Exploring the Depths of Things: Napoleon V. Abueva and Religious Sculptures

 Abueva's Risen Christ (cast bronze), Our Lady of Pentecost Church, Varsity Hill, Loyola Heights

Abueva's Risen Christ (cast bronze), Our Lady of Pentecost Church, Varsity Hill, Loyola Heights

* This essay was originally a homily delivered at the wake mass of the late Philippine National Artist for Sculpture, Napoleon “Billy” Abueva last 19 February 2018, 6:00 PM at the Delaney Hall, Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice Chapel, University of the Philippines. The services were sponsored by the Ateneo de Manila University, Ateneo Art Gallery, and Ateneo Fine Arts.

On behalf of the Ateneo Community especially the Ateneo Art Gallery and Ateneo Fine Arts, we would like to extend our deepest condolences to the family of the late National Artist Napoleon “Billy” Abueva—his wife Dr. Cherry and their children, Mulawin, Amihan, and Duero along with their in-laws and grandchildren.

Last Sunday, during the preview of the three current shows of the Ateneo Art Gallery, at the Arts Wing of the Areté, the university president Fr. Jett Villarin, SJ led the assembly in few moments of silence in loving memory of Dean Abueva. There was a brief but deep silence of remembrance and collegial affection for the renowned father of Philippine modern sculpture.

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The closest encounter that I had with Dean Abueva was through his work on plaster installed at the Apostolic Facility of the Jesuit Sacred Heart Novitiate. It was a prototype-study of a bronze statue of the Risen Christ installed at the altar of the Pentecost Church, Loyola Heights.

 Abueva's prototype Risen Christ sculpture

Abueva's prototype Risen Christ sculpture

Fr. Arnie Bugtas, SJ and interior designer Feline Tan consulted me with regard to its placement in the large multi-purpose hall that was formerly a backstage of the Jesuit Junioriate Auditorium. In the hall, there is a white wall with protruding steps rising from the lower mid-section of the wall up to its ceiling. It is the bottom part of the outdoor concrete staircase leading to the upper floor. It’s an odd structure that jutted out of the wall. But it looks sculptural coupled with three thin columns intersecting like x, y, and z-axis on the ceiling, suggestive of the Cartesian coordinate system for a three-dimensional space. As an artist and a priest, I saw its potential as a minimalist, sculptural backdrop to complement the proto-sculpture of the Risen Christ where the community can gather in ritual and meditative activities.

Looking at this work (along with the other works in sacred spaces) from the perspective of the death of the sculptor Dean Abueva, the prototype of the Risen Christ has gained a somber meaning for me. This personal observation is similar to the reflection of the Australian art critic Robert Hughes when he visited the 14 black chrome plum-colored paintings of the artist Mark Rothko at the artist-designed octagonal chapel in Rice University, Houston, Texas. Hughes writes that “It is hard to enter the Rothko Chapel without emotion, for its huge obscure paintings… have the memorial dignity of funeral stelae given them by Rothko’s death” (in George Pattison, “Into the Abyss,” Art, Modernity and Faith, p. 117).

Similarly, in entering the Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice, as one looks at the cross with two corpora of Christ, one head bowed down in death and the other raised up in resurrection, we behold the contemplated image of Dean Abueva of the predicament of human nature. Perhaps, it was his personal way of making sense of life in this world, how pains and joys, sufferings and triumphs could co-exist in this earthly realm. In Christian theological thought, this is the paschal mystery of Christ—his passion, death, and resurrection.

 Abueva's Crucified and Risen Christ (dimension of the crucified Christ), Church of the Holy Sacrifice, University of the Philippines, Diliman

Abueva's Crucified and Risen Christ (dimension of the crucified Christ), Church of the Holy Sacrifice, University of the Philippines, Diliman

This struggle of duality was evident when he received the National Artist award. According to Mulawin, when his activist sister discouraged their father from accepting the award from the Marcoses during a dictatorial regime, their father indirectly answered the daughter’s legitimate query by expressing both a childhood trauma of losing one’s parents and the triumph of hard work. “I worked hard all my life for this. I was orphaned when the Japanese killed my parents when I was 9. When I was 7, my only toy was clay which I fashioned into small figurines. The other boys would target them and I tried to make smaller figurines which I would put on hollow blocks to dry. The naughty boys were not able to target them anymore” (quoted in Alma Cruz Miclat, “He did the death masks of Ninoy, FPJ,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 19 February 2018, C2). It was Dean Abueva’s way of embracing the whole spectrum of life— from the brutality of evil forces to the creative struggle of the human spirit.

How strange indeed that the work of an artist takes on another layer of added meaning in death and his work becomes the artist’s memento mori. In the Latin Christian Praxis, memento mori allows one to consider mortality and the fleetingness of life. But in the sculpture of the Risen Christ, one also considers the promise of resurrection and of life eternal.

Revisiting the formal qualities of the sculpture at the Pentecost Church, its cropped hair and bearded face with its mouth slightly opened suggested a rugged and brown male figure and not a long-haired figure of the Jewish Christ with Caucasian features as typical depiction of Western Medieval religious art and popular religious statuaries in the shop of the statue maker Fidel Araneta where he was an apprentice around 1946 (interview with Cid Reyes, Conversations on Philippine Art, p. 83). Its facial features are accessible to the cultural psyche of the Filipino parishioners within the gated subdivisions and the urban settlers of Park 7 at Barangay Loyola Heights, Quezon City or to the Jesuit novices, Josefinos and retreatants at Sacred Heart Novitiate. This iconography is akin to the corpus of the crucified Christ resembling a young, brown skinned male brought by some Jesuits during the 1986 EDSA Revolution. An image of Christ that suggests not just journeying with his people but more so becoming like them except sin.

