In this week’s #BuiltTraditionThursday, we feature the Church of the Immaculate Conception of San Agustin, Archdiocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation and Cincture—more commonly known as the San Agustin Church—in Intramuros, Manila City. 

The outstanding universal value of the church as a cultural and artistic monument makes it not just a nationally recognized Cultural Treasure and Historical Landmark, but since 1993 the San Agustin Church has been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List as one of the four Baroque Churches of the Philippines. This all-stone church complex, completed in 1607, is the oldest stone church in the country, being relatively unchanged since its construction. San Agustin is built out of locally quarried adobe stone and lime mortar, and is designed in the Neoclassical-Baroque style. The floor plan of the church is that of a Latin cross within a rectangular boundary, with three aisles. Its Neoclassical-Baroque aesthetic is emphasized by the Ionic and Corinthian columns adorning its façade, its rose window, triangular pediment, and symmetricity. Furthermore, the intricately carved bas-relief on the main wooden doorways is distinctly proto-Baroque.

The interior of the church contains several distinct architectural features.  For one, the central nave of the church is topped by a barrel vault (also called boveda or media caña), broken by wall separations that divide the nave into six sections. The church is recognized as one of the few structures in the Philippines constructed with true barrel vaulting. A unique feature of the structural interior are the series of chapels lining both sides of the nave, these are originally fourteen cryptocollateral chapels, seven on either side of the nave; the walls separating these chapels act as buttresses (or structural supports), in the same manner as wandpfeiler (wall pillars) of German Baroque churches.

Directly above the narthex (or entry) of the church is the resplendent choir loft, another distinct feature. It is supported by two elliptical stone arches, accessible through an antechoir via the east corridor of the adjoining convent-monastery. The choir loft is notable for its sixty-eight carved molave stalls with fine inlay—made in 1606 under Fr. Miguel Serrano—and its extant narra wood construction, including its wooden railing. The choir loft also features a large, sculptural lectern imported from Macao in 1731.  Extensive restoration works have been conducted on the choir loft by Escuella Taller de Filipinas Foundation, Inc., from 2015 to 2018.

A vast majority of the interior space of the church is painted in artistic trompe l’oeil, including all the interior wall surfaces, ceiling, and dome soffit. Cesare Alberoni and Giovanni Dibella—Italian scenographers—were contracted in 1875 to execute the realistic imagery. Motifs of their Neoclassical revival style include wreaths, cornucopias, festoons, fleurettes, and Christian symbols and personages.

The Church of the Immaculate Conception of San Agustin–Archdiocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation and Cincture, assessed in its current condition, remains in a generally fair state of conservation. Critical areas regarding its maintenance due to its advanced age and modernized environment are known to the national cultural agencies, UNESCO, and key relevant authorities. The preservation and conservation of this World Heritage Site is of rightfully paramount concern, to allow the future generations of Filipinos—and all the peoples of the world—to appreciate its enduring outstanding universal value.