Negrense Artisans at St. Joseph the Worker Chapel

Negrense Artisans at St. Joseph the Worker Chapel

By Tats Rejante Manahan



It is a well-known fact by now that the St. Joseph the Worker Chapel that stands in the middle of the Victorias Milling Company compound in Victorias City, Negros Occidental, had been a controversial issue due to its seemingly strange and unusual iconography when it was completed. The construction of the chapel was meant for the Filipino Christian working class, and yet, the images painted by Alfonso Ossorio, the artist son of the mill’s owner, Don Miguel Ossorio, did not sit well with its intended parishioners. Much ado has been given about what was referred to as “The Angry Christ,” the altar mural that dominates the sightline of the chapel.

Because of its shocking imagery, little attention has been given to the local artists who worked on the ecclesiastical details of the church. An ecclesiastical artist, the Belgian baroness Adelaide de Bethune, was brought in by Ossorio to help complete the project. Making a call out for a sculptor, local carpenter Benjamin Valenciano took up the challenge despite his lack of knowledge in sculpting. The most he had done was to make carved wooden handles for bolos which he sold to American soldiers. De Bethune took a chance on Valenciano and later admitted that because she had no choice but to get him on board, Valenciano produced unique and naif religious artworks. It was a decision the baroness admitted she was “to congratulate herself” for.


Benjamin Valenciano’s first work, Virgin Mary carrying the Christ child.


Valenciano’s first work was the statue of the Virgin Mary carrying the Christ child. Relying on his creative instincts, his statue exuded charm, grace, and beauty, and a certain gentleness about it. The St. Joseph statue followed, rendered in a stiff military pose holding the traditional lily on his chest. Both Mary and Joseph have brown complexions, both wearing Filipino clothes, which gave that air of recognition to the townsfolk. Then at the suggestion of Ossorio who had grown up in the Philippines and knew of Holy week rituals, he instructed Valenciano to do a large crucifix with arms that moved on pivots, which would be taken down on Good Friday and laid on a beautiful coffin, also carved by Valenciano, as it was a Filipino tradition adapted from the Spanish custom of the Santo Entierro. The Christ was a beardless Christ. Both Ossorio and de Bethune, impressed with his work, further commissioned him to do the stations for the Way of the Cross. Valenciano, to be consistent with the previous statues, localized the imagery, interpreting Pilate as a fat officer in the uniform of a Guardia Civil. A curious feature in the manner in which the faces were painted indicated a Byzantine influence carried in the staring eyes reflected in traditional Byzantine iconography. It is said that this was the influence of de Bethune whose other works replicate this facet.

Soon enough, Valenciano recommended his friend, Arcadio Aunore, a gifted metal artisan, to decorate the pulpit and the font with sketches from de Bethune. The pulpit of poured concrete had five panels decorated with the four evangelists and their representative symbols, and at the center, Christ, the sun of justice. The font, also of concrete, has the traditional eight panels representing the seven days of creation and “the day of rebirth” through Baptism.



The last commission for Valenciano were two polychromed angels, Michael and Raphael, both rising from flames: interpreted in ecclesiastical studies as the Angels of the Apocalypse. Both are positioned on opposite ledges, Michael on the wall under the clerestory above St. Joseph and Raphael on the other side, looking down at the Virgin Mary. To some scholars, these two statues verify Ossorio’s original intent of the mural’s real title: “The Last Judgment”. “The Angry Christ” was just a monicker based on the initial reaction of Fredric Ossorio’s wife, when she first saw the mural and described it as an angry Christ. This is contrary to the common belief that an American journalist named it as such.

On the exterior right back wall, a mural painted by de Bethune on the day of Pentecost and the Last Supper, is highlighted by a verse translated to Hiligaynon; and on the chapel’s exterior wall on the left side is a cartoon of The Prodigal Son, said to be painted by Valenciano, with conversation balloons also in Hiligaynon.

De Bethune’s assistants who helped her with the mosaic murals on the fa├žade and around the church, as well as the baptistery, were all Filipino craftsmen, with Romulo Sta. Ana who was de Bethune’s right hand man.

The inclusion of Filipino artisans and Filipino iconography in the decorative work of St. Joseph the Worker Chapel at the Victorias Milling Co. compound proved to be a big contributing factor to the uniqueness and identity of the chapel as one for the Filipinos, by Filipinos.


References:

de Bethune, Adelaide, Philippine Adventure

Torres, Eric The Chapel of St. Joseph the Worker

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