Wednesday, October 08, 2008

To Do a Bishop Proud

First published in The Expat Travel & Lifestyle Magazine September 2008

The history of the Church of Rome is littered with artistic indulgencies that not only reflect upon the glory of God but also upon His patrons. They who commissioned the brightest and the best to create a back drop of awe to inspire the flock. Among the best known is Pope Julius II who employed Michelangelo to create the masterpiece that is the Sistine Chapel's scenes from Genesis including the world famous "Creation of Adam".

Artist Rafael del Casal

Although not Michelangelo, Rafael del Casal is a very fine portraitist of the realist school which coupled with an early training in theatrical stage design make him well qualified for the job in hand. That being the transformation of the down at heel, 1950's Parish Church of the Immaculate Conception into a Cathedral of sufficient grandeur to under score a bishop's pastoral message.

In 2003 the archdiocese of Manila was at bursting point. With 12 million parishioners the job of overseeing their pastoral needs had moved far beyond the resources of a single archbishop. Consequently, the hierarchy of the Church created six dioceses from the one archdiocese. And on the 28th of August of the same year the Diocese of Cubao with bishop Honesto Ongtioco at its helm came into being.

Bishop Honesto Ongtioco

The good bishop, who had spent over a decade in Rome cutting his administrative teeth at the Pontificio Collegio Filippino, concurred that the restoration of an existing church rather than building from scratch would suffice for his and the new diocese's Cathedral. The centrally located Parish Church of the Immaculate Conception had received the nod primarily for its ease of accessibility for the faithful.

When the call went out that the Church of the Immaculate Conception was to be restored befitting its new role as a cathedral, Rafeal del Casal's response was cool to non-existent.
Several months earlier he had visited the church as a newly arrived resident of Cubao. Neglect and the ravages of a tropical climate had seen the Immaculate Conception degraded to the extent that its assault upon his aesthetic sensibilities ensured an alternative was found for his devotions. "She had good bones but her complexion was mortified beyond words," he recalls thinking after his first visit.

The dramatic grandeur of the baroque that energizes so much of Filipino art predominated in the first design for the altar of the soon to be renovated Immaculate Conception. Although requested, the submitted design didn't sit well the Construction committee responsible for the restoration.

Long term Cubao resident and committee member Dr Raffy Lopez was aware that Del Casal, whom he had commissioned to produce designs for other projects, had moved into the parish. Lopez had also seen the designs Del Casal had produced for the Sto. Domingo Church's annual La Naval de Manila procession. He, consequently, cajoled the reluctant Del Casal to attend a Construction committee meeting and cast an eye over the disquieting design. Del Casal recognized at once that the opulent baroque design was in conflict with the neo-classical lines of the church's basic structure. Within a week Del Casal had produced a simplified design which found immediate acceptance with the committee. The chair of the committee, the former parish priest, Msgr. Dan Sta. Maria was so impressed with Del Casal's work that he recommended him to the bishop for the over all design responsibility of the renovation.

interior of the cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

Five years later, with the restoration half completed, Del Casal heads a team of artists, artisans and architects, including sculptor Primitivo Lauderis, architect Tony De Jesus, The Bakas Painting Group, metal artist Elmero Azares, furniture maker Mona Lisa San Juan and the House of Kraut for the stained glass windows. Working together they are overcoming the forces of nature and neglect. From the initial altar design, the project has grown to include not only the interior of the church but a redesign of the Church Grotto with its 2 funeral chapels and a marriage between the existing and new tombs, the landscaping of the surrounding grounds and a new rectory with a chapel for daily devotions.

old and new tombs in the grotto

Del Casal's early training at the Cultural Centre of the Philippines in stage design has held him in good stead for the design of these many and varied projects. His expertise as a portraitist has also been called into play for the painting of the 4 evangelists, St Mark, St Mathew, St Luke and St John on the transit ceiling in front of the main altar. Inspired by the Renaissance artists Correggio and Michelangelo, Del Casal's next hands on part of the project is the painting of the 12 apostles for the walls of the cathedral.

the landscaped gardens

With only a quarter of the stained glass widows having been replaced, the choir loft, the entrance, the side aisle ceilings, the outside facade and the portico untouched there is a considerable amount of work still to be done. And in the stop, start nature of a project like this, dependent upon fund raising for its continuance, it will be several more years before the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of Cubao will be seen in all its glory.

the new rectory

When pushed for a time line for completion Rafael Del Casal refers to the words attributed to Michelangelo in the MGM film, The Agony and the Ecstasy about the completion of that famous ceiling in Rome. "It will be finished, when it is finished."

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