Officially, San Agustin Church is known as the Immaculate Conception Parish of San Agustin (not to be confused with the Manila Cathedral which is known officially as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception) as well as the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation and Cincture (Nuestra Señora de Consolacion y Correa). The Our Lady of Consolation is a title given to Mary which is said to have originated from St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, whom the church and the order that built it were named after. In addition, the church also considers St. Paul as its patron; one can find his image at the church retablo.
For a church that holds so much history and significance, the San Agustin Church does not seem evoke the grandeur as that of the Manila Cathedral. However, let this not distract any visitor from the fact that the church, and the complex as a whole, has so much to offer. Even before you enter as you look at the patio and facade, one can spot some interesting elements in play.
As was mentioned previously, the church was built in the Baroque style of architecture, a style that evokes a sense of “dynamism” with strong curves, rich decorations, and general complexity in place. It also made use of light to create some interesting lighting effects, something one will see in the interiors. Baroque was also the trending architectural style among the Catholic churches of the 16th-17th century, around the time the church was built, which explains why it was the architectural style chosen for the church.
Despite the predominantly Western architectural influence, there were some interesting Eastern influences added as well. This is represented by the presence of Chinese guardian lions (known also as fu lions or fu dogs) near the church entrance and at the patio entrance. It is believed that the Chinese artisans who worked on the church added these elements and allowed by the Augustinians, perhaps as a decorative element.
If the church looks somewhat dull looking all gray and stale, it was not how it looked as late as 5 years ago or so. In the past, the church was painted in various colors over the years from pale orange to pale yellow because it sported an outer coating known as palitada. However, in the recent works done on the church, the coating was removed, revealing the blocks of concrete that make up the structure. There may be some conservation standards taken into account behind the decision (perhaps also an economic consideration so they can save on paint expenses), but the colorful San Agustin Church of the old will surely be missed.
Despite the gray look of the church these days, there are some elements that still stand out. Aside from the aforementioned Chinese lions, there are also the intricately carved portal doors leading to the church. They were said to be installed in the 17th century; the rococo-style doors bear some intricately-carved designs and images. What makes this unique is that unlike many other churches, the doors of San Agustin Church have no postern or postigo, a smaller door within this portal that accommodates persons passing through.
Inside the church, the first thing one will notice are the painted ceilings, pillars, and balusters providing the illusion of depth and grandeur, though garish at times. These paintings are an example of the type of art known as the trompe l’oeil or fools the eye in French. And yes, these artworks are actually a precursor of sorts to the art being used in places like Art Island and Upside Down Museum that are popular attractions today in the metropolis.
How these proto-3D looking artworks made their way to San Agustin Church is an interesting story itself. You see, trompe l’oeill was all the fad and rage in the 19th century, especially in Britain. The Augustinians heard about and wanted to get into the trend as well. So they hired 2 Italian scenographers (artists who did the backdrop artwork for operas) Giovanni Alberoni and Cesare Dibella to do some trompe l’oeill paintings in the church. Work would begin in 1875 and would continue for the next 16 months. It’s been said that the trompe l’oeill art in San Agustin was so popular that other churches decided to copy the art as well for their respective structures. That is not to say that the church before that was dull. In fact, there are some traces of the old artwork the church used to have before the makeover, though they have now faded. We can only speculate what the interiors were like before the makeover as sadly, little to no documentation exists about it.
At each side of the church can be found 4 side chapels. These chapels were sponsored by prominent families, serving as alternative areas for holding masses instead of the main altar. They also serve as burial grounds for members of the sponsor family. One example is the chapel of the Assumption sponsored by the Roxas-Zobel-Soriano clan, the forebears of the prominent Zobel de Ayala and Soriano families. Thus one can see some members of the family buried in the chapel.
There’s another chapel that can be found inside the church, and it is located beside the main altar. This is the Capilla de Legazpi or the Legazpi Chapel, serves as a memorial to Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, the man who established Spanish rule in the country and the founder of the City of Manila. It must be clarified that despite the presence of a “tombstone” with Legazpi depicted in repose, it is not actually the tomb of Legazpi himself. It is actually a common tomb where Legazpi, along with the remains of his grandsons Juan de Salcedo and, possibly, Juan’s brother Felipe, (possibly) former Governor General Guido de Lavezares, Blessed Pedro de Zuniga, and a few others. Originally, they had their own tombs but their remains were disturbed when the British took control of San Agustin Church during the British Occupation of 1762-1764 as they were looking for treasure. So when the Augustinians regained control of the church, they decided to gather all the remains and place them in the spot where they are located today.
Other elements have remained largely intact, such as the exquisitely carved pulpit to most of the choirloft area where some of the furniture and choir books used by the church choir before can still be seen.
If you think that is what San Agustin Church has to offer, wait until you visit its storied museum.
Next: the old convent which has mostly been converted to be the San Agustin Church Museum
Acknowledgements as well to Simbahan.net