Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In Praise of Bad Taste

Of Plastic Images, Glow in the Dark Virgins, and Calendar Piety

Some of my earliest visions of heaven were formed by my many trips to my paternal grandparents' house in Batangas. I do not come from a wealthy family; at best, there was the promise of land and wealth that never really blossomed because of the War. Thus, my grandparents, though born considerably better off than most Filipinos, had to revert to their blue collar roots to eke out a living. As I've probably mentioned before, much of my family on both sides consists of educators-- my grandparents were no exception. Lolo Salvador was the city agriculturist of Batangas in the 1960s, while my Lola Fermina established (eventually) one of the foremost schools in that area today.

They were simple folk, who wore their religion on their sleeves. My grandmother, even at an early age, already made a reputation for herself as an hermana de la Iglesia, a sister of the Church, because she was a constant presence in the town church: whether for benedictions, masses, novenas or whatnot, my grandmother was always in church, either shuffling her mantilla and fingering her beads while seated in the pew, or talking to the Monwsignor and giving him advice on anything and everything under the sun. My grandfather was not very religious-- but by the grace of God, and through the stubborn persistence of my grandmother, he eventually became devout, even becoming an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. He still reads Scripture at least an hour a day and prays the rosary three times, as he did when my grandmother was still alive.

They lived-- and still live-- in a quaint little house, neither too big nor too small (more than enough space for six children-- in a narrow street near the town square. When my grandparents were younger, they used to walk to the church everyday, as most colonial churches in the Philippines were established such that it faced the town square (or the square faced the church, rather). The house has changed very little since the 1960s, at least in terms of design; in the 1970s, though, my father tells me that they kept some pigs and poultry in the back yard, now converted into a dormitory of sorts (they also happened to be near the provincial college).

In my grandparents' house, my then four or five-year-old eyes marveled at the antiquarian surroundings, but the thing, or things, that most impressed me was the sheer number of religious images in that house. In the dining room, for example, hangs a huge tapestry of the Last Supper, some five by eight feet in all. Near the dining room was the family room, which had the unusual arrangement of having a wine rack built into the wall. Next to the wine rack was a wide cabinet where were displayed literally hundreds of little Santo Ninos-- estampitas amassed through out the years, some of bronze, zome of wood, some made to look like bronze or wood, and others of cheap, poorly painted plastic.

Under the stairs was a small alcove, reached by passing literally through a faded velvet curtain, where images of Christ the King, the Virgin of Guadalupe, some more Santo Ninos, holy plates (I kid you not) and glow in the dark plastic figures of the Holy Family and an antique, ivory Santo Nino dressed in gold-plate and elaborately embroidered brocade were enshrined. There was also a light fixture in the form of the Holy Ghost as a dove, whose tail had been replaced with a red light bulb.

Even in the bathrooms one did not escape the gaze, or as I used to think, the glower of Jesus. In almost every bathroom was placed a headshot of the Divine Mercy, probably cut out from some pious publications, glued onto a piece of card and covered in plastic, and 'enthroned' in the 'throne room'. I used to think it was to prevent the boys or their play mates from engaging in 'pocket billiards' during 'the sacrifice', or at least when they took a bath. There were also xeroxed images of the Arma Christi, again pasted onto card and covered with plastic, that hung above door posts, and even little secularized angels, made from porcelain, that stood next to the Holy Family(ies?) on some more cupboards.

Now, my grandfather, even in the 1960s, could be considered an extensive traveler. He took as many photos of the places he had been to, including one of himself in a bus in Washington DC (this was at a time when segregation was still enforced or the norm), and one in a church in Canada. He liked collecting keychains, and even had whole cupboards full of them. His favorite was apparently one that came from the Vatican, just before the Council.

