San Agustin Museum Review Essay

The Facade of the  San Agustin Church
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The History of the San Agustin Church
by: Jericho Paul C. Santos

January 2012-- Along with its search for wealth, the Spanish colonizers made it a top mission to spread Catholicism in the Philippines. And to broaden the reach of Christianity, a place for worship is needed to bring the congregation together. As a result, churches were built around the country for Christianity to thrive. One of these churches was the San Agustin Church.

The Interior of the San Agustin Church
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The San Agustin church was rebuilt three times due to man-made and natural disasters. Since then, it has withstood natural disasters and has become the oldest church in the Philippines. It is now recognized by the government and UNESCO as a historical landmark.

The History of the Church

The San Agustin Church was under the auspices of the Agustinian Order. The friars took the cudgels in building the church. Like many structures during that time, the church of San Agustin was built with the use of nipa and bamboo. The building of the church started in 1571, it was then officially named as Iglesia y Convento de San Pablo.

The Augustinian Friars
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In 1574, the Chinese pirate, Limahong invaded Manila. The invasion led to the burning of the city and the San Agustin Church was not spared. This led to the first reconstruction of the church a year later. The second church was made of wooden materials. Because of the choice of the structural material used, it remained risky to fire accidents. True enough, another fire caused the destruction of the church in 1583.

The damaged Bell Tower
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The Augustinian friars made sure not to commit the same mistakes and so they decided to build the new church using adobe stones. In 1586, they appointed Juan Macias to lead the design and construction of the church. It was only in 1607 that the declaration of its official completion was made. The structure endured even on the strongest earthquake that hit Manila from the 16th to 17th century. The only major damaged that the San Agustin endured was the collapse of one of the church’s bell tower, which was then permanently removed therafter.

The Battle of Manila Bay
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Because of the church's age, it has become a witness to many significant events in Philippine history during the Spanish period. In 1762, during the Seven Year’s War, British forces looted the church. In 1898, the church became a venue for American and Spaniards to discuss and sign the surrender of Manila to the Americans.

During the Second World War, the Japanese forces turned the San Agustin Church into a concentration camp for prisoners. As the Battle of Manila in 1945 draw to close, the Japanese held hostage priests and hundreds of residents inside the church. To drive out the remaining Japanese, American and Filipino forces conducted an air raid inside Intramuros. The bombardment led to the death of several civilians. After the shelling of Intramuros, structures in the walled city was reduced to rubbles but the San Agustin Church remained one of the standing churches after the war.

The Battle of Manila in 1945
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In 1945, the San Agustin Church became the seat of the Immaculate Conception Parish. The archbishop of Manila requested for the transfer of the seat of parish from the Cathedral to the San Agustin Church. After the war, the church also became the host of the first Philippine Plenary Council. In 1976, the government recognized the church as a National Historical Landmark for its contribution to the country’s nationhood. The Republic Act No. 10066 or National Cultural Heritage act of 2009 tasked the National Center for Culture and the Arts to conserve the church.

The Renovated San Agustin Church
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In 1993, the San Agustin Church was named by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Other Philippine churches included were the Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion in Ilocus Sur, the San Agustin Church in Ilocos Norte and the Santo Tomas de Villanueva Church in Iloilo. These Spanish era churches were classified under Baroque Churches of the Philippines. 

The San Agustin Museum
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Today, the church remains a charm of the Walled City of Intramuros. It is also home to the tomb of the first governor-general Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and other Spanish conquistadors including Juan de Salcedo and Martin de Goiti. Its façade is massive like those found in Ilocos churches but San Agustin's facade appears lighter because of its ornamentation and elaborate curves. The ornate interior is filled with intricate trompe l’oeil frescoes. Notwithstanding, the San Agustin Museum is home to a collection of Spanish era artifacts, furniture, paintings, statues and other church ornaments.

The San Agustin Church
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San Agustin church has been one of the premier churches during the Spanish period. It served as the source of the political influence of the Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines. Today, its contribution to nationhood will forever be embedded in the history of our country.


"About San Agustin." San Agustin Church Official Website, 2011. Web. 4 Nov. 2011.

Chan, Peter.  Christianities in Asia. United Kingdom: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.  2011.

