Spanish Influence on Filipino Visual Arts Spanish Influence on Filipino Visual Arts
The Spanish Colonial Tradition in Philippine Visual Arts
              by Eloisa May P. Hernandez

When the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines in 1521, the colonizers used art as a tool to propagate the Catholic faith through beautiful images. With communication as problem, the friars used images to explain the concepts behind Catholicism, and to tell the stories of Christ’s life and passion. Images of the Holy Family and the saints were introduced to the Filipino psyche through carved santos, the via crucis (Stations of the Cross), engravings on estampas and estampitas, and through paintings on church walls.

Though the ethnic art forms such as pottery, weaving and metalwork were retained, the Spanish friars and the Chinese, the colony’s primary trading partner, were slowly introducing newer art forms. Icons brought by the friars were used as models for sculpture. Filipino artisans were taught the Chinese brushwork technique in painting. Engraving was also introduced.

The concept of patronage emerged. Artisans were commissioned and paid to carve, engrave, and paint. They replaced the arts that were once done in a communal spirit and community setting for rituals. The church, particularly the friars, became the new patron of the arts.

Since most art produced during the first two centuries of Spanish occupation were for the church, the friars enforced strict supervision over their production. Until the 19th century, art was only for the church and religious use.

Early in the 19th century, with the opening of the Suez canal in 1869 and the development of the agricultural export economy, native indios acquired economic wealth and became what was to be called the "ilustrados," meaning enlightened and educated. These developments paved the way for Filipinos ilustrados to send their children to universities in Europe. The rise of the "ilustrado" (Filipinos with money and education) class was inevitable. The ilustrados became the new patron of the arts. These events paved the way for the secularization of art in the 19th century.

A. Painting

The Spanish friars introduced Western painting in the Philippines to artisans who learned to copy on two-dimensional form from the religious icons that the friars brought from Spain,. For the first centuries of Spanish colonization, painting was limited to religious icons. Portraits of saints and of the Holy Family became a familiar sight in churches. Other subject matters include the passion of Christ, the Via Crucis, the crucifixion, portrayal of heaven, purgatory and hell.

Painters from the Visayas island of Bohol were noted for their skillful manipulation of the technique. Their paintings of saints and religious scenes show figures in frontal and static positions. For the Boholano painters, the more important persons would be depicted bigger than the rest of the figures. Christ normally dwarfs the Roman soldiers in these paintings. Unfortunately, they did not sign their names on their works and no record of their names exists.

In the church in Paete, Laguna are two works by Josef Luciano Dans (1805- ca. 1870), probably one of the earliest recorded painters in Philippine art history. Langit, Lupa at Impierno ca. 1850 (Heaven, Earth and Hell), a three-level painting which shows the Holy Trinity, Mary the Mother of Christ, saints, the Seven Blessed Sacraments and a macabre depiction of Hell. The second painting is entitled Purgatorio (Purgatory) which shows the eight forms of punishment the soul passes through for cleansing before reaching Heaven.

During the early part of the Spanish occupation, painting was exclusively for the churches and for religious purposes. Occasionally, it was also used for propaganda. Esteban Villanueva of Vigan, Ilocos Sur depicted the Ilocos revolt against the basi monopoly in a 1821. The Spanish government commissioned the work. The fourteen panels show the series of events that led to the crushing of the Ilocano basi workers revolt by Spanish forces. It also showed the appearance of Halley’s comet in the Philippines during that time.

Tagalog painters Jose Loden, Tomas Nazario and Miguel de los Reyes, did the first still life paintings in the country. They were commissioned in 1786 by a Spanish botanist to paint the flora and fauna found in the country.

The earliest known historical paintings in the Philippines was a mural at the Palacio Real (Royal Palace) in Intramuros entitled The Conquest of the Batanes done in 1783. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during the 1863 earthquake.

Secular subject matter in painting only increased during the 19th century. With more tourists, ilustrados and foreigners demanding souvenirs and decorations from the country, tipos del pais developed in painting. These watercolor paintings show the different types of inhabitants in the Philippines in their different native costumes that show their social status and occupation. It also became an album of different native costumes. Damian Domingo y Gabor (ca. 1790-1832) was the most popular artist who worked in this style.

In the early 19th century, the rise of the ilustrados saw a rise in the art of portraiture. The need to adorn their newly constructed bahay-na-bato and the want to document their new found wealth and social status, the ilustrados commissioned painters to make portraits of themselves. The works of painters like Simon Flores, Antonio Malantic and Justiniano Ascunsion captured the intricately designed jewelry and fashion accessories, the minuet details of the embroidered clothes, and ornately designed domestic furniture of the patrons. The painstaking attention to minuet details characterized miniaturismo.

