Wednesday, June 10, 2009
St. Paul: The Museum - Repository of History
At a corner in the SPCQ museum where once stood an altar many years ago when the Japanese invaders converted the campus into a concentration camp, a small group of visitors bowed in deep thoughts and prayers. For a moment these pilgrims transformed the museum into a holy place.
It was like turning back the hands of time into the Second World War. Now there is peace. There was hatred, but that too, has given way to forgiveness. Despair, and now hope, pride into humility. These contrasting scenarios provide very valuable lessons of man. For man is tempered by war and mellowed by the peace that follows it. All these took place for half a century or so.
The SPCQ museum stands as a witness of the history that shaped SPCQ. The events are the lifeblood of the museum, its walls originally the immaculate walls once stained with blood speak of peace, its pillars the original pillars that withstood the atrocities of war and the tests of the elements and time attest to endurance and posterity.
The museum is not only a repository of history; it is the abode of history. It is like Fort Santiago or the Paco Cemetery. Or the great Pyramids of Egypt, the City of the Dead of the Aztecs, Jerusalem and Rome. These museums have one thing in common: they are part of history. They are living relics that chronicle past events, stirring nationalism while promoting brotherhood in men. They strengthen universal values and rekindle the spirit. They bring the relationship of man with his Creator closer and harmonious.
Since its opening in late 1994, many pilgrims, old and young, parents and students, city and rural folk, have brought significance to the museum. Other than being an educational institution, it has somehow earned respect for pilgrimage.
The building is a early American architecture bearing the basic designs of Greco-Roman style – high ceiling, prominent, bare and square pillars, solid walls with small grilled windows. The entrance is unassuming, yet there is an aura of dignity that engulfs one on opening the door. For a panoramic view meets the eye, with virtually all four corners optically converging. The scene is accentuated by the massive murals depicting some chapters of the life of St. Paul, and widened by the transparency of the glass cabinets allowing the eye to roam freely.
All these no doubt contribute to the pilgrimage atmosphere. But what is revealing are the gathered information of the place coming from no less than the sisters, many of them in their seniors and are living at the nearby Vigil House. Some of the informants have already died, but the memory of the place lives. .
The senior sisters recall the place as a prayer house. “There was an altar which was slightly located towards the left corner of the room adjacent to the backdoor.” And they would point out the place in the museum. The backdoor leads to the basement, which was used as clinic during the Japanese occupation. The wounded and the sick were led to the prayer house and to spend time meditating, praying, or just to let time pass by. On several occasions the dead were brought for the wake.
Imagine that for a period of four years, SPCQ then a novitiate and a school for elementary and high school, was made into a garrison and concentration camp, the same way the Japanese did to UST during the same period. We do not know how many died but many Filipino, American and Japanese soldiers died. There were residents, foreigners, women and children who also died.
My students would ask me whenever I tell them the story if there are ghosts on the campus – or spirits of the dead. “Have you seen or felt one?” I would counter. And the conversation lengthens, creating a world of the supernatural in the process.
Anyone would believe in spirits that may make their presence felt in one way too many, depending on who is telling the story and who are listening. I for one sensed their presence on a number of occasions. The question with believing in the supernatural though is that the mind cannot decipher reality from imagination. But it is this aspect from which we build our stories and beliefs. Take this experience as an example.
In 194 I was painting Saul on Damascus Road into the evening and the museum was dead silent. What a conducive time to paint! Then suddenly the arm of Saul “moved” an inch or two downward. My brush missed the outline. I made the necessary correction but this time the arm had moved upward and now I have two errors to correct. I told myself I was too tired. And left the museum for home. That night I dreamt of Saul holding a red rode, which he was to use to clothe the dying Christ. Early that morning I went to the museum and continued painting the arm. I fixed Saul’s right hand and put on the red robe on it. Where did the idea of the red robe come? Was it a dream or a message I got? What made his arm move? Or was it a way of getting a message across?
I remember at one time in the early part of the painting I received visitors while I was painting the sky on a makeshift scaffolding. Causally they would come and take a look at my work. Sometimes they would ask me a question or two that I would obligingly answer without breaking my concentration. One evening a kind sister visited, She stood for sometime looking at what I was doing on the scaffolding. Anyone at the top could not see well the person below. And not know when she came and had gone. What I remember was her large hat, but that crossed my mind only days later. Who was she? Where did she come from at 9 in the evening?
At one time I was painting Paradise After Rome. This time I did it at home at our front yard. It took me till dusk. A silhouette figure kept passing at the corner of my eye. I would have dismissed it for one but it came twice, thrice, not saying a word and not pausing. But there is semblance of the figure I was painting with the silhouette – a bearded man, tall and heavily built, clothed in flowing robes. The big difference though is that the man I was painting was about to be beheaded while the silhouette was roaming free, with an air of dignity and command.
The following day I changed the man on my painting. Yes, death, I realized is resurrection. So I painted Paul, the resurrected on the day of his execution when Rome was razed by Nero’s torch.
Spirits to me are guiding signals that sometimes take the form of human. They carry messages that lead us to the theme of our art such as in these particular cases. The denominator is goodness – they help us seek goodness, and goodness leads us to truth – truth that is built by strong faith other than reason.
Can we decipher messages the same way we receive communications in daily life? I say no, not always. For the message with deep meaning are not readily evident. One has to labor in order to understand it, and capture the essence of that message.
For example on the painting, SPCQ in Ruins, which I entitled in an accompanying verse, “Grow and Bloom, Grow and Bloom,” an outline of a young devil cast a shadow on the burnt building. This was discovered while I was working on the dying smoke emanating from the fresh ruins. Someone almost shouted at me, “Stop, stop,” and then he explained he was seeing a devil in outstretched hand hovering. I preserved the outline. Anyone who come to the museum today experiences the same thing the discoverer made five years ago. Yes, the war, the killing, the burning, the looting are works of the devil. His imprint makes us aware not to submit ourselves to evil, but rather fight it at all cost.