Detail of the baptistery, located inside the belfry tower, adjacent and attached to the church by a short passageway. The walls and ceiling the ceiling are adorned with grissaile or shadow painting to create the illusion of moldings and bas reliefs.


Sculpted illusions at the Basilica Minor of Immaculate Conception in Batangas

The Basilica Menor de Inmaculada Concepción in Batangas City is a reflection on the brevity of life on this earth, and the promise of life everlasting.

  • March 5, 2018

  • Written by Judith Torres

  • Photographed by John Ocampo

The earliest ones are dated 1876, 1882, 1895 and 1898; all in one group near the narthex or lobby of the church, along the right aisle facing the altar. There could be earlier ones, but it is impossible to tell just by looking. Some of the headstones are so worn, their engravings are erased and surfaces completely smooth from over a century of the faithful of Batangas City and nearby towns filing in and out of their beloved basilica.

The photogenic nave of the basilica, the windows of its dome peeking just above the triumphal arc. The bands of paintwork on the walls and on the pilasters, which are at eye-level, cannot stand up to scrutiny, but the trompe l’oeil on the ceilings, cornices and over the arched windows succeed in imparting a vision of grandeur.
View of the narthex (lobby), traditionally the western end of the church where the main entrance is, as seen from the nave. In orthodoxy, the narthex was for penitents and catechumens who were separated from the rest of the congregation by means of a screen or railing. The absence of such a division here shows that such convention was no longer practiced when the basilica was built. At the center of the ceiling is a depiction of the Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Around it, the ceiling is adorned with grissaile or shadow painting to create the illusion of moldings and bas reliefs.

The Basilica Menor de Inmaculada Concepción is 156 years old, but the first church that stood on its site was erected 432 years ago in 1581 by an Augustinian priest, Padre Diego Mojica. Dedicated to Inmaculada Concepción de Nuestra Señora, the first structure was made of wood. Then, a large and fortified church complex was built on the site over the course of four decades, from 1682-1721, with a high watchtower and artileriya added to the convento in 1693, to espy and repel sea bandits.

According to several sources, including the marker outside the basilica, the second church was torn down, and a third church began construction in the mid-1800s. No reasons are given for why the second church had to be demolished, but it is likely that it had been severely compromised by two destructive earthquakes that happened in 1852, on September 16 and December 24.

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The Basilica Menor de Inmaculada Concepción, like its contemporaries in Batangas, was designed with a robust exterior in response to the threat posed by the destructive forces of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and typhoon winds. Its thick walls and the minimum of glass-clad openings keep the church cool even at noon with all the doors closed. The octagonal belfry tower holds the baptistery on the ground level.
To the right of the staircase spiraling up to the choir loft is the doorway leading to the baptistery. Baptisteries were traditionally located near the entrance/narthex, to symbolize the entry of the newly baptized member into the church.

According to the Catalogue of Violent and Destructive Earthquakes in the Philippines by Miguel Saderra Masó, SJ, (1910), the first earthquake caused great landslides and many fissures to open in the provinces of Bataan, Cavite and Batangas, while the second one “ruined many buildings, among which were the church of Taal, the church and convento of Bauang; the church of Batangas likewise suffered severely.” Both earthquakes measured 9 (with the highest being 10) on the De Rossi-Ferrol scale, and have been described as “devastating, causing great to total destruction of buildings.”

The third church, the present one, is a picture of solidity and stability, its walls a meter and a half thick, supported by three massive buttresses on each side. It was consecrated on February 2, 1857, and on February 13, 1948, by a decree of the Pope Pious XII, was elevated to the status of “Basilica Minor,” the first church in the Philippines and East Asia to be so honored.

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Considering the prominence of the city and the significance of the basilica, and that it was common practice to bury important townsfolk within church walls, it is surprising that there aren’t many more headstones to be found. There are less than 50, most of them lining the walls of the baptistery, an octagonal-shaped room housed within the belfry tower adjacent to the church. The headstones or niche covers in the baptistery are more recent than the ones in the church proper. Save for one, all who are buried here died in the early1900s, with several dated 1944, during the Japanese occupation of the city in World War II. There are niche covers with bas-reliefs skillfully carved out of marble and ordered from Manila, as attested by small inscriptions that read: Vergara Marble Works, Manila, and Manila Marble.

The baptistery is located inside the belfry tower, adjacent and attached to the church by a short passageway. In the center of the room is a round baptismal font of marble. Within the surrounding walls are shallow niches containing the remains of departed parishioners.
At the base of the domed ceiling are the words of Christ’s commission to his followers, written in Latin and translated in Tagalog: Euntes ergo docete omnes gentes baptizantes eos in nomine Patris et Filii at Spiritus Sancti (Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of theSon and of the Holy Spirit).

The eight-sided shape of traditional baptisteries symbolizes the eighth day, or the first day of a new week, the first day of a new creation or of resurrection. Although traditionally, baptisteries were intended to symbolize the tomb of the risen Christ, it was not customary to entomb the dead in this part of the church grounds, making the Basilica Minor of the Immaculate Conception one of the few in the world where this was done. Why did the stewards of the basilica decide to do this? It is an interesting story worthy of being chased.

For now, for me, it is food for reflection on the brevity of life on this earth, and the promise of life everlasting. Here, families gather to welcome the next generation into the greater family of the church, encircled by memorials to those who have come and gone before. It is the union of the body of Christ, past, present and expectant. 

This article first appeared in BluPrint Vol 1 2014. Edits were made for Bluprint.ph.