In the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches, religious icons play a very important role in propagating—and keeping—the faith. While faith, in itself, is the belief in something (or someone) you cannot see (Hebrews 11:1), these icons of saints, angels, and even the perceived image of the Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—are but simple reminders that there is One that provides everything that you need; and that these people that have halos on their heads, are meant to be imitated for they have lived a life that is full of compassion, of love, of holiness, and full of faith in God. As the late Madeleine L’Engle (29 November 1918 – 06 September 2007) puts it:
“The figure in the icon is not meant to represent literally what Peter or John or any of the apostles looked like, or what Mary looked like, nor the child, Jesus. But, the orthodox painter feels, Jesus of Nazareth did not walk around Galilee faceless. The icon of Jesus may not look like the man Jesus two thousand years ago, but it represents some quality of Jesus, or his mother, or his followers, and so becomes an open window through which we can be given a new glimpse of the love of God.” (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, 1980)
And in the art of the Bulacan-native Ernesto “Aris” C. Bagtas, Jr. who’s now staging his 19th exhibit in Art Asia (25 November 2016)—he simply shows the glory of the unseen God and the intercessory power of the people who lived faithfully by the Golden Rules taught by Master Jesus the Christ himself: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30, 31; New International Version of the Bible)
In his new works, Bagtas used the things that you can find everywhere and anywhere: old windows and doors from demolished houses; the seat of broken stools; an old luggage; and scrapped timbers, just to name a few. On it, he paints the popular images that the Catholics, Aglipayans, and other “catholic” faithful knew by heart—the crucified Christ; Mary with the young Jesus, cradled on her arms; the Holy Family (Jesus, Joseph, and Mary); and the faithful who prays fervently and wholeheartedly, asking for forgiveness, for grace, and for a miracle using the intercessory power of the saints, particularly of Mary, the Theotokos or the Mother of God [the Son].
By painting it on ordinary and discarded things, the images that are often seen in the churches, gathered now a different meaning and has honed its sacred value.
Oftentimes, God is thought of a being that is far from the world and living away from the creatures that He has created and gave life into. He is the ever angry, a wrathful God who punishes people, annihilating sinful nations, and destroying everything that he finds unworthy. He is a jealous God, the Book of Exodus stated, and that the people should appease him from time to time by sacrificing calves, and lambs, and turtledoves, and wines and breads on the sacred fire. This is the very image, for thousands of years, which has been associated with Yahweh, the Lord and the Custodian of Israel and of the entire world.
However, this is not the entire persona of God. No! He is not like that. He is actually a loving, compassionate, and an ever-caring God. And as the psalmist in the Ancient Israel had sung it:
“Lord Jehovah is compassionate and cherishing; he is patient and his grace is abundant.” (Psalms 103: 8, Aramaic Bible in Plain English)
It has been proven when he sent his Son to salvage the poor souls who have been suffering from the consequences because of their sins. “All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’),” stated the Holy Scriptures (Isaiah 7:14, New Living Translation). Also in the Scriptures, it says:
“In His days Judah will be saved, And Israel will dwell securely; And this is His name by which He will be called, ‘The LORD our righteousness.’ (Jeremiah 23: 6, New American Standard Bible)
And the prophecies have been allegedly fulfilled with the birth of Jesus, who will be later known as the Christ—the Word of God that has been made flesh, and dwelt among the ordinary folks—the beggars, the sick, the harlots, the tax collectors, the fishermen, and other people who have been called by the religious leaders that time as sinners, outcasts, disfavored by God himself.
“It is not the healthy that need a doctor,” the Christ had said, “but the sick.” By saying this, the heavens have given these poor creatures the greatest favor: to be the center of God’s love and compassion. The Son of God has performed a lot of miracles: feeding the multitude, healing the sick, walking on water, resurrecting the dead. Jesus the Christ did all this because of one important reason: to show the people that the God of Israel is the God of love. That Jehovah is a God that is full of compassion to the people who have been oppressed by those who are in the bastions of power, and that He has sent his Son to set the people free from the yoke of sin and for them to enjoy the healing presence and love of this God who, for the longest time, had been mistaken by many as a wrathful deity, incapable of loving and forgiving.