A counterpoint to this statue of the Risen Christ is the monumental work entitled Transfiguration, a brass, copper, and stainless steel sculpture commissioned for the Eternal Gardens in Baesa, Caloocan City in 1979. Like his coupling at the Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice, the drapery of dazzling clothes of the transfigured Christ and its gestures of arms in oblation would re-figure again in the Risen Christ statue at the Pentecost Church. Though an attempt to capture the illuminated and dazzling image of the transfigured Christ at Mount Tabor Hills, the sculpture does not capture the lightness of the divine revelation but foregrounded the fear and trembling of the apostles Peter, James and John (Mt. 17:1-13, Mk 9:2, and Lk 9:28) as suggested by the heaviness of the drapery of the tunic of Christ as if weighing him down on the ground. Its humongous bodily armature dwarfs its head.

 Abueva's transfiguration, Eternal Gardens, Baesa, Caloocan City

Abueva's transfiguration, Eternal Gardens, Baesa, Caloocan City

Interpreting the heaviness of his monumental sculpture in the latter stage of the life of Dean Abueva, it could be reflective of his personal struggles in the latter years of his life as he suffered a stroke in 2014, thirty-five years later from the completion of the 1979 transfiguration statue. In 2016, he had another stroke that left him bedridden. Against the horizon along the North Expressway, the sculpture of the transfigured Christ is like trusting its tiny ears to listen to the voice of heaven saying, “You are my Beloved Son…” (Mt. 2:12) to console its desolate and lonely state.

Last night (18 February 2018) at Project 20, Maginhawa St., artist Gerry Tan, a former student of Dean Abueva told me how difficult a struggle it was for his teacher who sculpted with his arms and hands, “a carpenter, mason, a welder, and a weight-lifter” (interview with Cid Reyes, Conversations on Philippine Art, p. 84), to be rendered idle and bound unto his bed by his weakened muscles and limbs.

Thus, couple with this interpretation of the Transfiguration sculpture, for me, the Risen Christ sculpture, both the prototype plaster and the cast bronze, reveals another dimension of Dean Abueva’s final surrender to his ultimate reality and his lifework. It also enriches our understanding of the Christian notion of the resurrection. Unlike the heavy draperies of the Transfiguration sculpture, one notices that the white funerary cloth that bounded the corpse of the dead Christ is loosened up, unravelled from its risen body in a rhythmic pattern of a gymnast’s routine of forming white satin ribbons into spirals and circles without touching the athlete’s body. The detachment of spiraling and circling burial clothes is suggestive of the words of the Risen Master to his female disciple Mary Magdalene when she wanted to cling to him, “Noli me Tangere,” discouraging him from touching him for he has not yet ascended to the Father (John 20:17). Perhaps, though we mourn for his passing away, these very words of detachment is an invitation to let go and allow the Dean Abueva to break free from the bonds of mortality towards the promise of eternity. His last breath was his last act of freedom—a choice to surrender to the Great Sculptor who fashioned in the depths of his being before he was born. Borrowing the words of author Dag Hammarskjold, “[his] existence is meaningful and that, therefore, [his] life, in self-surrender, had a goal” (Markings, p. 205).

Like the expressionist artists of the post-war era who struggled to make sense of brutality of human beings and the uncertainty of the modern world through their art, the sculptures of Dean Abueva in the Chapels of the Holy Sacrifice and Pentecost, in the Eternal Gardens, and in the Apostolic Facility of Sacred Heart Novitiate exemplified the dean’s modernist agenda.

In line with the idea of the German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and Lutheran Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, modern artists are “set to plumb the darker depths of the human situation and only in and through such depths to reaffirm the fundamental religious truth of the situation.” (George Pattison, “Into the Abyss,” Art, Modernity and Faith, p. 115-16). Dean Abueva was not only employing modernist forms in his sculptures but more so constantly seeking answers to the existential questions of the modern Philippines after the post-war where his parents were killed leaving him orphan. Here, Dean Abueva could empathize with the children of war, conflict, and displacement and made his works a way of probing into the depths of these difficult realities.

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Dean Abueva, may you meet Christ with his foster father Joseph the carpenter in the Atelier of Heaven where “the yokes are easy and burden light” and where crosses are sculpted in love. Hopefully, the wounds of your human frailty would be healed with very wounds of the pierced side of Christ as a fountain of mercy revealing divine action of love. There, your face would be transfigured into godly countenance and your life and your existence.


 Father Jason Dy, SJ

Father Jason Dy, SJ

Jason Dy, SJ is a Jesuit priest and a concurrent lecturer at the Fines Art Department of the Ateneo de Manila University. A contemporary artist, a self-taught one, he has had art projects and exhibitions at the Fernando Amorsolo Gallery, Cultural Center of the Philippines; Sacred Heart Parish, Cebu City; Pons Fundacion, Madrid; Liverpool Hope University; Kristong Hari Parish, Commonwealth, Quezon City; Lopez Museum, Pasig City; and Project Space Philippines, Lucban, Quezon. He obtained two MA degrees, in Creative Practice and Art History and Curating at Liverpool Hope University, UK.