Governor General Narciso Claveria in 1849 issued a decree that all Philippine natives should assume Spanish names. Letras Y Figuras, (letters and figures), a style developed by Jose Honorato Lozano, combines both tipos del pais and genre paintings by forming the letters of the patron’s name from figures of people in local costumes doing everyday activities. It also utilized landscape scenes as background.

In 1821, Damian Domingo opened the first formal fine arts school in the country in his house, the Academia de Dibujo. Perhaps realizing his importance to Philippine art history, Damian Domingo is known for having made the first self-portrait in the country. In 1823, the Real Sociedad Economica Filipina de Amigos del Pais (Royal Economic Society of the Friends of the Colony) opened their own art school. In 1826, the society offered Domingo to be the professor in their school, in effect merging the two art schools. In 1828, Domingo was promoted to school director. Domingo must have taught miniaturismo to his students, but a publication by the academy entitled Elementos de Perspectiva (Elements of Perspective) suggests that he must have also taught the classical ideals of the European academies. Due to lack of funds and probably due to Domingo’s death in 1832, the school eventually closed in 1834.

In 1850, under the Junta de Commercio, a new art school, the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura, was opened with 70 enrollees. Enrique Nieto y Zamora, a new employee at the Post Office and a graduate of the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid, was appointed as acting director of the academy. Paintings by Spanish master were brought in to serve as models for the students, propagating the European academic style of painting - using grand subject matter from classical Greek and Roman mythologies, depicting historical scenes, and the use of chiaroscuro.

The academy was renamed Escuela de Dibujo, Pintura y Grabado in 1889. It was later incorporated with the Escuela de Artes y Oficios in 1891. In 1893, the school of arts and trades was separated from the academy. The academy was later elevated to the Escuela Superior de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado.

Other subject matter became increasingly popular such as genre, landscapes (paisajes), and bodegones (still life) with artists like Simon Flores, Lorenzo Guerrero, Felix Martinez, Paz Paterno and her half sister Adelaida Paterno. Flores’ two extant works, Primeras Letras and Feeding the Chicken show the close bond between mother and child.

The academic style was still favored by the church and government and was used for religious icons. The miniaturist style, though, was favored by ilustrado patrons and continued to prosper.

Several Filipino painters had the chance to study and work abroad. Among them were Juan Novicio Luna and Felix Resureccion Hidalgo who became the first international Filipino artists when they won the gold and silver medals in the 1884 Madrid Exposition.

Luna’s academic painting Spoliarium won gold medal. It showed the dead and dying Roman Gladiators being dragged into the basement of the Coliseum. It is often interpreted as an allusion to Imperial Spain’s oppression of the natives. Though winning the gold medal, Luna was not awarded the Medal of Excellence, the top award for the competition, because he was a Filipino. The King of Spain, to assuage Luna’s feelings, commissioned him to paint The Battle at Lepanto. Hidalgo won the silver medal for Virgenes christianas expuestas al populacho or Christian Virgins Exposed to the Public. The feat of Luna and Hidalgo caught the attention of Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippine’s National Hero, that in a gathering of Filipinos in Madrid, he gave a speech praising Luna and Hidalgo for their mastery and nationalism

In the 1892, Columbus Quadricentennial Art Contest competition sponsored by La Illustracion Filipina, a Filipino weekly publication, a 16-year-old girl named Carmen Zaragosa won first prize for her painting "Dos Intelligencias." In the 1895 Esposicion Regional de Filipinas in Manila, Zaragosa won a Cooper medal for her painting. Fourteen other women artists participated. Five of them won Cooper medals and four won honorable mentions.

B. Sculpture

Of all the new art forms introduced, the natives took to sculpture instantly. The carving of anito was transformed into sculpture of the saints. These santos were used primarily for the church altars and retablos. It also replaced the anitos in the altars of the natives’ homes.

Carvings for churches include altarpieces called retablos (usually with niches for the icons), the central point of any Catholic church. The retablo houses the tabernacle and the image of the town’s patron saint. Usually referred to as a "cabinet of saints", one would see a hierarchy of saints depending on their importance to the townspeople. The patron saint would be in the middle; less important saints would be in the periphery. The most elaborate retablos can be seen in the San Agustin Church in Intramuros.

Other parts of the church that may have carvings are church doors, pulpits, and carrozas (floats that carry the saints for processions). The façade of churches may be carved from adobe, coral stone, and volcanic rock, among others. It may have carved images of saints, floral decorations or leaf decors. In the case of the Miag-ao Church in Iloilo, the façade is decorated with a carved image of St. Christopher carrying the Christ Child on his shoulders under a coconut tree.

Relleves (carved images in relief) usually depict the Via Crucis. It may also show holy images in religious scenes.

