The Baroque Churches of the Philippines represent a fusion of European church design and local construction techniques adapted to the physical conditions.
Their specific characteristics include a separate bell tower and strong buttresses to withstand the powers of earthquakes that are common in the region, giving them a squat appearance. Their interior designs are partly based on local folk iconography. The four included churches showing this Phillipine-Hispanic style across the country are San Agustin (Manila), La Asuncion (Santa Maria), San Agustin (Paoay), and Santo Tomas (Miag-ao).
Community Perspective: San Agustin in Manila should be visited for its interior (enter via the monastery), while the Miag-ao and Paoay churches show why it is called ‘Earthquake Baroque’. Filipinos Bernard, Anril Tiatco and GabLabCebu all have well-described the features of the four churches in their reviews.
Map of Baroque ChurchesLoad map
Here in the Philippines, colonial churches are the pinnacle of heritage architecture. The vast majority of cities and towns are completely composed of buildings that did not exist 100 years ago, except for these ancient treasures. However, not all of these churches were made equal, and not all were kept equally preserved, either. That's why the Philippines has its own list of National Cultural Treasures, and it is from this list that 4 churches were chosen to be the very 1st WHS in the country. 2 churches are in the northern Ilocos region, 1 in the center of Manila (the capital city), and 1 in Iloilo in the Visayas. The Ilocano churches, Paoay and Santa Maria, are best-known as outstanding examples of Earthquake Baroque, characterized by thick stone walls, greater width in comparison to height, belfries separate from the body of the church, and of course, the iconic buttresses, which all help the churches to withstand the constant earthquakes in the region. Miag-ao Church in Iloilo is considered the best example of Fortress Baroque, a style developed as a defense against Moro (Philippine Muslim) pirates that used to raid the Visayan islands during the colonial period. Lastly, the San Agustin Church in Manila is the oldest stone church in the Philippines and the only building left standing in Intramuros (the central walled city of Manila, which was home to a staggering 7 churches) after the bombings of Manila in World War 2. Each of the churches is known for a very special characteristic: Paoay for its huge embellished buttresses and Javanese-influenced facade, Santa Maria for its location on a hill above the town, Miag-ao for its intricate bas-reliefs on its facade with designs of local culture and nature, and San Agustin for its gloriously decorated interior and adjacent monastery.
At this point, I think it's not hard to notice how little actually unifies these 4 churches aside from the fact that they are all designated as outstanding. The truth is that the Philippines is full of a diverse array of outstanding churches, and they're all outstanding in different ways and usually lacking in other ways. For example, the 2 Earthquake Baroque churches and the Fortress Baroque church are notable for their exterior layouts and design, but do not have remarkable interiors, not to mention that Earthquake and Fortress Baroque evolved similar structures, but for very different motivations. Meanwhile, San Agustin in Manila lacks an outstanding exterior, but is perhaps the most richly-decorated church in Asia outside of the Middle East. And let's not forget that these churches are in different regions of a country whose regions exhibit huge cultural and environmental differences between one another. To me, this attempt of creating one site to encompass all regional Catholic cultures of this diverse nation inhibits the true individual OUV of each church, style, or region by reducing the whole serial site as a demonstration of the fusing of Spanish architecture with "Philippine" design when there are indeed many distinct local designs and ways for the architecture to evolve to the different conditions. The Earthquake Baroque of Ilocos is strong enough to stand by itself as a distinct architectural style, although the site may be enriched by more examples of Earthquake Baroque such as Daraga Church in Bicol and Tumauini Church in the Cagayan Valley. Miag-ao would fit in better with other churches in the Visayan islands where pirates used to wreck havoc, such as the churches of Boljoon, Dalaguete, and Argao in Cebu, Lazi in Siquijor, and San Joaquin also in Iloilo. Lastly, the most richly decorated churches in the country, such as Betis Church and Taal Basilica, lie in the Tagalog region alongside San Agustin and exhibit similar artistic elements, most notably trompe l'oeil ceiling paintings.
