Masterpiece (2020), dir. Januar Yap and Kristoffer Villarino

MASTERPIECE: Sistine Chapel Redux

Mike Rapatan

Januar Yap and Kristoffer Villarino’s Masterpiece is a short documentary that recounts the artistic transformation of the ceiling of Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Bantayan, Cebu. Inspired by his visits to European churches, parish priest Fr. Joselito “Joy” Danao shares how he sought the help of artist Aris Avelino Pastor who painted the murals of a restobar in Panagdait and commissioned him to take charge of his grand project. Dubbed as Dibuho Kisame Project, the work involved turning the blank ceiling of the church founded in 1580 into a magnum opus that in Fr. Danao’s words would serve as a “visual catechism” for his parishioners.

In the film, Pastor recalls how the task of depicting the line story of the Creation, the Fall of Man and Redemption on the ceiling of a church measuring about 150-200 meters long and 25-30 meters wide was both a dream opportunity and a challenge to hurdle. Pastor sees the illustration on the church ceiling as a way of levelling up his career as a mural artist. He also recognizes the various technical concerns he has to address not by himself but with a team of trusted peers. Aware that a project of such magnitude is not a solo venture, Pastor assembles his team composed of close friends from Cebu and five more artists from Bantayan. He establishes rules for the team’s smooth collaboration, distributes the sections of the ceiling to different members depending on their specialization, and discusses approaches to solve certain technical issues. For instance, artist Shielo May Duterte mentions the challenge of painting on different surfaces and textures and maintaining a consistent look. Pastor in one scene confers with the group on giving more depth to the folds of garments that several biblical figures wear. In another shot, Pastor is shown checking his drawing with an enlarged image of the overall design on his cell phone indicating how he employs a digital tool to meet the demands of a centuries-old painting tradition.

As the artists complete their work, the film presents the artists’ own spiritual awakening. While not claiming to be religious and jokingly referring to themselves as “sinners”, some of the artists disclose the spiritual significance of their work. Duterte sees his participation as a form of payback to God for his artistic talents. Pastor remembers surrendering to God the muscle pains and discomfort from the ceiling’s intense heat. Ann Mendoza, the lone lady in the team, shows a tattoo of Galatians 2:20 and explains how the verse mirrors her own experience of doing her part in the project.

The film is replete with scenes of scaffolding the team uses to accomplish the work. It is only at the end where the camera surveys in an upward direction the central panels of the ceiling showing various scenes from the Old and New Testament. One wishes though that more screen time is allotted for shots from various angles of the team’s final work for the audience’s appreciation and evaluation.

Given the limited screen time for intimate views of the ceiling’s various sections, one surmises that Pastor’s design and his team’s execution is a tribute to the famed Sistine Chapel and therefore a replica of Michelangelo’s seminal masterpiece. Apart from Fr. Danao’s anecdote early in the film about his admiration for the ceiling paintings he saw in European churches, the film could have explored why the approved ceiling design follows the Renaissance humanist style. Since the project is not a restoration of faded designs and begins with a blank slate, one asks why the project adopted this style. The film does not explain if this style is the gold standard for heritage churches like Sts. Peter and Paul to emulate. One also asks that if the declared purpose of the ceiling is to evangelize parishioners on the story of salvation, could this be achieved only in such a style? Or could the artists have proposed other styles that resonate with the local culture and just as well attain the desired objective?

After all, Vatican II’s directions in Catholic liturgical art encourage the localization or indigenization of Western iconography to meaningfully communicate the Good News of salvation in line with the experiences and culture of specific audiences. In his time, even Michelangelo rendered the original Judeo-Christian scriptures in the classical figurative style that dominated Italian art. Hence, his representation of the salvation narrative is rooted in and becomes an expression of his own culture.

Art then functions a site of dialogue between culture and faith, life and culture and life and faith. Undoubtedly, we have in different parts of the country enduring examples of Philippine liturgical art reflecting vernacular themes and designs. In a way, these efforts contribute to a decolonization of Philippine liturgical art and hopefully, inspire new masterpieces that embody the vitality, resilience and depth of the Filipino faith.

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