The earliest known sculptor in the Philippines is the 17th century sacristan, sculptor and silversmith Juan de los Santos (ca. 1590 – ca. 1660) of San Pablo, Laguna. A few of his extant works may be found at the San Agustin Convent museum.

Except for de los Santos, carvers were anonymous artisans before the 19th century. But in the mid-19th century, with the rise of the ilustrados and the opening of the country to international trade, higher artistic standards were demanded from the carvers/sculptors. A number of Filipinos found fame in sculpture such as Crispulo Hocson, Romualdo de Jesus, Leoncio Asuncion and Isabelo Tampinco.

The second half of the 19th century, as travel in and around the country considerably improved, saw a marked increase in the demand for non-religious souvenirs. Tipos del pais (human types of the country) sculptures, showing ordinary people doing everyday activities and wearing their local costumes, became the favorite. They also depicted the heads of the various ethnic groups.

The inclusion of sculpture in the Academia de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado de Manila’s curriculum in 1879 formalized training in sculpture. Known sculptors during this time were Bonifacio Arevalo, Graciano Nepomuceno, Marcelo Nepomuceno, and Anselmo Espiritu. Philippine National Hero Jose P. Rizal was a sculptor. He took up woodcarving lessons from Romualdo de Jesus and Paete master carver Jose Caancan.

Paete, a small woodcarving town in Laguna, Southern Luzon, produced the finest santo carvers during this period. The most prominent name is Mariano Madriñan who won a gold medal in the 1883 Amsterdam Exposition for his Mater Dolorosa (Sorrowful Mother).

In 1889, the first woman student, Pelagia Mendoza y Gotianquin, was accepted in the Academia de Dibujo Y Pintura by then Director Lorenzo Rocha. In 1892, Pelagia Mendoza won in the 1892 Columbus Quadricentennial Art Contest with a bust of Christopher Columbus.


Engraving was introduced in the 1590’s by the Spanish colonizers. In 1593, the Dominicans published the La Doctrina Christiana en la Lengua Española y Tagala (The Christian Doctrine in the Spanish and Tagalog Language), first book printed in the country. On it was a woodcut engraving of St. Dominic by Juan de Veyra, a Chinese convert.

The religious orders owned printing presses and printed mostly prayer books and estampas. The estampas (prints of miraculous images) usually featured portraits of saints and religious scenes. Estampas and estampitas (smaller version of estampas) were distributed during town fiestas to the natives.

In the 18th century, copper etching became more popular. Filipino engravers like Francisco Suarez, Nicolas de la Cruz Bagay, Laureano Atlas, and Felipe Sevilla were the first Filipino artists to sign their works. And with words like "Indios Tagalo" or "Indio Filipino", affixed their social status on their works.

Francisco Suarez (ca. 1690 – ca. 1762) and Nicolas de la Cruz Bagay (1702 – ca. 1765) collaborated to depict landscapes, genre scenes and flora and fauna on the borders of maps commissioned by Fr. Murillo Velarde in 1733. These were probably the first secular images done in the country. The two also illustrated the pasyon written by Gaspar Aquino de Belen entitled Mahal na Passion ni Jesu Christong Panginoon Natin Na Tola (The Holy Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Verse), possibly the first pasyon written in the country.

Laureano Atlas made religious scenes and images. He did one of the earliest known portrait engraved on copper, a portrait of Archbishop Juan Angel Rodriguez in 1743. Phelipe Sevilla depicted scenes from the life of Christ.

Filipino engravers were the first to depict and reproduce brown madonnas. The Nuestra Senora de Guia was made in 1711, the oldest Marian image. The natives worship this icon like an anito

Copperplate engraving remained popular until the introduction of a new printing medium. Lithography was introduced and this facilitated the printing of newspapers and periodicals in the country. It also enabled the printing of the local edition of Fr. Manuel Blanco’s Flora de Filipinas in 1878.

One of the popular newspapers during the 19th century was La Illustracion Filipina published by Don Jose Zaragosa. It had more than 100 issues from November 1891 to February 1895. It usually featured lithograph prints of people, landscapes and genre scenes. Since most of the family members know how to draw (including Carmen Zaragosa mentioned earlier), some of their works must have been published here.


Gatbonton, Juan, Art Philippines. Crucible Workshop

Rod Paras-Perez. Edades and the 13 Moderns. Cultural Center of the Philippines

Tiongson, Nicanor G. CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Visual Arts, Cultural Center of the Philippines.
about the author
 Eloisa May P. Hernandez teaches Humanities at the Department of Art Studies of the University of  the Philippines, Diliman. She worked for the Coordinating Center for Visual Arts, Outreach and Exchange Division, and Museo ng Kalinangang Pilipino at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.


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