Now for my actual experience with the Baroque Churches of the Philippines, I visited the San Agustin Church in Manila in May 2019. I was especially excited because after several years of visiting foreign WHS, this would be my first actual WHS visit in my own country. I had been to Manila many times before, mostly to meet with family friends, apply for USA visas, and even once to watch a theatrical production, but never to see the sights. This time, I wanted to experience the history of Manila, so I spent 3 (mostly leisurely) days exploring historic churches across the city. Of this, I spent an afternoon in the walled city of Intramuros, and about half of that time was in the San Agustin complex. The church is one of the most popular wedding venues, and I had missed a possible previous visit to the church before due to a wedding. This afternoon, however, I was lucky. Though the heavy front doors, guarded by statues of Chinese lion statues showing the influence of Chinese craftsmen during the colonial period, were locked, the museum was open, with a fee of about 200 pesos (?). I got a student discount, and on that note, I must be thankful for the staff for returning my school ID, which I had forgotten at the counter. The museum takes up the former Augustinian monastery adjacent to the church and included in the WHS zone. Most of its rooms are now empty shells of their former glory, though now littered with various religious artifacts, including several wooden retablos or altarpieces, which are artistic highlights in many colonial churches, as well as wooden and ivory religious figures, documents from colonial times, and paintings of different colonial churches around the country. These are all in the rooms and hallways of the 2-story cloister of the monastery, which while pleasant and obviously historic, wasn't as impressive as what I was about to see in the church, although some rooms, like the refectory, still had some of the ceiling paintings visible, and the stairwell is quite picturesque.
When the church doors are locked, one can enter through the museum entrance, as I did. The church was really quite dark, with only the slowly declining afternoon light really exposing the glory of the interior. Indeed, this is a true artistic treasure, comparable with some of the best churches in Latin America. The entrance has a strangely low ceiling which highlights just how wide the church is, an urban adaptation on Earthquake Baroque. The buttresses missing on the exterior are actually on the interior, forming the many side chapels, which are all worth a look. The altar isn't as intricate as that of some other churches, like Boljoon, but it is in beautiful harmony with the gracefulness of the whole church and is also still well-preserved. The pulpit is also impressive, covered in gold and embellished with various motifs. The most impressive, however, is the ceiling, covered in trompe l' oeil paintings, which is the first time I've seen them outside of Europe. The choir loft offers an even better and closer view of the ceiling, and it's only accessible from the museum. Even from so close, it was amazing how real the 3-dimensional-seeming figures seemed. There's also a great overview of the whole church from there, and it's a great spot for taking that picture we all need of the church.
San Agustin Church is a true architectural gem, outstanding in the world for its blend of various European and Asian ideals, in the continent for its artistic richness, and in the nation for its state of preservation. As of now, I can't speak for the other 3 churches on the list personally, but the fact stands that the Baroque Churches of the Philippines deserve the international preservation and attention for a reason, but time will tell for what exact reasons. Until I can visit the other 3, that's all I can conclude for this site. It's a worthy WHS. Though not the most amazing churches in the world, they are definitely unique, beautiful, and significant. I'll be looking forward to seeing not only the other 3 on the list, but other baroque churches of the country too.
Over five hundred churches, inspired by the baroque, gothic and rococo traditions of Europe, were built in the Philippine archipelago during the Hispanic colonial era. Many of these churches are well preserved and are still being used as places of worship. Many of these are protected by the national government by inscribing them either as National Cultural Property or National Cultural Treasures.
Today, four baroque churches stand out: Church of the Immaculate Conception of San Agustin (San Agustin Church) in Intramuros, Manila; Saint Augustine Church (popularly known as Paoay Church) in Ilocos Norte; Church of Our Lady of the Assumption (popularly known as Santa Maria Church); and Santo Tomas de Villanueva Parish Church (popularly known as Miag-ao Church) in Iloilo. In 1993, these churches were elevated to the status of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (with modification of boundaries in 2013). They are collectively identified as Baroque Churches of the Philippines. According to UNESCO, these churches are peculiar because their unique architectural style is a reinterpretation of European Baroque by Chinese and Philippine craftsmen.
