Reimagining the Retablo: A Review of Retablo 2.0 | Wilfredo Offemaria, Jr.

Considered by Jesuit art historian Rene Javellana, S.J. as the “centerpiece of any baroque church interior,” the retablo, commonly known as the altarpiece in Western cultures, houses paintings and sculptures of divine personages in its multi-tiered, oftentimes multileveled, carved wooden panels. Derived from the Latin word retaulus, formed by the merging of the words retro, which means ‘behind’, and tabula, which means ‘panel’, the retablo serves as the backdrop of any celebration in a church. Its main functions are to provide a splendid setting for the saints enclosed in it, and to elucidate the liturgy performed in front of it. Aside from being an aid for personal devotion, many of the sacred images within it are said to have healing potential, as well. With its holy purpose, the structure becomes holy, as well.

In the Philippine context, art critic Alice Guillermo described retablos as “upright carved and decorated wooden screen or frame containing ledges and panels behind and above the altar, which displays the patron saint in the center flanked by secondary saints”. The central panel is devoted to the saint upon whom the church is dedicated to, and the other panels are for the auxiliary icons related to the main figure. It also shelters the tabernacle, the receptacle of the holy host. The entire towering structure is crowned at its topmost part a symbolism associated with God, such as the crucifix, the Holy Spirit, or the All-Seeing Eye. Similar with the other art and furniture in the church, the retablo is packed with Christian iconography, and accordingly, with implied meaning.

In the exhibition Retablo 2.0, artist Wilfredo Offemaria, Jr. restages retablos – and their holy and political role in Christianity – within the contemporary context. He used these vessels of stories from the scriptures as the springboard to present other narratives that reflect the Filipino society today.

The Critique of Figuration

The history of Christian art traces far back from the earliest centuries of Western art. With this long history, Christian art is one that was not left unchallenged. The use of figuration in representing personages was criticized by “iconoclasts” who insisted on a literal interpretation of the ban stated in the Bible against graven images that would bring the faithful closer to idolatry. For them, artists should be restricted from depicting God and other divine personages in earthly forms, undermining their honor, incomprehensibility and immeasurability. Also, such images may tempt the faithful to devote their prayers to the images, instead of the actual personage that they illustrate. Thus, for them, the depiction should be limited to abstract symbols and patterns alone.

Wilfredo Offemaria stands in between these two schools of thought in an attempt to balance out figuration and abstraction in his set of works. In the Stations of the Cross series, personages depicted in a figurative manner gradually fades out into the elaborate abstraction at the background. By using such technique, he hints on the limitations of the human mind when attempting to box spirituality and God within the boundaries of his comprehension.

In Ang Tatlong Persona, the faces were depicted figuratively, but the body seems to sublimate into abstract forms associated with each of the Trinitarian Gods. The triangular golden halo, which corresponds to the three faces of a singular God, asserts the contemporaneity of the work while keeping the rootedness in the concepts of the Christian tradition. In Dismayado, the figure of the suffering Christ is placed on streams of bright colored geometric forms. The most prominent of these forms is the crown, which resembles sun rays curiously alluding to the sun in the Philippine flag.

In Offemaria’s works, figuration and abstraction were both used as a means to revere the divinity of these personages. In as much as these retablos figuratively narrate stories from the scriptures, the abstraction implemented by Offemaria shrouds some fragments of the narratives into Mystery.

The Unperceived Idolatries

Among other traditions brought ashore by the Spaniards that aimed to promote Christianity, such as the building of churches and cathedrals, the retablo was also utilized by the colonial enterprise.

To fully integrate Christianity into the Philippine culture and society, the Christian traditions were assimilated into the local culture. With the goal of bringing closer Christian figures to the psyche of the Philippine society, several figures, such as the short and young Sto. Niño, and the Black Nazarene, adopted – at some levels – some of the physical traits of the locality. Wilfredo Offemaria alludes to this evangelization and colonial tactic through the brown Virgin in Mary Homage to Van Eyck, which clearly references to Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s The Ghent Altarpiece The Virgin Mary.

The images housed within the retablos were used to aid the evangelization of the local people, showing the life that should be aspired for by the faithful. Its towering height, similar to the frescoes up in the church’s ceilings, demands the faithful to look up when gazing at the figures, poetically indicating how the locals should look up to the lives of these people, and the West in general. Mimicking the layout of the church, the exhibition hangs the works at a height, expecting reverence and respect from the viewers, and arresting them in the ideals the images promote.

In Mother and Child and Dismayado, iconic commercial brands were juxtaposed with the principal figures. In the former, instead of the simple yet majestic and elegant blue velvety robe often worn by the Virgin Mary, the figure was clothed with a gown of extravagance. The child Jesus she is carrying also references to a known canned milk brand in the country. In the latter, the appearance of the logo of a clothing brand seems to question who or which is Supreme – is it Jesus, or is it the brand?

In these obscured references, Offemaria’s retablos challenge the viewer to examine who or what they are venerating and devoting their lives on. Commercialism, brought by the West and thrusted into the society, is a modern idolatry, among others.

The Tradition of Patronage

Throughout the history of Christian art, there is a reciprocal relationship between art and the Church. E. H. Gombrich, author of “The Story of Art,” said paintings are “form of writings in pictures” without which, “the teachings of the Church could never have been translated into visible shapes.” For those who are unable to read, the clarity and simplicity of the images aid in their personal veneration of the icons, and in the delivery of the messages kept in between the words of the Bible. In return, the Church, with its power and influence, has provided the patronage and support the artists needed, allowing them to pursue their art and push their boundaries further.

This traditional dynamics is what causes the uproar and controversy when the artist deviates from the norm, and offends the sensibilities of the faithful. Wilfredo Offemaria’s crucifix points to the controversial work in the St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Virginia, United States. The churchgoers were outraged by the crucifix that seems to show an image of the male genitalia on Jesus’ abdomen, causing some of them to leave the parish.

In the Philippines, Christianity is the religion practiced by the majority, and is a religion tempered by its deep ingrain into the local culture and its powerful economic and political ties. With the goal of examining how the dynamics between the Church and art have changed, Offemaria offers contemporary and alternative meanings to what the faithful has grown accustomed to, and examine their consequent reactions to it. In this attempt to shake the ground, he is, at the same time, pondering on the freedom an artist has in his artmaking when it comes face to face with a power in a given society. Thus the question: is his art truly free?

In Retablo 2.0, Wilfredo Offemaria reimagines traditional Christian iconography while exploring relevant concepts through the assimilation of contemporary ideas and themes. Traditional figuration was curiously mixed with modern abstraction. Images of religious personages and entities were juxtaposed with eclectic elements and strong visual components, such as foreign iconography, and intense textures and colors. This contextualization of the traditional art form within the contemporary era may be seen as a door, opening up to relevant, complicated and sensitive questions on faith, worship, religion, society, and the role and boundaries of the artist, as he is caught between the complexities of these things surrounding him. 

The exhibition ran from the 8th to the 31st of May 2017 at the NCCA Gallery at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts Building, General Luna Street, Intramuros, Manila City.

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