Provenance: Antonio Bantug; an old family of Laoag, Ilocos Norte; an old church in Ilocos Norte
Long before the current trend of repatriation of similar Filipino treasures from Spain, this precious statuette of “La Inmaculada Concepcion” (The Immaculate Conception of Mary) in the renowned Antonio Bantug Collection, along with an earlier, rococo-style statuette of “La Inmaculada Concepcion” at the Museo Oriental in Valladolid, Spain, was considered by the generation of prewar art and antique collectors to be the highest point of Filipino ivory sculpture — Dr Arturo de Santos, Felipe Hidalgo, Dr Domingo Lerma, Antonio Tuason, Arch Luis Ma Araneta, Atty Salvador Araneta and Victoria Lopez – Araneta, et al.
The Virgin Mary is depicted as a young lady with her hands held together in prayer, looking to her left. It is obvious that the sculptor's intent for the statuette was to radiate the Christian – Roman Catholic qualities of “fe, esperanza, y caridad”/faith, hope, and love. The sculptor also succeeded in endowing the small image with “uncion sagrada,” a little – understood, elusive, venerable quality to a Roman Catholic image much discussed and sought after by “santo” specialists and collectors. The beautiful and delicate face is that of a 14 year – old, the age when she conceived and bore her son Jesus Christ. Her exquisite hands are positioned on her right side with palms together in prayer, in counterpoint to her face. Her long hair, flowing over her shoulders, is delineated painstakingly. Her generous mantle (or cape) flows softly from her left shoulder to her right shoulder then descends gracefully to wholly envelop her lower right side, as if a gentle breeze was flowing from that direction. The borders of her dress and mantle are painted with leaves and flowers in the traditional “estofado” manner of the time. She stands atop the evil serpent on a globe with gilt decoration, also rendered in ivory. The exquisite, originally gilded “peana”/stand of “baticuling” wood (Litsea obtusata) carved with leaves and flowers in a distinctly Sinitic rococo style features a flanking, incorporated pair of candleholders for the many expected evenings of prayer and veneration. An outsized, contemporaneous silvergilt crown with “ysot” and “gravado” decoration (circa late 18th century – early 19th century), a museum piece in itself, tops the assemblage. The much – vaunted “La Inmaculada Concepcion” from the legendary Antonio Bantug collection is a stunning ensemble, and is definitely a masterpiece of an expert Chinese – Filipino craftsman.
The Roman Catholic dogma of “La Inmaculada Concepcion” or “The Immaculate Conception of Mary” states that the Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin by virtue of the merits of her son Jesus. As the future mother of Jesus Christ the Savior, and therefore the Mother of God, God the Father preserved her from the stain of the original sin of Adam and Eve in the womb of her mother Anna.
After nearly 2,000 years of persistent Christian – Roman Catholic belief in the Virgin Mary's sinlessness / absolute purity and her preservation from “original sin,” the doctrine of “The Immaculate Conception of Mary” was dogmatically defined by Pope Pius IX in his papal bull “Ineffabilis Deus” in 1854.
In her pioneering 1979 book “A Heritage of Saints,” Dr Esperanza Bunag – Gatbonton (known as “Chita”) explored the entire process of Spanish – Mexican “santo” creation, from conceptualization to completion, as practiced through the last 500 years First there was the “imaginero,” the carver who shaped the image and carved it in the round. There was the “entallador,” another carver whose job was to make the “retablos.” Then the “dorador” who executed the tedious “estofado” decoration on the garments. There was the “encarnador” who skillfully applied the “policromada” and the “encarnado” techniques to prime and then paint the face, hands, and feet with the flesh tone. Finally, there was the “ensemblador,” the one who put all the components together. Not all the classical Spanish procedures were followed by the Filipino “santeros,” if at all. The Filipinos tended to do everything by themselves, resulting in charming inconsistencies that contemporary eyes find more interesting than the conventional “santo” specimens. Influential Spanish sculptors whose styles filtered to Manila were cited by Dr Bunag – Gatbonton — Alonso Berruguete (early 1500s), Juan Martinez Montanes (late 1500s – mid 1600s), Gregorio Fernandez (late 1500s – mid 1600s), Alonso Cano (early 1600s), and Pedro de Mena (mid – 1600s).