I have visited all four churches: San Augustin Church several times, Paoay Church in 2015, Santa Maria Church in 2018, and Miag-ao in 2017. This post contains some briefs about the churches - some reflections about their magnificence.
San Agustin Church. According to some sources, the church was patterned by the Augustinians from a church in Nueva España (today Mexico). Built by the Augustinians in 1571 within the district of Intramuros (Walled City of Old Manila), the original structure was made of wood and palm fronds, which later were replaced by adobe stones from the provinces of Bulacan (next province north of Manila) and Rizal (next province south of Manila). Replacing the church with massive stones was strategic. The original wooden structure was gutted in December 1574 on the occasion of the Chinese Pirate Limhawong’s invasion. When the structure was completed in 1604, it became the official convent-house of the Augustinians in the Philippines. A huge monastery was also erected adjacent to the Church. During the Japanese occupation of Manila (Second World War), San Agustin Church became a concentration camp. The Japanese troops held hostage the Augustinian friars and members of the congregation for about three months. Several of these hostages died from the hands of the Japanese. In 1945, Manila was heavily destroyed by both American and Japanese troops. Almost all structures of Intramuros were annihilated save San Augustine Church. For the faithfuls, this was a miracle. Click here for more details about San Agustin Church.
Santa Maria Church. Santa Maria Church is one of the few churches (and convents) which did not conform to a tradition because it is the only colonial church located on a hill surrounded by a defensive wall (almost fortress-like). From the main hi-way (or “national road”) of Santa Maria, the church and the convent may only be reached by climbing a stairway made of granite with 85 steps. From the back of the church, there is a narrow roadway leading to a courtyard. Another wide stairway, similar to the front, leads down from the courtyard to a brick walkway that leads to an old abandoned cemetery. A few yards from the brick fence of the walkway are the ruins of an old chapel and graveyards. The belfry of the church is freestanding located on its side. Just beside the belfry is a relief image of the Lady of the Assumption, believed to be miraculous by the locals. Some say that at nighttime, the image comes down from the side of the church and becomes an ordinary individual who leads people who seem to be losing track of their destination in the right direction. Click here for more details about Santa Maria Church.
Paoay Church. One of the most visited destinations in Ilocos Norte, Paoay Church may be comparable to the Angkor Wat of Cambodia and the Borabadur Temple Complex in Indonesia in terms of massiveness and grandiosity. The 24 enormous buttresses on both sides of the structure, complete the magnificence of the Church. If one poses for a photo on one of the 1.67 metres (5.5 ft) thick buttresses, she may even be mistaken to be standing before a temple complex from Hue in Vietnam or Java in Indonesia or Seam Reap in Cambodia. These buttresses are believed to be the supporting structure of the church from collapsing should earthquake strike anytime in the region. The buttresses are also carved to look like huge art pieces. According to an architect friend from the University of the Philippines Diliman, large coral stones were used to construct the lower part of the wall and red and copper bricks at the upper levels. To strengthen the structure, the laborers used a special mortar that included sand, lime, sugarcane juice, mango leaves, leather, and even rice. According to a friend, these ingredients were also common in Ancient Southeast Asia. This and the resemblance of the structure with other Southeast Asian edifices prove the close link of the Philippines to the rest of the region. Besides, the architectural style of Paoay Church is Javanese. Another interesting feature of this complex is the garden, beautifully landscaped with sporadic spiral accents. In my view, these accents resemble surrealist art because of their depiction of fantasy and dream imagery. They are like motions or movements in a spiral direction. Nonetheless, one local eagerly mentioned that the spirals were inspired by the spirals found at the buttresses and nothing fancy about them. Click here for more details about Paoay Church.
Miag-ao Church. My favorite part of the church is its facade, which consists of ornately decorated bas-relief sculptures. The complex of bas-relief sculptures is a mixed influence of Medieval Spanish, Chinese, Muslim and Ilongo. A prominent part of the facade is a coconut tree, which according to my friend is a depiction of the tree of life. There’s also the figure of St. Christopher, which is intentionally dressed in local and traditional clothing. He is carrying the Child Jesus on his back. Other significant images in the facade are the significant everyday materials of the people of Miagao during the time it was being constructed: the flora (like papaya, coconut and palm tree) and fauna. There’s also the image of the town’s patron placed above the main door and just below the image of St. Christopher. In my view, the facade makes it the most celebrated, the most beautiful and the most localized Baroque church in the entire archipelago. Click here for more details about Miag-ao Church.