I’ve been going to San Agustin Church within the historic and cobblestone streets of Intramuros, Manila since my wonder years. My parents used to take me and my siblings to 30 churches every Holy Week back then, and their list included San Agustin Church. But it took more than 30 years before I set foot in its museum.

One sunny afternoon, I had an urge to revisit  Quiapo and headed to Intramuros with the intent to experience San Agustin Museum. It was my first time to see the church with its old peach paint removed. I wasted no time and asked one of the bystanders of the museum’s location, and to my surprise, the entrance was just a few steps from the right side of the main church door. I know no reason why my parents didn’t bring us inside San Agustin Museum; I haven’t inquired but it’s no longer important for the time already came for me to discover and explore the museum myself.

With only PhP 100 current admission rate for adult (PhP 80 for senior citizens, and almost half the cost for students with IDs),  every centavo was worth it!

I don’t know about you but I know some people don’t entertain the idea of going to museum. Perhaps, they’re not fascinated with history, heritage, arts and things of the past, or totally not interested with some places without life. Unlike them, I am easily drawn to anything significant; or anything of my interest. Probably, it’s really to each his own.

Immediately after the admission counter and the turnstile, a huge lifeless bell greeted me. It was simply labeled with a laminated paper that states, “A 3,400 kilogram bell, taken down in 1927 from the belfry of the San Agustin Church damaged by the earthquake of 1863.”

I was warned that photography without flash is only permitted at the hallways and not inside exhibit rooms. Good enough! I obliged of course.

Every step I took seemed a stroll back in time. Isn’t that amazing? (surprising? exciting? hehehe!)

Most of the items in the hallway at the ground floor are for sale; from paintings to wooden sculptures, most have tags with fixed prices for those collectors and patrons of the arts.

The concrete staircase and its ceiling, en route to the second level almost took my breath away! I literally uttered, “Wow!” several times and left me in awe for few minutes. It was like setting foot inside a century-old dungeon or a castle, or felt like I was ascending the steps of Hogwarts with Professor Dumbledore, Hagrid and Snape about to greet me with magical spells! Very theatrical and cinematic!


Then I found the displays and stained glass windows at the second level even more amazing!

From the scale model of San Agustin Church, to small brass replica of galleon ships, paintings, priest vestments and whatnot, to the restricted noise of young students who were having an educational field trip with their teacher, I took everything in as a visual feast! Every corner appeared picturesque to me!

But the highlight of my visit to San Agustin Museum was admiring the choir chamber and the church’s ceiling to my heart’s delight! I found logical reason for my one hundred Philippine pesos entrance fee for I have not seen the ceiling’s painting this up close! Wow! Wow! Wow!

The intricate carvings on the solid choir seats was beyond wonderful! Imagine, these were done creatively decades ago!

Behold. The ceiling of San Agustin Church done in trompe l’oeil.

A quick glance at Wiki, trompe l’oeil (French for deceive the eye) defined as “an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusion that depicted objects exist in three dimensions.”

Beautiful, isn’t it?

I just hope and pray that proper restoration shall be done to those dilapidated areas.

Other than my appreciation for the ceiling, the pipe organ also a caught my eyes and my lens.

From the choir loft, I completely understand why San Agustin Church remains to be a favorite venue of Sacrament of Matrimony.

Of all the paintings inside the exhibit halls and corridors, I figured out my favorite. It’s called, The Family of the Virgin Mary, 234.3 cm x 173.3cm (92″ x 68″), Oil on Canvass, tagged as 19th century, Araneta collection.

More must-see-display on the ground floor…

There’s a door from the museum that leads to the church itself besides the church’s main facade.

My two hours inside the San Agustin Museum may not be as entertaining as watching a blockbuster comedy, love story, action or fantasy films, but my appreciation of my heritage, religion, timeless treasures of my country was heightened tremendously.

“In 1993, San Agustin Church was one of four Philippine churches constructed during the Spanish colonial period to be designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, under the collective title Baroque Churches of the Philippines. It was named a National Historical Landmark by the Philippine government in 1976.” ~wiki.

San Agustin Church & San Agustin Museum | General Luna Street, Intramuros, Manila | website :



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