Basilio Ukit: The Anting-anting Artisan of Banahaw

Rodel Basilli at his workshop, at the foothills of the mystical Mount Banahaw, Dolores, Quezon. (Photo lifted from Basilio's Facebook page)
Rodel Basilli at his workshop, at the foothills of the mystical Mount Banahaw, Dolores, Quezon. (Photo lifted from Basilio’s Facebook page)

At the foothills of the mystical Banahaw lies Rodel Basilio’s small workshop, which actually, a part of his house which was the home for his wife, Beng, and three kids, two boys and a girl.

 As the sun rises, he would begin carving as he sips his hot cup of instant coffee and smoking a stick of cigarette. With the use of his electronic chisel, he carefully and slowly carves on a dark wood—the one which is called the dignum—forming a small image of the Nazarene. On the other side of the house-turned-workshop, lie the unfinished images of St. Michael the Archangel and the Our Lady of Miraculous Medal.

Rodel Ukit, as his friends and colleagues fondly call him, has been a painter during his younger years. Some years ago, his wife Beng shared to this author, that his husband had tried to do another job—tilling the lands somewhere in the Visayas—but only to return to Banahaw’s embrace. Perhaps, carving amulets and designing Catholic saints was his mission, a mission that he would carry on the rest of his life.

And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us…

The tradition of sculpting religious icons or images in the country could be traced as far as the pre-Hispanic times. It is evidenced by the bul-ol, the rice god of the Ifugaos, which believed to be an effective guard against granary thieves. It also represents the anito, or the spirit of the ancestors.

And with the entry of the new religion in the Pearl of the Orient, the Filipino artisans had become well accustomed to the faces of the saints—the Sto. Niño or the Little Child Jesus, the Blessed Virgin and her spouse, St. Joseph, as well as the archangels and angels; and as the new god, the God of Christianity had “overcome” the power of the gods and goddesses of the natives, the reverence which was once given to the icons of the old faith had been transferred to the saints and the other things which are considered holy by the conquerors.

FOR CATHOLICS, the images in their parishes, monasteries, and chapels are not objects of worship, neither was it the subject of worship. In a Catholic Apologetics website, Catholic.com, an unknown author had defended the use of images inside the church:

“Catholics use statues, paintings, and other artistic devices to recall the person or thing depicted. Just as it helps to remember one’s mother by looking at her photograph, so it helps to recall the example of the saints by looking at pictures of them. Catholics also use statues as teaching tools. In the early Church they were especially useful for the instruction of the illiterate. Many Protestants have pictures of Jesus and other Bible pictures in Sunday school for teaching children. Catholics also use statues to commemorate certain people and events, much as Protestant churches have three-dimensional nativity scenes at Christmas…”

Furthermore, for Catholics, the picture of Christ is also recognition that the faceless Divine had had a face through His Son, Jesus whom we call the Christ (in Greek, Christos means the anointed one). In the work of St. John the Evangelist, it is clearly stated that the Word, or the Logos, the very essence of God had become flesh and dwelt amongst us; that his apostles, or the closest and most intimate companions of Christ, had seen his glory (Cf. John 1: 1, 14). As the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church had purported:

The sacred image, the liturgical icon, principally represents Christ. It cannot represent the invisible and incomprehensible God, but the incarnation of the Son of God has ushered in a new “economy” of images: 

Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now that he has made himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men, I can make an image of what I have seen of God… and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled. (1159) 

Therefore, the veneration given to the image translates not into the veneration of the material itself, but what the material represents: the divinity of Christ, the purity of the saints, and the powers of the Divine being depicted by the angels.

Images of power and might

An unusual depiction of the Nuestra de la Leche y Buenparto. (From the author's collection)
An unusual depiction of the Nuestra de la Leche y Buenparto. (From the author’s collection)

For the antingeros or the local mystics and faith healers, the images of the saints, the angels and martyrs of the Christian faith, which are either carved on sacred wood or in metal (red copper is often used for medallions), are not only representations of the divine; they also serve as the floodgate of the power. In order to be of use, the antingero would “give” the image life, consecrate it, and baptize it. The devotion or the series of contemplative prayer—usually in pidgin Latin—will follow. This would be done in 49 days, beginning any Friday of the month. The purpose is to fortify the gamit’s (amulet or charm) power.

Therefore, the images being carved by Basilio is not only an ornament of faith; they are the actualization of the unseen power of God. Since the woods found in the Banahaw soil are considered sacred, it in itself is power. However, it is more powerful, some say, if the image of the sacred is engraved onto it.

An interesting piece, was the Cristong Hari (Christ the King), with an amethyst stuck on its forehead. If someone would examine it completely, the face was far different from either the Orthodox or Catholic depictions. At the back of this beautifully carved face of “Christ,” was the image of the patroness of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Basilio said that the material was an old or antique dignum wood unearthed in one of his expeditions around Banahaw. It is said that the older the wood gets, the more powerful it becomes. To harness the power, however, as mentioned before, is to impregnate with prayers.

As a powerful intercessor, the Virgin Mary always takes the center stage among Basilio’s works. An interesting piece among the images of the Virgin carved by Basilio was a pendant of the Our Lady of Expectation, the depiction of the Virgin pregnant with Christ. With great skill, Basilio had been able to put every detail, including an intricate halo and a loop, on the small statue.

What makes the piece more interesting is the symbolism injected to the piece. In the middle of the Virgin’s abdomen was an unusual Christogram, or the monogram of the name of Christ: Iesus Hominum Salvator—Jesus the savior of mankind. The traditional Christogram was simple J.H.S. However, Basilio’s monogram was a combination of the name of Jesus and the symbol of his mother, Mary—the M with the cross. Although aimed to be a pendant, this three-and-half (3 ½) inch beauty could be a part of an altar for it can stand.

The Our Lady of Milk and Good Birthing will also catch someone’s attention. The nine-by-four inch altar piece was carved in a white wood, allegedly a belongs to olive tree specie. While olives, this author believes, are not endemic in the Philippines, the people of Banahaw had a strong conviction that the wood was as the same olive trees that grow in the holy mountains of Israel. However, what makes the sculpture a subject of curiosity is that the two breasts of the Mother are exposed. Examining the image closely, one will see the child Jesus sucking on the right breast, while his right palm cupping or covering the left. This author believes that it was done on purpose.

It is believed that in the very beginning, there were two Sons born of the God the Father—one had become the Father of Darkness while the one had become the Bearer of Light. The two suckled at the breasts of the Mother God, the Infinita, or the Shekinah in the Jewish Kabbalah. The author thinks, perhaps Basilio had this in mind, or had seen this image in his visions (for Banahaw is known to be a giver of visions), that he saw the need to carve the Mother Lactans that way: Jesus covering Mother’s breast so that the Devil cannot suck on it again. In other words, the Devil must be neutralized in order to restore the order of the entire Universe.

This what makes Basilio’s works different from the ordinary religious images: they contain symbols, which serve allegedly as keys to unleash the divine power from within, that power which can be used to combat evil forces, as protection against danger, and can be used as tools for exorcism. Of course, these things are always confronted with skepticism, if not, mockery. But for those who believe, Basilio’s creations are indeed a source of enormous power, coming from the heavens.

While his works are not displayed in huge galleries, his creations had become part and parcel of one’s home—either as part of their altars, or hanging on the owner’s neck, serving as a gentle reminder that God is not that far, and He is always near to those who firmly believe in him.

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