Dr Bunag – Gatbonton's intense research amazingly yielded several names of noted Filipino “santeros” or santo carvers, a listing previously deemed as not possible — Juan de los Santos (1700s), Lorenzo Ma Guerrero, Isabelo Tampinco, Graciano Nepomuceno (mentored by Spanish – Mexican sculptor Eugenio Llerena), Manuel Flores, Crispulo Hocson (father – in – law of Romualdo de Jesus), Anastacio de Jesus (grandfather of Romualdo), Eduvigio de Jesus (father of Romualdo), Romualdo de Jesus (known as “Lolong”), Marcelo Nepomuceno, Telesforo Sucgang, Juan Flameno, Mariano de Guzman Siauinco, Sotero Garcia, Eulogio Velarde Garcia, Sales, Miguel Palatino (Paete), Canuto Madrinan (Paete), Mariano Madrinan (Paete), Aurelio Buhay (Paete), Jose Caancan (Paete), Faustino Adao (Laguna), J Macahumpan (Laguna), and Angelo Saavedra (Laguna).
According to the Bantug family, the statuette of “La Inmaculada Concepcion” came from a church that was coming up for demolition. In Dr Gatbonton's book, it is described as having come from Laoag in Ilocos Norte province. Stylistically, the supreme quality of its ivory, the elegance of its conception, and the expertise of its execution identify it with the excellent specimens from Manila, Ilocos Sur, and Ilocos Norte. Scholars, pundits, and collectors have agreed that, on account of its sheer sophistication, it identifies as a product of an expert Manila atelier.
Antonio Bantug (known as “Tony”) came from an old, prominent landowning family of Victorias town in Negros Occidental province. His father Dr Jose P Bantug was an art and antique collector who followed in the wake of the first generation active from around 1890 onwards which included the “ilustrados” Trinidad H Pardo de Tavera, Benito C Legarda y Tuason I, Pedro A Paterno y Molo, Francisco de Yriarte, Dr Maximino Paterno y Devera Ignacio, Dr Maximo Viola y Sison, et al. Dr Jose P Bantug and his son Antonio were major influences on the younger collector Luis Ma Zaragoza Araneta (who became The major collector of antique Filipiniana during his time), encouraging him to deepen his appreciation of centuries – old Filipino “santos” and local antique furniture.
Aside from the famous ivory statuette of “La Inmaculada Concepcion,” another magnificence in the Antonio Bantug collection was the spectacular 1737 main “retablo” with its 9 “relleve” panels of The Life of the Virgin Mary from the demolished San Jose de Recoletos church in Cebu, which stood some distance from the Metropolitan Cathedral.
There were 9 big, thick hardwood panels expertly carved, painted, and gilded with scenes depicting important episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary — The Birth of the Virgin, The Annunciation, The Nativity of Christ, The Crucifixion, The Assumption to Heaven, etc. The magnificent San Jose de Recoletos “retablo,” formerly in the Antonio Bantug collection, is now in the Intramuros Administration collection.
It is still well known to knowledgeable art and antique collectors that in the early 1970s, Antonio Bantug generously donated about 12 antique Filipino “mesa altar” (traditional altar tables) of first quality from his famous collection to then First Lady Imelda Romualdez – Marcos in support of her campaign to promote Filipino art and culture, first to fellow Filipinos, and then the world.
Asuncion Arguelles Lopez-Rizal (Mrs Antonio Bantug, known as “Sony”/“Siony”) was a granddaughter of Narcisa Rizal y Alonso, second sister of the national hero Dr Jose Protacio Rizal y Alonso. She became a foremost Rizalist because she painstakingly documented the Rizal family's numberless recollections of their favored son. She thus captured the national hero in his more private as well as more candid moments. The top contemporary Filipino historian Dr Ambeth R Ocampo lamented the loss of her scrupulously handwritten journals spanning many years and brimming with a literal archive of treasures about Dr Jose Rizal, blithely thrown away by a zealous senior maid who found them useless since they were “completely filled with handwriting” Dr Ocampo further lamented the loss of a particular “pina” (pineapple fiber) handkerchief within the Rizal family, purportedly one of several which held the national hero's precious bloodstains for decades, until another overly dutiful maid diligently washed the bloodstains off before its planned presentation to guests. Sic transit gloria mundi.
“La Inmaculada Concepcion” from the legendary Antonio Bantug collection. Truly, a masterpiece of a Filipino craftsman. A native masterpiece of which every single Filipino should be proud.
-Augusto Marcelino Reyes Gonzalez III