In 2021, the Philippines will celebrate 500 years of Christianity. No one can deny that Christian faith has become a significant part of Filipino heritage. However, as we celebrate 500 years of this colonial legacy, let us also not forget the dark history of Catholicism and Christianity in the Philippines. Let us also remember those who died from the hands of the Catholic Church. Most importantly, let us also commemorate the genius of the locals who in a way, are the unsung heroes of the massive places of worships. These are the artists who sculpted the amazing artworks that make these marvelous architectural wonders truly Filipino.
Read more from S. Anril Tiatco here.
I visited the Church of Church of San Agustin in 2007 and in 2016.
The Baroque Churches of the Philippines are a collection of 4 churches scattered throughout the country.
By far the most popular and visited church is San Agustin in the Intramuros section of Manila. It is the only church to have survived the bombing by the Japanese in WWII in the Intramuros.
In addition to being a functioning church, it is also home to a museum documenting the city, and the church in the Philippines.
Read more about the Baroque Churches of the Philippines on my website.
I visited just one of the churches listed, San Agustin in Manila. It is the oldest of the churches and I thought represented the site quite well.
There are two sections - the church itself and the attached monastery. Both are beautiful and very well maintained. I found the monastery really interesting because there are a lot of exhibits of artefacts and information.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the information presented was very biased. If you take it at face value, you would believe that the natives welcomed the colonising Catholics with open arms and converted straight away. Personally, I think it's a pity there isn't a more realistic depiction of what happened centuries ago.
Read more from Michael Turtle here.
In the middle of Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, is the historic district area called Intramuros, protected by old Spanish fortifications and magnificent golf courses, while inside is crammed with post war reconstruction offices, slum and colonial buildings including the famous San Agustin Church, one of the four churches registered as WHS under the name the Baroque Churches of the Philippines. Apart from the very bad state of scaling concrete on the front facade of the church, from outside this church really looks nothing special and unbelievable to be the head-quarter of once powerful Augustinian order. However after I opened the grand carved wooden door, I was really surprised with the very amazing interior of the church. The church is highly decorated with baroque elements; the altar and the pulpit are just lovely with pastel green colors and gilded details.
However the real star of the church is the magnificent ceiling with unbelievably beautiful trompe l'oeil, I looked at this great piece of art with surprised and hard to believe that I was in Asia while so many European arts around. The other interesting is that the church side aisles have been divided into many small chapels by the very thick wall that acted like buttress to support the church from earthquake. Another interesting from this church is that it is a very popular place for wedding; the central aisle is always decorated for wedding ceremony with many beautiful flower and white satin. I decided to join the holy mass to see the church during its best moment, all chandeliers were lid and the grey ceiling was transformed to be bright yellow! The chant by priests echoing the place was just indescribable, and hundreds of Filipino were sitting, standing or even jumping to see the ceremony! And not surprised that outside the church, couples and their curious relatives were waiting for their turn on wedding rites after mass.
Since I only saw San Agustin Church, I prefer not to make any conclusion on this WHS, also the earthquake baroque element which made these churches famous is not quite easily obvious from my visit. However, from my observation, San Agustin church is in awkward state and need better preservation, the scaling concrete and paint is obvious evidence and some of the stained glasses at rose window are missing. The severe pollution of Manila already deteriorates the craving details of beautiful wooden doors as well as other details of building exterior. It would be tragic if this old church that survived many earthquakes and the sole survivor from the Battle of Manila succumb by lack of good preservation despite UNESCO registration.
I am fortunate enough to be residing just 3 houses behind Paoay church -considered as the best example of earthquake baroque architecture. I have seen the four churches and each has its own unique characteristics. One of the better sides of visiting churches is that they have no entrance fees at all!
