Ep. 066: The Sistine Chapel of the Philippines

St. James the Apostle Church in Betis, Guagua, Pampanga

It's the custom in the Philippines to refer to any Catholic Church that is the sole example of its denomination in a particular locality, not by its patron, but by the town it's in. So the church we'll visit in this episode is not commonly called "St. James the Apostle Parish Church," but rather simply "Betis Church" for its location. But some call it, with a touch of hyperbole, "the Sistine Chapel of the Philippines."

Let's find out why in this episode of--


The Baroque-style Church of St. James the Apostle at Betis, now part of the wood-carving town of Guagua, was founded in 1607 (though other sources say 1660), but after the wooden church burned down, the current edifice was built in 1770.

The relatively simple-but-Baroque facade and bell tower of the Betis Church

It's a pretty enough place, with the single bell tower typical of heritage churches in the Philippines. But the real attraction is on the inside.

Part of the church's rococo interior

What Wikipedia calls the "last Spanish priest" of the parish (presumably because the Americans had arrived and the Spaniards departed), Father Santiago Blanco ("St. James White"--ha!) hired Isidoro C. Soto in 1939 to paint the church's interior.

Part of the ceiling of St. James Church (Wikipedia)

And paint it he did! Although the comparison to the Sistine Chapel is a bit of a stretch, much of the painting is on the ceiling, and there is liberal use of trompe l'oeil, much like that used by Michelangelo himself.

But much as I love the rococo interior, a few things along the side of the church are just as interesting.

The right side entry to the church faces the main road.

First, let's get oriented a little. The front of the church faces a side road; the main road from San Fernando (the provincial capital) and Bacolor (where we visited "buried" churches in Episode 031) to "downtown" Guagua (population 111,199--salute!) runs along the right side of the church as one faces the main door.

The Holy Family featuring St. Joseph the Carpenter and his then-unknown apprentice

Near at hand is an assemblage of life-sized statues of Jesus and his mom and stepdad, St. Joseph the Carpenter (fitting for a wood-carving town); an artesian well dug in the late 19th century, and said to be the town's first; not just one but two bandstands, which a friend told me are used for the "blow-off" of the finalists in a town band competition; and a most arresting statue of St. James the Apostle as "Santiago Matamoros"--St. James the Moor Killer (namesake of the fort we visited in Episode 013).

St. James the Moor Killer

The statue of Saint James deserves a closer look. Saint James is mounted on a, um, obviously male white charger. The stallion is rearing up, with its left forefoot about to come down on one Muslim falling backward, sword in hand. The Saint himself is leaning off the horse's right side, swinging his own sword at another armed Moor, and two more Moors lie on the ground, apparently already dispatched.

The two band stands are along the main road, with the statue of St. James between.

Now, never mind that James was a contemporary of Jesus, and that Islam was founded over six centuries later. Because James appeared supernaturally at the Battle of Clavijo in 834 (later changed to 844) to aid the outnumbered Christians, and the account was written down some 300 years later. James's appearance had to be supernatural--because historians agree that the battle never took place!

Anyway, the Church of Santiago de Compostela in Spain is now the goal of hundreds of thousands of peaceful pilgrims along the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, most, I suspect, with nary a thought of killing a Muslim.


Well, thanks for coming along! Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: Let's visit tiny Asukadera, one of the earliest temples in Japan, and its homely Buddha statue, said to be the country's oldest.