When it comes to structures built during the Spanish colonial period, the St. Thomas of Villanova Parish Church is among the more notable ones in the Philippines.
The present edifice, constructed from 1786-1797 under the supervision of Fray Francisco Gonzales Maximo, is the third built in Miagao during Spanish times and was intended not just to serve as sanctuary from pirate raids but also to withstand earthquakes and typhoons.
Its simple and massive form points to its function as fortress, while the ornate details on the facade embodies its spiritual function as the House of God, according to the book Great Churches of the Philippines co-authored by priest historians Pedro Galende and Rene Javellana.
The first church of Miagao was built in 1734, three years after it was established as town and parish, in a low-lying area called Ubos but it was burnt during the pirate raid of 1741.
The destruction of a second church constructed in 1754 by Fray Fernando Camporredondo in another raid prompted the Spanish authorities to move it to a higher elevation in Tacas Hill where it now currently stands.
Spanish colonial Baroque church
Completed in 1797, the St. Thomas of Villanova Parish Church depicts the typical “Spanish colonial Baroque style” in the Philippines.
What makes the edifice an architectural masterpiece are the features and elements uniquely its own: explosion of botanical motif on its facade, centerpiece relief of St. Christopher carrying the Child Jesus on his shoulders that dominate the pediment, massive buttresses that serve to reinforce walls that are already one and a half meters thick.
A book on “The Miagao Church” published by the National Historical Institute described it as a single-nave edifice that follows the Augustinian pattern of “church-convento-atrium.” It added that the bulk of the structure consists of “tabriya” stone blocks quarried from the mountain of Igbaras.
The book also cites the uneven configuration of the bell towers added in 1830: the left side has four tiers and low-pitched dome while the right one only has three but with a steeply conical roof that somehow balances out the whole composition.
Galende and Javellana talked about the exceptional elements on the facade, including:
- A heavily drawn frieze and balusters that set the first level apart from the second as well as the integrated pediment.
- Relief of overlapping palm fronds that suggest movement.
- The columns flanking the arched entrance that reinforce this suggestion.
- Curvilinear undulation of the facade intensified by oval and arch openings that partly eases the upward motion.
They likened the two-dimensional quality of the Miagao church reliefs to “de gajeta” or cookie cutouts, which was also how 16th century Mexican architectural reliefs were described.
A statue of the patron saint, St. Thomas of Villanova, stands on an elaborately framed central niche above the arched entrance.
The church was declared a National Shrine through Presidential Decree No. 260 dated August 1, 1973. It was included in the World Heritage List in 1993, the only one in the Visayas and Mindanao.