And by painting the images of the Christ and His Mother on things that are considered as “garbage” by other people, Bagtas actually had injected a deeper, more profound meaning to his icons. The ordinary folks have seen the glory of the Son, who is the exact image of the Father who has sent him.
He banqueted with the sinners and the outcasts: the whores, the publicans, the tax collectors, who are considered as the “discarded stools.” Through Christ, God has worked, walked, and talked with the workers, the farmers, and the fishermen who have been going to and fro, from lands and nearby seas, seeking for opportunities—hence Bagtas’ discarded, old luggage. The discarded, dilapidated doors and windows are can be associated, or can be symbols, to the secret and intimate worship to Yahweh. As Christ has puts it – “But you, when you pray, enter into your inner chamber, and having shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
In the old wooden, rugged cross, Christ has been crucified—the culmination of the salvific history of man, way back in the Garden of Eden: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; they shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise their heel.”
In the modern era, the icons of faith never lose its significance. In truth, they have increased their meaning. In the middle of our chaotic existence, these serene images offer—somehow—a different reality, and that is the stillness of one’s spirit and soul as it is being touched by the magical and reassuring fingers of God thru his saints, his angels, and even by the ordinary faithful who is doing His Will—the poor, the peacemakers, the hungry, the oppressed—all of which Christ has called “blessed,” in his famous Sermon on the Mount.
On the artistic side, while the approach is modern, Bagtas still employs that folkloric and classical touch as he paints the images of the things which are considered sacred and pure.
“By employing classical concepts of idealized beauty and changes in perspective, icons speak to us of reality transformed and transfigured, both in and through God’s presence. They speak of transcendence and mystery. As iconographers, we point to a reality that we have never seen with our own eyes. In fact, all our images of God, heaven, the angels, and the saints, whether in poetry, prose, ritual, music, or icons, represent our limited attempts to speak of the unspeakable,” wrote Peter Pearson, an American artist and iconographer in his book, A Brush With God: An Icon Workbook (2005).
Having saying this, the semantic value of the works of Bagtas that will be shown for the first time, has been increased as we know that he has used the items that are undervalued, hence deliberately ignored by their previous owners as they were considered rubbish, eyesores, therefore, they should be discarded for they only consume space in one’s warehouse or attic. As Bagtas transform these objects into things that are considered sacred and divine (as they show the images considered holy, spiritual, and profound)—he imitates the power of the Divine to transform the things that are considered impure and negligible into something that are worth keeping. As Mary, the Mother of Jesus sang during the visit of Archangel Gabriel to her, as to announce her conception of the future King of Israel (at least, in the metaphysical and spiritual sense):
My soul doth magnify the Lord.
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
Because He hath regarded the humility of His slave:
For behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
Because He that is mighty hath done great things to me; and holy is His name.
And His mercy is from generation unto generations, to them that fear Him.
He hath shewed might in His arm: He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He hath sent empty away.
He hath received Israel His servant, being mindful of His mercy:
As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever.
In addition to the icons that Bagtas is creating, he also painted about the quotidian.
Some of his works tackled about the increasing poverty amongst the Filipino, and how these ordinary folks struggle to earn a living.
Bagtas also painted and sculpted about their hopes, aspirations, and dreams all anchored in faith in God and the belief that, one day, they will get the things that they are longing for. This observation is connected to the celebration of the barrio, town, and even municipal fiestas—a tradition that can be traced back in the pre-Hispanic time, where the ancient people of the archipelago, that will be known to the world as Las Islas Filipinas, or the Philippines—the name that has been given by the Spanish conqueror Ruy Lopez de Villalobos in honor of King Spain, Felipe II in 1542, launch festivities to honor their ancestors and their gods and goddesses. These festivities were later directed to honor the saints and martyrs, to the archangels, and the Holy Trinity—the concepts of divinity brought by the conquistadores.
Having said these, Bagtas through his works, are actually retelling the rich history and culture of his beloved motherland, the Philippines.
* Pamana in Tagalog or Filipino means inheritance.