Of the many churches built during the Spanish colonial period, the Parish Church of Saint James the Great in Betis, Pampanga stands as one of few that celebrates the Pampangenos’ artistic skill.
By car, Betis, Pampanga is less than an hour’s drive away from Manila. That is, if there is no lahar in the outlying vicinity. Mudflow from Mt. Pinatubo has wantonly gorged out parts of the road leading to Betis that traffic can get as bad as the end-of-the-day mad rush at EDSA. Once in the town, however, the flurry of traffic calms down, and the journey halts to a simple, quiet place, invigorated only by the presence of a white-washed church.
Betis is a small town. The plaza fronting the church is still a gathering place for the people, perhaps, just like in the olden days. Modest in size and style, the church seems to reflect the simplicity and reticence of the town. The construction was started by Fr. Fernando Pinto in 1660 and, after one hundred years, it was finally completed in 1770 by Fr. Jose dela Cruz.
The facade of the Betis church is not unlike other colonial churches in the country. The book, Great Churches of the Philippines, describes the facade of the church: “Rendered in stone, stucco, and timber the church draws inspiration from disparate sources and brings them together without any trace of disharmony. The facade calls to mind the delicacy of Wedgewood ceramic, save that the appliquéd white motifs are Baroque instead of the traditional Classical cameos. These appliqués achieve the fineness of filigree, in the teardrops and ribband above the rose window of the pediment, and in the espejito de mano (hand mirror designs) on the side panels of the second level.”
The various architectural elements on the facade, including the whimsical scrolls at the pediment, all usher to strong Baroque allusions. Almost all. A later addition, the portico at the main doorway regresses back to a Renaissance style.
The rather refined and subdued character of the facade, however, does not bespeak the architecture that lies behind the heavy and intricately carved wooden doors of the church. If the visitor’s quest is to find a lasting impression of the church, then all the person has to do is enter its doors. The caller soon finds out that Betis church happens to be one of few that have the most splendid interiors among the colonial church lineage.
The experience begins immediately at the main entrance, below the choirloft, where the faux-covered ceiling becomes the prologue for the visual and tactile extravagance of the interior. Here, a painting of Jesus as a shepherd occupies the central portion of the ceiling. But the fascination here is short-lived, since the lavish trompe l’oiel of the nave’s ceiling is clearly visible at this vantage, and one can not help but to be drawn deeper into the church’s interior.
The wooden ceiling of the nave is essentially flat, except where it curves down slightly to meet the side walls. Perhaps, the painter must have compared the ceiling to a huge canvass, albeit it was turned upside down. Here, the vast ceiling is broken down to a comprehensible scale by faux coffers that are embroidered with foliage, swirls and curves. In the midst of the ceiling are quatrefoil- framed religious scenes, one occupying most of the space. Images of saints and angels, with equally impressive trompe l’oiel, highlight the edges of the ceiling.
From the ceiling, the explosion of colors gradually recedes down to follow the vertical rhythm set by the super-imposed half-round columns along the side walls of the church. Even the vertical ribbings of the columns are painted; still, the three-dimensional effect is convincing.
The picturesque interior is refined by natural light that cordially enters through rose and rectangular windows that puncture between the columns. The rose windows are bordered with ornate plaster, while carved wooden valances accentuate the lower rectangular windows. The decoration is consistently carried at each bay of the wall. Where the wall bears no rose or valance window, it is nonetheless painted with faux windows in order to sustain the same poetry. The wall decorations also include faux paintings, complete with faux guild frames. The effect of chiaroscuro makes these objects come to life.
The visual spectacle intensifies at the crossing. Here, the interior opens up to an octagonal dome. Like the rest of the church, the dome was not spared from the painter’s zealous brush. The dome depicts a heavenly scene of clouds and religious images that are lit by natural light entering through the windows of the drum. The four piers that hold up the dome are also profusely ornamented. Each pier is painted with one of the four evangelists, similar to many western traditional churches.
The extravagance of the church finally climaxes at the retablo. The heavily guilded altar is a dazzling feat and a celebration of the carving skills of the Pampango artisans. Slender Corinthian columns, some with twisted base, divide the retablo vertically, while cornices divide it horizontally into three tiers. The altar is decorated with cherubs, flora, sunfaces, and stars, along with niches containing statues of saints. The shimmer of ornamental gild radiates from the retablo’s white background.
Simon Flores, a local artist, is credited for the original interior painting of Betis church. It is noted in the book Great Churches of the Philippines that Flores’ passion for profuse decoration was inspired by the San Agustin church in Intramuros. However, subsequent retouches over the years have complicated the original character of the paintings.
Betis church is a rare treasure in the Pampanga province. It embodies the bold and exuberant skills of the local artisans. As a religious and historic edifice, the church has survived hundreds of years. One can only hope that, unlike the neighboring towns, the church will never have to face the dreadful threat of lahar.
Both of my parents were natives of Betis, I was born and raised in Betis, got married in the same church and I’m so proud to be a Betisenian. I remember my grand mother who used to tell me stories like when they’re still building the church, she said the
people are asked to bring the white of an egg to go to church everyday and they used this as a mix for the sand to serve as a cement to build the church, I don’t know how true but no wonder it takes more than a hundred years before it got completed. How I longed to see the Betis church again.