Clothed in worship, wrapped in the Filipino identity

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My family and I spent Christmas and Black Saturday in Malaybalay City, Bukidnon. A trip to this mountainous capital wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Monastery of the Transfiguration, a magnum opus by the late National Artist for Architecture Leandro Locsin.

On the monastery premises is the Museum of Transfiguration, which was specifically built to house the vestments collection of Dom Martin Hizon-Gomez, OSB, the former society haute couturier Gang Gomez before he became a Benedictine monk. The vestments are a marvel in clothing design. However, you can’t scrutinize them closely as they are encased in glass.

But the faithful and followers of fashion can rejoice now. The liturgical collection of indigenous handwoven textiles will be on full display, sans glass enclosures, at the Ayala Museum until July 23. The exhibit is titled Vestments for Worship: Wrapped in Identity (Museum of the Transfiguration Abbey Collection). The 60-piece collection is composed of the 1998 Philippine Centennial collection, as well as new creations.

“Less than two years ago, the new director of the Ayala Museum, Mariles Gustilo, together with Patricia Araneta and the people from the Museum Foundation of the Philippines, visited the monastery. After the guided tour, Mariles asked me, ‘Have you ever brought this back to Manila? It’s been 18 years.’ I replied, ‘No. Nobody has invited me,’” Dom Martin, 69, recalled with a laugh. The exhibit date was finalized a week after when he visited Manila for a talk at the Philippine Textile Council.

“Besides what I have in the museum, all these years I’ve also been producing vestments for special occasions of the monastery, like a golden jubilee, a diamond jubilee, my silver jubilee, I would make something special. I was keeping them as my personal collection,” Dom Martin said at our informal meeting arranged by our mutual good friend, designer Barge Ramos. Both apprenticed in the 1970s with the legendary Christian Espiritu.

“This is part of the inculturation, which is what we’re pushing, that the liturgy should be Filipino not just in music, not just in architecture but also in the vestments,” Dom Martin explained. “The Second Vatican Council built up ideas of cultural identity—that the Church has to respect the culture of the people. That’s where I got my inspiration, from the late Father Anscar Chupungco, OSB, the president of the Philippine Liturgical Institute in Rome. Three decades na, ’di pa na disseminate sa Philippines, so Father Anscar built the Paul VI Institute of Liturgy [PIL]. In the early 1990s, as soon as I was solemnly professed in 1996, I got permission from the superiors to give lectures on the use of indigenous textiles.”

But his students at PIL were asking for samples of the abaca and piña that he passionately lectures about. So he decided to approach indigenous peoples (IP). How? “As an anthropologist, as a sociologist, as a monk, as an IP worker, as a tourist,” he laughed. “What I did before I went to the tribes, I first did research and studied their culture, what they want and don’t want. I first went to the Ifugaos in the North, the Itneg in Abra, the Gaddang in Nueva Vizcaya, the Abel Iloko in Vigan. Then the Visayas, to Kalibo, Iloilo, Miag-ao for the hablon, piña, abaca. Then to Mindanao for the T’boli, Mandaya, Talaandig, the Yakan, the Maranao. There are 20 weaving centers with research that spanned two and a half years.”

The astonishing results of that research are the vestments on full display at the exhibit: T’boli (bone-polished abaca cloths with stylized rhombus designs); B’laan (abaca cloth dyed in guava leaves to produce beige fabric); Ifugao; Gaddang; Yakan (seputangan is a traditional silk and cotton headcloth with intricate geometric patterns); Mandaya (dagmay, beautifully ornamented abaca textiles in a purplish violet); Itneg (handwoven indigo blue cotton, rich purple and black binakel, a material that gives the illusion of throbbing spheres); Tausug (as adherence to Islamic tenets, their imagery is nonrepresentative in nature); Piña (experimentations on piña-seda blends, banana-seda and fine abaca weaves).

“It was really networking. At that time there was still a Katutubong Filipino Foundation by then-First Lady Ming Ramos and Patis Tesoro. Margie Macasaet, the executive director, was actually the one who encouraged me to do a collection for the Philippine Centennial,” Dom Martin said. “When I was looking for a venue for an exhibit, I only had one choice, the choice of Barge Ramos, who had an exhibit of barong Tagalog at the old Ayala Museum.”

Has there been any feedback from the Vatican? “I don’t know. ’Di natuloy ang exhibit in Italy. What happened was the abbot primate, Marcel Rooney, saw the exhibit in 1998 and he wanted to bring the exhibit and the boys’ choir to Rome. He visited the monastery and he saw me working on the collection. He saw the process, the paper patterns with embroideries, and he also saw the novices tracing the designs on the piña.”

It takes months to produce a single liturgical garment, from the patterns, tracing, embroidery in Lumban, Laguna, to weaving. “There are many people making vestments now because there’s business in it, lay people. But, unfortunately, while they make beautiful vestments, these are not appropriate because there are guidelines to follow. Even the choice of color, say rose for Gaudate Sunday, ’wag naman shocking pink! Or green, ’wag naman acid green. Teka muna naman, this is a scared ritual.”

Who sets the guidelines? “Rome. All religious orders must follow the General Instructions of the Roman Missal. It applies to all. There’s a chapter on vestments, on when to use the colors for this season or for that feast. It talks of where you get the beauty of the vestments, upon which will it depend. It says there, ‘It is not in the ornamentation that comes afterward. It is in the design and the beauty of the textile. After that, papasok ang Benedictine flavor. In the Rules of Saint Benedict, it tells you how to look at beauty, novice simplicity, harmony, balance—things that are inculcated in the Rules of Saint Benedict. We apply them when it comes to vestments. Then papasok ’yung inculturation sa paragraph na ‘materials of the locality may be used for the liturgy’, with a corresponding chapter on the Rule of Saint Benedict na may rule on fashion. It talks of clothing of the monks should be made from materials from the locality so that you don’t have to go very far.”

The vestments are as intricate as couture gowns, but Dom Martin has gently refused any overtures to do another high-fashion creation. “I can’t do that anymore,” he said.

If ever you accept orders, can you cope with the demand? “No. But here’s the plan. In 2018 we will start creating duplicates for the first and second collections. We will post them online,” Dom Martin said. But the vestments can’t be altered in any way. If you want them, you get them as they are.“These are art pieces.”

Some pieces in the collection will be displayed at the Philippine Center in New York from November 22 to December 1. “For me, that’s very significant. Why? As a designer, I did two fashion shows there as Gang Gomez. This time, I will return as Dom Martin. It’s a full circle, my design story. It’s a crystallization. It’s not a reinvention. It’s about the fulfillment of an original plan, which is God’s plan for me. This is not really distinct from what I was doing. Everything was leading to this,” Dom Martin said.

Barge Ramos interjected. “I remember what Dom Martin once said: ‘What I gave up, God gave back.’”

“And even more,” Dom Martin added.



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