Written by Aprille P. Tijam, Senior Manager, Exhibitions and Collections, Ayala Museum (Philippines, ITP 2019)

Every month of May, National Heritage Month is celebrated in the Philippines. The celebration is spearheaded by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) which was mandated by the Philippine government in 2003 with the primary objective of raising awareness for the preservation of Filipino heritage. These are supported by the Filipino Heritage Festival Inc. (FHFI). Their programme of activities this year are available at https://www.facebook.com/filheritagefest  and Ayala Museum has partnered with FHFI in presenting exhibitions for several years now as part of this annual celebration.

Our partnership in 2008 resulted in the exhibition presentation Kisame: Visions of Heaven on Earth, Photographs of Ceiling Paintings from Bohol Colonial Churches. This was curated by Reverend Father Milan Ted Torralba, Executive Secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), Church Heritage Commission, with co-Curator Kenneth Esguerra, Ayala Museum’s Senior Curator, and photographs by Atty. Paquito Ochoa, Jr., a photography enthusiast and former Executive Secretary to former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.

The exhibition presents installations of large format photographs of the ceiling (kisame) paintings in polynylon sheets. These were selected from 17 churches, in the Dioceses of Tagbilaran and Talibon in the province of Bohol. It offers an up-close view of biblical images that represent visions of heaven. These were suspended from the ceiling, simulating the renditions inside the churches.  The curator recreated “the sacred space of a church and the liturgical environment in which Holy Mass is celebrated.” Furthermore, the Curator invited the audience to “an introspective dialogue with the images of these divine realities of heaven, the very subjects that Francia-Avila kisame paintings themselves vibrantly re-present and re-create.”

KISAME presentation at Ayala Museum, 2008. PHOTO COURTESY OF AYALA MUSEUM.
KISAME presentation at Ayala Museum, 2008. PHOTO COURTESY OF AYALA MUSEUM
KISAME presentation at Ayala Museum, 2008. PHOTO COURTESY OF AYALA MUSEUM

Two painters from Cebu – Raymundo Francia, a self-taught painter, and Canuto Avila – were commissioned by the Bishop of Cebu, His Excellency, Most Reverend Juan Gorordo, to paint biblical scenes and images of saints directly on the ceilings of Bohol churches made of wood or tin sheet.  These images were to serve as aids for catechetical instructions. It was said that the inspiration for these paintings done in the 1920s to 1949, were imitations from engraved illustrations from religious books of the friars. While most of these illustrations were in black and white, the painters rendered their own coloured versions of these images.

As Exhibitions Manager, I was part of the team that travelled to the province of Bohol in 2008 to photo document the ceiling paintings and conducted research on these 19th century churches.  My colleagues and I were warmly welcomed by Father Milan Ted Torralba and His Excellency, Most Reverend Leonardo Medroso, Bishop then of the Diocese of Tagbilaran. I recall being in awe while straining my neck to gaze at the ceiling paintings adorning these parish churches. And, these were considered significant extant works of Francia and Avila.

In 2012, a traveling exhibition version was organised and first presented at the National Museum of the Philippines. Since then, the travelling set was presented in eleven more sites nationwide as part of the Ayala Museum’s Traveling Exhibition Program. My blog Bringing Art to the Community: Ayala Museum’s Traveling Exhibition Program shared insights on our efforts to address the challenge of reaching out to more communities, beyond the walls of Ayala Museum, allowing the public to engage more with art exhibitions and our collections, to include the presentation of the Kisame traveling exhibition version.

Fundraising exhibition presentation after the October 2013 earthquake at The FashionWalk, Greenbelt 5 Mall, Makati City. November 11-14, 2013. 
PHOTO BY AYALA MUSEUM

On October 15, 2013, an earthquake with 7.3 magnitude on the Richter scale struck the province of Bohol, extensively damaging the structures of these churches. Ten out of 40 parish churches suffered various states of damages.  The earthquake resulted to the total ruin of the Parish Churches of Loon and Maribojoc. The churches in the towns of Cortes, Dauis, Baclayon, and Loay were considerably disfigured, while the church at Dimiao experienced mild to moderate damages. Panglao and Albuquerque were only assessed by the NCCA Heritage Task Force to have experienced minimal damage. Most of these churches were built over the period of decades. The materials used were cut from coral stones and embellished with local forms and traditions.

DAMAGES NOTED IN 2013.
PHOTO BY REVEREND FATHER MILAN TED TORRALBA, 2013

The map below points out to the locations of these churches, indicating the minimal to large-scale damages:

From the Report of the Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, Diocese of Tagbilaran, Bohol by Reverend Father Milan Ted D. Torralba, Executive Secretary. November 2013.
Published as exhibition text for the Kisame: Visions of Heaven on Earth Traveling Exhibition program by Ayala Museum and the Filipino Heritage Festival, Inc.

I am very lucky to had been able to visit and photo document first-hand these churches before the 2013 earthquake. These images serve as one of the remaining documentation available for research, appreciation, and were first published in an exhibition catalogue by Ayala Foundation/Ayala Museum in 2008. A reprint in 2013 was initiated as part of the fundraising efforts to support the rehabilitation of these national cultural treasures by the National Museum of the Philippines and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP).

EXHIBITION CATALOGUE (size 9 x 9 inches), published by AFI and FHFI, 2008 and 2013 editions

With this year’s theme “Victory and Humanity: Upholding Filipino Heritage and Identity,” Ayala Museum celebrates the National Heritage Month, with the online re-staging of Kisame exhibition through the Virtual Visit programme on the Ayala Museum YouTube, from May 11 to August 31, 2021. To watch, visit the link  http://bit.ly/KisameVirtualVisits . This also coincides with the 500th year celebration of Christianity in the Philippines. And an additional milestone to celebrate is the complete restoration of the Loboc Church in Tagbilaran City. The restoration was supervised by the National Museum of the Philippines.

The Virtual Visit: Kisame also aims to promote continued awareness of these once-magnificent artworks by Raymundo Francia and Canuto Avila to a greater Filipino, and hopefully, to international audiences. This exhibition highlights the significant role these images played in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in the province of Bohol. And once the pandemic eases, the Kisame travelling exhibition may be on the road again to continue to serve as a tool for cultural heritage preservation.