Like other similar Augustinian structures built in the late 18th century in the archipelago, this church of Argao is an edifice of impressive dimensions.
This structure set in stone – called the San Miguel Arcangel Church – is 72 meters long, 16 meters wide, and 10 meters high.
With its vaulted wooden ceiling that covers a simple nave and a transept that gives it a cruciform shape, it is typical of other Spanish colonial churches in the Philippines.
Paul Gerschwiler, in his historical outline of Argao, described the construction as massive, with its “12 strong supporting buttresses reinforcing the walls and enhancing stability.”
The completion of this present-day church can be traced back to 1788, said the book Balaanong Bahandi, citing Archdiocesan records.
Although another historian, Pedro Galende, attributed the current structure to Fr. Mateo Perez, who served as parish priest for 33 straight years from 1803 to 1806, the date “1738” engraved above the arch of the church’s side door indicates it may have been completed during Fr. Francisco Espina’s time from 1782 to 1798, the book added.
An undated photo of San Miguel Arcangel Parish Church. (From Ernesto Chua’s Collection)
Argao was one of eight vicarages established in 1599 and, while it became a town or mission pueblo as early as 1608, it was only set up as a parish over a hundred years later or in 1733, said the Balaanong Bahandi, adding the reason for this oversight was never adequately explained.
Originally, the San Miguel Arcangel Church had the typical Spanish clay tiles for its roof but this collapsed during the typhoon of November 25-26, 1876, wrote Gerschwiler, citing Argao native Msgr. Pablo Alcarez as saying the tiles were replaced with galvanized iron in 1924 due to fear of earthquakes.
The church facade is a horizontal rectangle topped by a triangular pediment and divided into nine panels, a style that can be found only in five of over 160 documented Augustinian churches and all of them built along the southeastern coast of Cebu, according to Gerschwiler.
What distinguishes the San Miguel Arcangel Church, he added, is the high artistic quality and symbolism of its masonry, although Augustinian records had failed to identify many of the master carver-artists behind the structure’s artistic ornamentation.
He noted that an example of such one-of-a-kind feature is the four pairs of half columns that run up to the pediment and divide the facade into three panels.
“On the first level the paired columns stand on rectangular pedestals. The two outer pedestals depict lions sitting on their hind legs, holding a ball in each of their paws; a very typical Chinese motif,” wrote Gerschwiler in his historical outline.
The two pedestals flanking the main door each depict a bird, with its head down and wings spread out protectively, nursing three of its young that cling to their mother’s breast, he added in his description.
Rich and elaborate ornamentation can be seen in the way the double cornices that horizontally divide the facade create an entablature when it intersects with Corinthian capitals richly decorated with floral motifs; atlante-angel carvings carry the paired half-columns running up to the pediment; a stylized peacock sits atop an orb; sequence of carvings of angels, fruits of the ivy, and a little snake run down the columns.
“In a cascade of motifs, the artist carved his message…(he) thought this particular message to be so important and essential that he repeated it with slight variations on all half-columns of the first level, no less than eight times,” Gerschwiler said.
Four of the nine panels in the front face are particularly prominent, including the central panel of the pediment where St. Michael the Archangel, armed with spear and shield, and flanked by two angels – one carrying his standard as light bearer and the other holding the Tuba Christi of the Last Judgement – is depicted.
Its massive front and side doors made of vertically joined hardwood planks are integrated with smaller semicircular doors and decorated evenly with bronze rosettes embedded on the wood.
The church, according to the Balaanong Bahandi, has been the recipient of Baroque and semi-Rococo embellishments like its wooden pulpit and its pipe organ in the choir loft reportedly brought in from Mexico.
A wooden retablo of majestic proportions dominates the altar section but this has unfortunately been unnecessarily gilded, including even the centuries-old life-size estofado statues of saints enthroned in its niches, added the book.