Retablo Series. On Symbols and Scriptures: Dissecting the Nativity Relief of Silang’s Retablo
The Nativity (Ang Kapanganakan) hardwood relief is located on the first level, first relief from the left of the main altar retablo. This piece is part of the Joyful Mysteries of the Holy Rosary depicted in the retablo of the Silang Church and it tells a great deal of a story other from what is readily visible.
In an instant appreciation, the carved relief is about the birth of the Messiah with the angel’s declaration to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2:10-12.
Such pronouncement is represented in the carving as a form of an angel holding a banner on the top right of the composition. One can assume that this proclaims the words from the scriptures: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth.” Luke 2:14
Then, the shepherds came to pay homage to the birthplace of Infant Jesus, a manger, illustrated as an abstract form of vertical and diagonal lines structure behind the image of Joseph.
Here, Mary’s image, dressed in typical blue and rose robes with a white veil, is in a suspended act of wrapping the Child Jesus. One can note that all eyes are directed to the sleeping infant. Here, the scene is tight and converging to the holy child, the focus of the composition, depicted in swaddling clothes and adored by a throng of visitors crowding around Him…wanting, needing to see the Emmanuel.
Then, notice the hand of the elder-shepherd bearing the staff pointing to his right side. One figure in the background, most probably Joseph, is cloaked in brown or brown holding an object, something like a lantern to illuminate the scene. Note Joseph is wearing a sombrero and his right-hand gestures the onlookers to hush down so the sleeping child will not be awakened.
The holy family was visited in this artwork by seven figures of shepherds and companions. This includes the older shepherd holding his staff; a female to the shepherd’s left dressed in rose with a quaint panuelo-like fabric wrapping her neck, thus, indigenizing the composition similar to Joseph’s curious sombrero; two shepherd children in prayerful poses beside Mary; two young male adult figures in the foreground, one wearing breeches and what seemingly look like pterugres or the roman soldier’s leather strips worn as apron/skirt. This same figure also bears a sword in a scabbard attached to his waist pointing to the figure holding a chained beast. This odd beast-like pit bull on a chain is shown biting the soldier’s sword (Belmonte 39) at the lower right side of the composition. The canine-like-beast is held on a chain by another figure in a white tunic with hands pointing to Joseph or to the object Joseph is holding.
The animals below the tableau are almost carved in abstraction. One can notice a miniaturized carabao or ox and what seemingly a small horse or donkey. But such representation can be traditionally attributed to an ox representing Jews who recognized Christ while the donkey represents pagans who turn to Christ (Dilasser 36).
Another story told. The juxtaposition of the various elements of the nativity scene in the Silang Church is foretelling an additional “fast-forward” narrative to the life of Jesus. What can we read from the shepherds’ arrival to the peculiar illustration of a guest roman soldier and even to the appearance of a chained dog all connected to a series of finger pointing?
Witnessing the angel of the Lord’s declaration on the birth of the Messiah, the shepherds, at first terrified, heeded the call. “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.” Luke 2:17 “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” Luke 2:20. Without any words said nor to be read in the carved relief of Silang’s retablo, the hand gesture of the shepherd in the composition is the signal to such acclamation. He points to the light born by Joseph, Jesus dual representation as the Light of the World (John 8:12).
Nowhere in the bible tells the story of a roman soldier visiting the manger. The roman soldier’s representation in the composition is a presage of Jesus’ death on the cross but also a declaration of his glory. As told in the story of the crucifixion at Calvary, “When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” Mark 27:54 Both terrified, shepherds and centurions acknowledged Christ in his glory from beginning to the end of Jesus’ life narrative.
The sword-bearing centurion points to white dressed figure holding the chained beast. The dog in the composition may be read as a creative adaptation of an old story attributed ancient sources like Aesop’s Fable or even to apocryphal texts. First appeared in the 1st-century lexicon of Diogenianus, as “The dog in the manger, concerning those who neither themselves use nor allow others to use: insofar as the dog neither itself eats the barleycorns nor allows the horse to” (Mieder).
An alternative version was indicated in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, but involving oxen rather than a horse. “Jesus said, ‘Woe to the Pharisees, for they are like a dog sleeping in the manger of oxen, for neither does he eat nor does he let the oxen eat’.” In a similar light, the saying seems to be an adaptation of criticism of the Pharisees in the canonical Gospel of Matthew: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces; you do not enter yourselves, nor will you let others enter.” (23:13)
“The dog in the manger metaphor is now used to speak of “someone who keeps something that they do not want in order to prevent someone else from getting it” (Cambridge Dictionary). But the dog in the composition is restrained by the figure in white pointing to the light held by Joseph, thus, disallowing the dog to stop others to welcome the Messiah, even the bewildered roman soldier.
Everybody is invited to the birth of the Messiah. From the animals to the soldiers and animal tenders. We are all called to be one with the holy. We are all welcome to the Light of the World. This is the JOY we celebrate every Christmas.
Advance Merry Christmas! Maligayang Pasko sa mga Silangueno!
Belmonte, Fr. Charles. Aba Ginoong Maria: The Virgin Mary in Philippine Art. Manila: Aba Ginoong Maria Foundation Inc., 1990.
Dilasser, Maurice. The Symbols of the Church. Collegeville Minnesota: Liturgical Press,1999.
Mieder, Wolfgang. Behold the Proverbs of a People, University of Mississippi, 2014.