ACM’s Exhibit on Christianity in Asia

The facade of ACM. And those silver spheres, must be Dragon Balls

I arrived at the Asian Museum Civilization pass 4 this past Sunday. While there’s hardly traffic here it takes me about an hour to get to the downtown core—the old colonial seat of power. The British are gone but they left behind elegant buildings now utilized to promote art, culture and history. Like the old supreme court and the City Hall, redesigned and linked from the inside to house the impressive Singapore Gallery.

The ACM was moved to the Empress Place Building in 2003. Originally intended to be a court building but was later used to house various government offices. The interior showcases wonderful doric columns and cornices. It has a top tier Chinese resto and a spacious ballroom. The museum’s bookshop has a great collection of books on arts and culture from all over the region.

Stramford Raffles landed on the west portion of the Empress Place building. There’s a colonial era monument there to commemorate this event. He’s widely considered to have founded modern Singapore even by locals. I find this rather odd because back home, colonial figures are portrayed as evil. Perhaps Singaporeans, true to their meritocratic mind set, values contributions regardless of where it came from. If you look around, prosperous nations like theirs doesn’t really have history education that strongly demeans the former states that ruled them, it’s third world countries like ours that tends to linger on the subject. We still use colonial oppression as social tool to stir nationalism.

I first saw the museum six years ago. I came looking for Jose Rizal’s bust that the Singaporeans built to commemorate the Filipino’s visits to the islands. It’s located near the a pathway along the river, just across the iconic Fullerton hotel. A few meters away is the Cavenaugh Bridge, a structure that caught the young traveler’s attention. He provided a detailed description of this suspension bridge in his diary. Rizal reached Singapore’s shores five times, making it his most visited foreign land.

I’ve stepped inside the Asian Civilization’s Museum at least a dozen times. I recall two memorable exhibits, the Terracota warriors and the Land of the Morning, an amazing exhibit showcasing Filipino cultural and historical items. This two were my favorite thus far.

What made me go back is the current exhibit billed, “Christianity in Asia: Sacred Art and Visual Splendor.” They brought in items from the Louvre, museums in Lisbon & India and Bibliothèque nationale de France. There were, of course, items from the Philippines (described in photos below) where Catholicism succeeded unlike any other colonies in Asia. As a Catholic and a history buff I knew I’m in for  treat.

The relic that fascinated me most was a worn sandal of Saint Francis Xavier, Catholicism’s most prolific evangelist in this part of the world. So important were his contributions that it is said that Catholics in continental Asia could trace their Catholic roots from ancestors that converted to Catholicism with the help of St. Francis. The Historian Pio Andrade Jr. told me that a handful of Catholic Chinese that settled in Manila preceded the Spanish missionaries. According to him these Chinese were baptized by St. Francis Xavier himself. But unlike his Spanish brethren there’s no account of him reaching the Philippines.

In 2009 I visited Malacca. Up on the hill where the St. Paul church’s ruins stands is an open grave where St. Francis Xavier was temporary buried. The body of this saint must be one of the most traveled in the Church’s history. It now lies in Goa in Basilica of Bom Jesus. An Indian friend who I worked with Cebu, a devout Catholic, extended an invitation for me to visit his beloved Goa. I’ve yet to save money and allocate time to make this pilgrimage.

In one area designated for Filipiniana items I found a 19th century Talismanic shirt from Southern Luzon. It is inscribed with prayers in Latin and Spanish. The faithful wearing it believes that it protects them even against bullets. I first heard of these anting-anting from my father who had seen one in his youth. I’ve always wanted to see one and now I did—fourteen hundred miles from home.

Manila was once among the biggest ivory sculpture producer in the world along with Macau and Guangzhou. Our artisans were most likely Chino-Cristianos, Chinese who made a good living creating santos. This partly explains why there are noticeable Chinese facial traits in our religious images. We don’t see the westernize (if there are these are direct imports from Europe) images of the saints but Asianize adaptations. A chinita Virgin Mary with a complexion of an oriental woman. No, not at all Caucasian. We grew up seeing these in our parishes.

The second biggest ivory sculpture in Asia, a crucifix, was made in the Philippines. It’s part of University of Santo Tomas Museum, currently on loan to ACM. The biggest ivory icon is in Notre Dame France. But even then ivory was expensive, in fact only the hands, face and feet of religious images were made from it, the rest are formed using wood. I’ve seen intricate sword handles made of ivory in Negros Oriental at the Cat-Al private collection. They’re fascinating works of art. Noticeable is how it retained its gloss and whiteness for decades without cleaning. They’re most likely ceremonial samurais not made for battle.

The tradition of making religious images or santos continues to this day. One of my favorite town’s to visit is Paete in Laguna where wood artisans still produce fine religious art. The trade was so prevalent that in 18th and 19th century Mindanao carved images of the Buraq, the mythical animal that brought Prophet Muhammad to the heavens are depicted with saintly faces. Ours is believed to be the only one with a human face. Some historians attributes this to sculptors of traditional Santos that were used to making Christian icons.

 

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