What makes Paoay church interesting is its rather unusual design. Prior to the Spanish era, the town of Paoay used to be called Bombay due to the presence of Indian traders near its coastal area. With the strong Hindu-Malay influences occurring within the town, oriental motifs were incorporated in the design of the church. This can be seen with the spirals on its buttresses, a highly Malay insignia. The best way to appreciate the structure is to see it from the corners of front lawn so as to see the 3D effect created by its imposing facade and wonderful rows of buttresses. Contrary to popular beliefs, Paoay church is not the oldest in the region - in fact, it is one of the youngest. It was built in 1704, while other nearby town-churches were built in the 1570s. Paoay church is made of coralstones and some bricks. The coralstones were harvested from the coastline of Pangil in the nearby town of Currimao (8Km away). Pangil boasts the longest stretch of "exposed" coral rock formations in the Philippines, ca. 2-3 km. long. Sunset photos here are superb! More photos at: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150112670412613.282329.694602612&type=3
The Sta. Maria church sits on top of a fortified hill. I never got to appreciate this one before as I found it lacking in grace compared to the other 3 inscribed churches. But having paid closer attention to its details from my succeeding visits, I was convinced that this is truly a gem worth celebrating. It is the only baroque church in the Philippines that is isolated from the town plaza (back in those days, normally, the churches would dictate where a town center should be established), and the only access to the church is through a 85-step staircase made of granite slabs imported from China. Like Paoay Church, Sta. Maria is heavily supported by massive buttress along its sides. Sta. Maria is entirely made of bricks. More photos at: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150533714237613.380811.694602612&type=3
San Agustin Church of Intramuros (Spanish: Ciudad Murada) is the oldest standing stone church in the Philippines. Unlike Paoay and Sta. Maria, San Agustin does not have external buttresses. The earthquake-proof system are its internal buttresses (that forms the side chapels inside) and vaults. The trompe l'oeil ceiling paintings were made by two Italian painters in 1875. Several conquistadores are also interred within the church. If given the opportunity to go inside the monastery and alleys, grab it - it is the church's best kept secrets. Notice as well the presence of Chinese fu dog statues on its facade. These were donated by the Chinese merchants who were in peaceful coexistence with the meztizos and Spaniards residing within the walled city. The church is largely made of volcanic tuff.
Maig-ao Church is a squatty church (similar to most Latin American churches) in the Visayan region. Due to the threats of Moro pirates in the Visayas, the church was made following the tradition of "fortress baroque" architecture. Miag-ao Church, together with Paoay and Sta. Maria does not boast a magnificently decorated interior. It prides, however, its facade - a real masterpiece of Filipino creativity. Notice how the towers are of unequal heights. The church is made using limestones and coralstones.
While in Manila for a brief time, my short excursion into Intramuros was enjoyable. Like others have mentioned Manila is a chaotic city (both good and bad!) and San Agustin Church is an enjoyable moment of solitude. For anyone visiting Manila, there are two churches worth visiting, San Agustin and San Sebastian Church. If and when I make it back to the Philippines I would love to visit some of the more remote churches included in this serial site. While the complex seems almost interchangeable with some churches in Latin America, if you look closely you will notice the small lion statues (guarding) the entrance of the church.
Read more from Kyle Magnuson here.
Just been to the Ilocos region to see Paoay and the Sta. Maria churches. I have visited San Agustin church in Intramuros likewise. Seeing these churches felt like I was thrown back in time.
The Paoay church surely made an impression on me. Perhaps it's because one can see the whole structure without any distractions around it and also it is very imposing, really. I loved it.
What I like in the San Agustin church in Intramuros is its grandiosity, that trompe l'oeil ceiling.
The Sta. Maria church impressed me with its location the most though.
I think something should be done for Paoay church. Its kind of falling into neglect.
