Sole Survivor: San Agustín Church

Iglesia de San Agustin, Intramuros, Manila (

After the “Liberation” of Manila, Intramuros was nothing more but a heap of concrete with smoke rising from the former capital of Manila. Its walls, bastions, palaces, mansions and churches all either totally reduced to rubble or bombed-out. Some churches like Sto. Domingo and the San Francisco as well as that of the San Nicolas de Tolentino church of the Recoletos friars only had their facades left standing and some portions of their walls. Sadly, these facades that could’ve been restored and kept to serve as tangible and sad reminders were bulldozed by the Americans. The sites now are also occupied by different modern establishments, leaving no trace of the architectural gems that used to occupy the sites.

During one of the tours I have given for friends, foreigners and fellow students. Here, I'm with Jun Calderon

On the other hand though, Filipinos are still lucky to have at least one church saved from the carpet-bombing of Intramuros during the Second World War: the Church of San Agustín, the mother church of the Order of Saint Augustine here in the country. In fact, after the war, San Agustín was the only structure standing within the periphery of the old city. Being able to weather the storm, San Agustín is one of the best repositories of the architectural designs and church ornaments usually present in colonial churches, more so, the churches found in the former capital of the archipelago.

View upon entering

Upon reaching the main portals of San Agustín, one may notice the drab and banal façade of the church. With only one bell-tower, one may remark the sheer simplicity of the church. The doors of the church, however, give off a different feel. It is a seeming foretaste to what one would be seeing inside the church. The doors, which are made of a Philippine hardwood, is intricately carved with floral details and the reliefs of Santa Monica and San Agustín as well as the coat-of-arms of the Augustinian Order. One could say that the doors of the church redeem its ungraceful and charmless façade.

In all her radiant glory, the nave of San Agustin (Photo from Mez Bernard)

Going inside the church, one first goes under a low, nave-like structure. Then, after walking a few more steps, one suddenly sees the grandeur of the church. As if it builds up the momentum, the visitor, coming from a low-lying ceiling, suddenly steps into a grand showcase of classical interior design and Catholic heritage. The ceiling suddenly rises and the crystal chandeliers come into full view. As one tries to digest the scene upon entering, one cannot seem to comprehend all the activity taking place: the paintings, the statues, the big chandeliers, the side chapels, the main altar and of course, the freaky tomb stones one is stepping on. One is suddenly transported to the Intramuros of yore.

Right below the central part of the church

First, the tourist would undoubtedly notice the ceiling and its design. Splendidly painted using the trompe l’oeil technique by two Italian artists, the ceiling as well as the walls features Biblical as well as floral and animal figures which truly capture the attention of the Mass-goers. The intricate patterns and religious images gave life to the interiors of the church. Starkly different from the plain outside walls of the church, the walls and ceiling of the inverted barrel-shaped church vibrantly display the power of God. Despite its monochromatic color, the ceiling, nevertheless, gives off a three-dimensional impression, which is actually, the primary goal of the trompe l’oeil method. Gazing at the ceiling and walls of San Agustín is a usual routine for visitors who are simply taken aback by its beauty. It is a spectacle to view the different chiaroscuro and shadow effects of the technique.

View of a side chapel (Photo from friend, Paolo Halagueña)

Another noticeable feature of San Agustín would be the big chandeliers that line the main nave as well as the smaller ones, which accentuate the 14 side chapels. The crystal chandeliers sparkle and give off a certain feel of elegance to the church. As mentioned too, the presence of the side chapels, which have their respective side-altars with saints, are also noticeable. Unlike in most modern churches, these side chapels were present in colonial churches throughout the country.

Retablo of Our Lady of the Assumption found at the Zobel-Ayala-Roxas Chapel

Niches of Zobels and Ayalas

However, the interesting part about these side-chapels of San Agustín is that they are owned by the countries old rich Spanish families such as the Zobel de Ayalas, the Elizaldes, the Echevarrias, the Roxases of Calatagan, the Sorianos, the Ynchaustis, the Ortigases, the Aboitizes the Pardo de Taveras, the Rochas and the like. Each side chapel boasts of elaborately designed niches for members and ancestors of the said clans and also its respective saint. For example, the very first side chapel, which is owned by the Zobels, Roxases and Sorianos, has Our Lady of the Assumption as its patroness. Confessional boxes, which are also found in the side-chapels, are unique because they have signs that have the word: Español. Meaning, there are still confessions in San Agustín which are heard in Spanish. These side chapels are also festooned with the colors of the Spanish flag, namely red and yellow.

The ornately carved pulpito of San Agustin

Likewise, the pulpit of San Agustín is a treat to any visitor. Elaborately gilded, it is located at the right side of the church (if one is facing the sanctuary) and holds a position of prominence since in the old days, when the microphone was still non-existent, the priest used to give sermons from the canopied structure. It also has native flora and the pineapple as its decorative motifs. It is a feast for the senses to come close to the wooden lectern and just feel and see (even smell) the age and artistic craftsmanship, which produced it.

View from the Sanctuary

As if it the believer is still in need of convincing, anyone who pays San Agustín a visit, whether to hear Mass or to simply stumble upon a remnant of the kind of churches Intramuros used to boast, will not omit the grandiosity and elegance of the sanctuary, most especially, the silver-plated main retablo. It is situated on an elevated pedestal and is for everyone to see. A statue of St. Paul, the church’s patron, sits in the main niche of the retablo while St. Augustine is located at the top, just beneath a dove, which symbolizes the Holy Spirit. From that dove radiates the rays of the sun, a fitting crown to an awe-inspiring main altar. Below St. Paul is an antique image of the crucified Christ, from which, silver rays emanate. The silver tabernacle below the crucifix is large and bulky. The said tabernacle, the panels found below it and the altar frontal are all done in hammered silver depicting floral motifs and symbols of the Augustinian order. Within the sanctuary, there are two minor retablos.

Facing the main doors, towards the right of the main retablo is an inconspicuous dimly-lit chapel, which houses the remains of the founder of the city of Manila, el Adelantado, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. In it, one finds an elevated tomb fit for a knight, with Legazpi’s sculpted body lying on top. There is also a single chair inside the chapel, which is flanked by flags of Spain and the Philippines. On top of the tomb is a Spanish-inspired circular wooden chandelier. Exiting the chapel and going down the sanctuary, one notices the baroque pipe organ of the church located at the choir loft just above the church’s inner foyer (the area with a low ceiling). The bright sunlight enters a circular window from the choir loft, which, when the church’s doors are closed, gives an eerie touch to the centuries-old church. As one leaves the luckily-preserved church of San Agustín, the visitor is left edified but also regretful that the church’s neighboring churches that could have even been better and more impressive have all been destroyed or were never restored. Imagine having six more churches as awesome as San Agustín inside Intramuros!


About hechoayer

Things made yesterday still influence us until today. Things made today will influence us tomorrow. Things of the essence such as faith, culture, food, music and values should never disappear nor eroded by the times. Instead, these must be recorded, lived and shared. Something made yesterday - hecho ayer - can be tomorrow's saving grace. Never ignore the past.
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