By Dr. Jaime C. Laya
One of the gems of Manila’s treasured San Agustín church is the trompe l’oeil (deceive the eye) mural above the nave and choir loft. What looks like a Renaissance ceiling is a painting that dates back to 1875-76, the work of Italian artists Giovanni Alberoni and Cesare Dibella. It’s not on wood but is on the church’s ceiling, a giant half-cylinder of large adobe blocks held in place by its own weight.
The mural, particularly over the choir loft, was flaking off and the Augustinians requested Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional para el Desarrollo (AECID) for assistance. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) gave additional funding, strongly supported by Senator (now Congresswoman) Pia Cayetano.
Escuela Taller de Filipinas Foundation was asked to do the necessary work. Under the a Coordinating Committee including Fr. Ricky Villar, OSA and project manager Esperanza Gatbonton, artist Guy Custodio led the mural’s restoration, with specialist consultants in areas including stone, chemistry, geology, and plaster formulation.
It turned out that the Alberoni-Dibella originals had been worked on over its 150 years of existence, most recently in the 1970s by an Augustinian friar and in 1990 by an artist who reproduced the existing damaged work using latex paint.
The 1970s restoration proved to be a creative retouching and coloring of what then existed, inspired by an overhead inscription, “Laudate Dominum/Omnes Gentes” or “Praise to the Lord, all ye nations/extol him, all ye peoples” [Psalm 117]. Photographs of the result show added colors ranging from fair to black, to brown and yellow.
Deterioration was already noticeable by 1990 when an artist was called in. Apart from using latex, he produced a brighter mural with a reduced number of cherubs, with only 10 vs. the 20 cherubs appearing in photographs of the 1970s work. Respecting the mural’s history, the Augustinians decided to reinstate as much of the 1970s version as possible, with its colors and cherubs.
The latex paint had penetrated the underlying material. To save as much of the early work as possible, Escuela Taller used the time-tested strappo method devised to remove delicate paint layers for conservation purposes. It is delicate work requiring the application of fish glue between successive layers of special tissue. It turned out, unfortunately, that little of pre-1990 layers remained.
The restoration team could only duplicate as faithfully as possible the remnants of the 1990 layer while incorporating available information and/or evidence of the 1970s and earlier layers.
Custodio and Escuela Taller graduates and trainees documented and measured everything. The ceiling was scanned and plotted on a grid to create schematic sketches (cartoons) that were adjusted taking into account available photographs of its 1970s appearance. These were then computer-printed in actual size and traced at their proper locations to produce what we now see.
The next time you’re at San Agustín, look up, admire the murals, and think of the artistic and technical complexities needed to ensure that such beauty remains for many more years ahead.
Notes: (a) The AECID and NCCA grants covered the restoration of the murals above the choir loft and of the 17th-century choir stalls (sillería). The sillería had been partly eaten by termites or otherwise had missing and broken parts. Parts of the marquetry (tiny wood inlays) was missing and needed replacement; (b) The mural is painted not on bare adobe but on a plaster substrate, itself a complex undertaking; and (c) Other work done under the grant included repair of the stone ceiling over the choir loft that showed the cumulative effect of 400 years of war, earthquakes, typhoons, traffic vibrations, damaging interventions, etc., consisting of cracks, crevasses, rust from iron staples, degraded stones, failed grouting, and the like.
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