I visit Manila regularly and check out its beautiful churches all the time. The church of San Augustin always astound me, even if I visit it a lot of times. However, it usually is closed, but can be accessed via the monastery, which also doubles as a museum. For a sum of 100 pesos, I can visit the museum and also I am granted access to the choirloft. This gives a breathtaking view of the church. A must see! I really like the trampe'oleil paintings and the lectern on the choirloft. The exterior is very simple, actually not that impressive on my opinion but do check out the carved wooden doors on the portals and also the chinese guard dogs- a perfect example of east meets west influence.
Another notable church is the San Sebastian. It is a complete stand out, being built in Neo Gothic Style, not common in most churches in the Philippines. Also it is made entirely of steel! A rare gem. And the good part is, it is always open! Even if the portal doors are closed, just go to the small door on the right side of the church, walk past the small, office like room and to a sort of courtyard where the side portal of the church is kept open. It is usually empty. Perfect for quiet medittation and prayer.
Visited Paoay and Santa Maria last March (2009).
Both churches are amazing. The huge buttresses of Paoay church are unparalleled. One can still notice the corals used to build the church. (This material is stronger than ordinary stone/brick.)
Santa Maria Church is situated on a hill - giving the impression that it was used both as a place of worship and a fortress.
I visited San Agustin Church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte this past summer. It is truly a very special exerience just to walk inside the aisle of the church and to sit infront of the main altar tp pray. The church is clean but it sure needs a lot of repairs. I hope visitors can be generous so that this beautiful church can be painted, windows repaired and stain glass windows fully cleaned. I imagine how beautiful it would be if the parish can afford to maintain it. Nevertheless, I wish God will allow me to visit this beautiful church again. nita
I visited the San Agustine one in Manila. The timing was bad because I couldnt see inside. But from the outside, I couldnt see very much of it's "greatness" to be submited as of the WHS.
Yet, it is surely old, and well maintaned. The statue detail is beautiful...
I have just been to Miag-ao last Saturday (i was touring around Visayas even with typhoon Caloy doing its own tour all over the country :D) and i think it was resplendently beautiful. I have seen Paoay and Baclayon also but I think Miag-ao is incomparable. and i'm glad i've visited this site and have come to know more about the history of Miag-ao.
San Agustin in Manila was the first Philippine baroque church that I visited. It's located conveniently in Intramuros, Manila's small historic center, the only building to survive WWII there. From the outside, this is a bulky church with a Latin American touch. On the inside, it's more refined. It can be visited from the adjoining monastery complex, a quiet refuge from Manila's hustle and bustle.
A more exemplary exponent of the so-called Earthquake Baroque I saw in Paoay, a village 1.5 hours by bus from Vigan (Northern Luzon). This church is also called San Agustin, the Augustinians being the first order to arrive in the Philippines in 1565. This San Agustin church has a spacious setting, so you can have a look at it from all sides.
The large buttresses every few meters that keep the church standing look sturdy enough to withstand an earthquake. While I was looking around this pleasant site, an also visiting Filippino family told me that there even had been an earthquake here last night. "Oh, we have them here all the time...", they said (obviously without worrying). The San Agustin Church will undoubtedly survive a few more.
I just visited Miag-ao Church and it is indeed very beautiful. We went to Iloilo for the Dinagyang Festival which is held on the last weekend of January. We went to Miag-ao and loved the rod trip going there. You should not miss having lunch at Allan's (Oton) or in Doming's (Miag-ao) for their oysters and other seafood (and they're very cheap too). The Miag-ao Church was extraordinarily beautiful - with the buttresses and the intricate design of the front facade of the Church. Too bad we weren't able to enter the Church because it was closed (I don't know if it was closed because it was a Monday or if it was because we were there during lunch time).
The very first WHS I visited. San Agustin in Manila (one of the 4 listed) was where we once had a school trip. It wasnt one of the things I noticed then but I was enthralled at the ornateness (and musty smell)of this 400 year old place that is so redolent of our country's Hispanic past. I remember not being able to sleep that night because I remembered seeing a room full of tombs! Something really to remember by.
Ive been back countless times eversince and have even drove 8 hours just to see the 2 other World Heritage Churches- Santa Maria and Paoay in the Ilocos provinces and feeling as giddy as an eight-year old getting his first lollipop!
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