Upon reaching the second floor of the house, one is greeted by the sight of a gigantic rosary hanging from the wall, the same kind that is (apparently) used in Mexican weddings to join the bride and groom together. Although it has lost a few beads since, it is still an imposing sight. I even remember thinking that it must have belonged to giants before my grandparents acquired them. There are yet more headshots of the Divine Mercy, and even some sappy, framed Scripture quotes that hung in the walls. Needless to say, just about ever nook and cranny had some trinket or religious item in it. But that's not even including the Master Suite...

The last major repair done in that old house was in 1991 or 1992, when the Master Suite was renovated. Entering into that room, one immediately sees walls upon walls covered in pious calendars, some from the Archdiocese and even some from foreign countries, all showing sacred images: the Sacred Heart, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Divine Mercy, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Senor Santo Nino, the Black Nazarene, and even some scenes of fiesta life. To one side of the room, and appropriately the one facing East, was hollowed out a portion of the wall. That was their private altar, as you can see from the picture above. It was a veritable clash of sacred and profane, with plastic Lourdes bottles, plastic plates with the image of the Santo Nino printed on it, two faux bronze busts of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin, plastic flowers, oleographic prints, cheap statues, worn-out candles, dried palaspas (blessed palms, and a cheap wooden St. Joseph completing the scene. And yes, those rosary beads are glow in the dark.

While I imagine most would find this plenitude of images kitschy, in bad taste, or even a bit superstitious, I have to say that they really remind me of home. I think there is a certain tendency among educated Catholics to cerebralize the home altar too much-- it must done by the books, to a point that it no longer resembles something belonging to home, and just ends up as a display piece. I've seen houses which are literally lined wall to wall with antique images, some hundreds of years old, but ultimately end up looking like showcases.

In a way, I have to say that there is something very visceral about seeing so many images of the Holy Family and the Holy Child that a professionally sculpted or painted piece of sacred art can never deliver. I guess it boils down to the fact that these 'mass-produced' oddities speak at a very human level that is almost popular. These Lourdes bottles and glow in the dark Santo Ninos are literally (in many cases) a guiding light to people who are otherwise stuck grappling in the dark. They find their faith 'crystallized' in these images, not so much because of their didactic or hieratic value (although there is that) but from the simple, and very basic fact that they work. How many would-be rapists' hearts were converted upon seeing a plastic image of La Guadalupana? How many would be carnappers have had their intentions spoiled upon seeing a little glow in the dark image in some car's dashboard? I know, because this very nearly happened to our car once.

In the end, I think this debate on bad taste is moot-- not because I don't care to appreciate good art (and I do!), but because art is ultimately not life. Yes, we can always depict the grotesque in the human condition, but ultimately, what the people need--desperately, madly-- is hope, and not $5,000 profesionally produced sacred art.

Today, whenever I go to my grandparents' house, I am still enchanted by the wealth of sacred-profane images one can find in just about every corner of that house. There have been some more accretions in recent years, like a grotto in the garden, and if all pushes through, another one in front of the house. This is how the Church will stay sane and happy: by remembering that She is, above all, a vehicle of salvation, and not of polemic. I am glad that my grandfather is continuing this tradition of filling the home with images of the holy-- for me, it is nothing short of Heaven.


Andrew said...

I saw this yesterday and wanted to show u a photo of our own humble home's more kitsch altars... but I forgot... needless to say we have more miniature Mary's than you can count... and Holy Families galore... all made of chalk.. which was the old way before resin became popular.... And the clatter... of holy pictures and little devotional items... and holy oil and ashes and Holy Water...

We also have other tacky items such as the OLPH which Grandma cut out of the Catholic paper, stuck to cardboard and covered with plastic and hung up... that's the Asian/Iberian way, I guess.

Archistrategos said...

I'd LOVE to see those, Andrew!

Venite, Missa est! said...

Your posting took me back to my grandparents house long ago and my parents house of not too long ago....amidst the plastic figurines, the cut out calenders, the tacky night lights, the pictures of Christ with the animated lighted halo...stands a faith that burns bright beyond the tackiness.
thank you for your post.....it just reminds me that the faith of our elders will continue to be the faith (and salvation) of our descendants.