One of only four Baroque churches in the Philippines recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site
The Fortress Church
Commonly known as the Miag-ao Church, the Church of Sto. Tomas de Villanueva was declared in 1993 as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Baroque Churches of the Philippines.”
The church has been described as the finest example of a fortress baroque church by the UNESCO Convention. It’s one of the four baroque churches in the Philippines inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.
The church is home to the Roman Catholic parish of the town of Miag-ao, Iloilo. It also served as a bastion against Moro raiders during the olden days.
The church was completed in 1797 and is famous for the artistic sculptural relief carved on its façade. This includes the image of St. Christopher carrying the child Christ while holding on to a coconut tree amid the papaya and guava shrubs.
The orangish or yellowish brown color is attributed to the limestone and adobe used in the construction. The church’s foundation is 6 meters deep and its walls are 1.5 meters wide. It’s hemmed in by flying buttresses that are thrice thicker than the walls, and has twin belfries of different designs. One is a towering two-story belfry and the other is three stories high.
The Miag-ao Church is one of the country’s architectural gems because of its unique and impressive design. It stands as a living legacy of Filipino culture and our way of life.
The Miag-ao Church began construction in 1787 under the supervision of Fray Francisco Gonzales. It was completed in 1797 with a Baroque Romanesque architectural style. The church was built with 2 things in mind: First, as a worship place and second, as a fortress and defensive tower against Muslim raiders. The church also stands on the highest point of Miagao to serve as a watchtower.
Foundation is 6 meters deep with massive stone walls at 1.50 meters thick and supported by 4-meter thick buttresses. The thick walls are made to serve as protection from invaders and to withstand any attack. Purportedly, there are also secret passages within the walls. The rich cream hue of the church owes it to the materials used which were a mixture of adobe, egg, coral and limestone.
The twin belfries, when looked upon closely, have two different designs because it was commissioned by 2 different priests. The west belfry is the older one and also the tallest with 4 levels or 3-storeys high.
The bas-relief on the façade is a mixture of influences from the Spanish, Chinese, Muslim and local traditions in the area. The focal point of the sculpture, just above the door, is the life-size form of St Thomas de Villanueva, the patron saint of Miag-ao, with a kid on each side. On the pediment, the coconut or the “tree of life” stands in the middle surrounded by papaya and guava trees. Holding the trunk of the coconut tree is St. Christopher carrying the Christ child.
There are also 2 figures beside the main door. On the left is St. Henry of Bavaria and on the right is Pope Pius VI. On top of them is their respective coat-of-arms.
The window moldings have disintegrated and yet, if you look long enough, you can still imagine how beautiful it was on its glorious days through the details still present.
The interior of the church is simple. The walls were not painted (thank God!) and thus retain its unrefined beauty through the natural limestone blocks. The only elaborate thing inside the church is the retablo, painted in gold.
The Miag-ao Church was built by the Spanish Augustinian missionaries in Miag-ao, Iloilo in 1786. There are two notable frontages of this church: its two watchtowers and a large coconut tree at the center. The watchtowers were built to defend the town and people against the Muslims who invaded Christianized villages during the early times, while the coconut tree represents St. Christopher carrying Child Jesus on his shoulder referred as “tree of life,” which was according to folklore.
It was said that Miag-ao Church has the most interesting interior design of all 4 Baroque Churches in the Philippines because of its gold-plated retablos. Unfortunately, we were one of those who wasn’t able to see it as it was closed when we visited it.
During 1898, when Filipinos revolted against Spain, the church was destroyed. It was rebuilt; however, it was damaged heavily by fire and earthquake in 1910 and 1948.
The first time I was in Miag-Ao was when I went to Iloilo on my “1247 kilometer Manila to Panay Island roadtrip on a 100cc!” Epic Ride and it was one of the first few towns I passed through after coming from Antique. I was particularly amazed with how massive the structure was and it was really gigantic. No wonder it was used as a fortress against the Moro rebels before. It was quite a long journey as it was my first time to travel solo on a motorcycle, let alone on a long ride, hundreds of kilometers away from home so it was refreshing to see a sight that I knew I would appreciate, and that was the Santo Tomas de Villanueva Parish, or more commonly known as the Miag-Ao Church in the province of Iloilo.
Iloilo City is about 45 minutes from Miag-Ao so if you are a motorcycle traveler coming from Mindoro, then you will pass by Miag-Ao Church on the way to Iloilo City. It is one of the “must-sees” when you are traveling in this side of town. I say it is worth your time to pay a visit because whether or not you are into architecture, I am pretty sure that you will appreciate its beauty and splendor. After all, it is 1 of only 4 Baroque styled churches in the Philippines recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, so visiting a piece of history should be worth your time.
– Erik Gatmaitan is the author of https://www.pinoyrider.com – Journeying the Philippines SOLO on a motorbike.
Follow his adventures on his website or through his Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/PinoyRider