioration issues as the yellowish sandstones, which makes the church glow like gold (quarried from San Joaquin) easily erode. In 2009, it underwent restoration work to fix portions of the fortress-like church walls.
I was lucky that I was still able to take more than a dozen pictures here before my digicam’s batteries run out. But its ok, something tells me that this won’t be the last time. I’ll be back. ☺