San Agustín Church, Museum and Monastery

San Agustín before the powerful 1880 earthquake. © Life (Photo retrieved from Goldwin + Vina)

Women go crazy when they hear this church, saying that it is their dream wedding church. Because of its elegant interiors, this is the place of choice for weddings. For many, this is truly the most beautiful church, not just in Manila, but in the entire Philippines as well. Dubbed as the 'Wedding Capital of the Philippines, the San Agustín is the oldest stone church in the country.

The location of the San Agustín inside the walled city.

Concealed inside the 64-hectare walled city of Manila is the San Agustín Church. The church was a monument to the Spanish conquest of the Philippines. It was the first church to be built by the Spaniards in Luzon after relocating the capital from Cebu.

The church courtyard is adorned by several granite sculptures of Chinese lions, given by Chinese converts to Catholicism. The layout of the church is in the form of a Latin cross. It has fourteen side chapels and a trompe l'oeil ceiling painted in 1875 by Italian artists Cesare Alberoni and Giovanni Dibella. Up in the choir loft are hand-carved 17th-century seats of molave, a tropical hardwood.

The church contains the tomb of Spanish conquistadors Miguel López de Legazpi, Juan de Salcedo and Martín de Goiti, as well as several early Spanish Governors-General and archbishops. Their bones are buried in a communal vault near the main altar.

Tombs of some of the well-known scions in Philippine society. ©

Tombs of Spanish-Filipino industrialists Don Jacobo Zóbel Zangróniz and Don Antonio de Ayala. © Flickr/Jun Acullador

 The mortal remains of the Adelantado Don Miguel López de Legazpi interred in San Agustín. © Flickr/The Traveler Who Likes To Stay At Home 

The present San Agustín is the third structure erected on the same site. The first was made of bamboo and nipa, and was completed in 1571. It was destroyed by fire in 1574 during an attempted invasion of Chinese pirate Limahong. The second structure was made of wood and was again destroyed by fire in 1583. The fire started when a candle touched the drapes during the funeral of then Governor-General Gonzalo Ronquillo de Peñalosa. In 1586, construction of the final structure started based on the designs of Spanish architect Juan Macías. The third and final structure was made of adobe stone which was quarried from nearby towns of Binangonan, San Mateo and Meycauayan. 

The San Agustín still bearing its other belfry, circa late 1700s. © Arkitekturang Filipino

San Agustín became operational in 1604 and was declared complete in 1607 and was named Iglesia San Pablo de Manila. In 1762, the British forces invaded Manila during the Seven Years War, which involved Spain and Great Britain. During the British occupation of Manila, San Agustín's valuables were looted.

The interior of San Agustín's nave viewed from the choir loft. © Augustinian Churches and History

In 1854, Spanish architect Luciano Oliver was commissioned to renovate San Agustín. Then in 1875, two Italian painters Cesare Alberoni and Giovanni Dibella were commissioned to paint the ceiling of San Agustin. The two painters used the trompe l'oeil style where in a painting would look like a 3D figure.

  San Agustín's ornate and Renaissance-like trompe l'oeil ceilings. The ceilings were painted by Italians Dibella and Alberoni. © Flickr/Juan Paulo

"Sedate and direct to the point, the facade follows the style of High Renaissance. The symmetrical composition is prefixed by pairs of Tuscan columns that flank the main door of the two-tiered facade. The vertical movement of the paired columns is adapted at the second level by equally paired Corinthian columns. At the second level, mass and void alternate in a simple rhythm of solid walls and windows. The two levels, emphasized by horizontal cornices, are then capped by a pediment that is accentuated with a simple rose window.

Some of the trompe l'oeil details found inside San Agustín. ©

The facade’s hard composition is held together by two towers; unfortunately, the missing left belfry further exaggerates the lackluster facade. It was taken down after a destructive earthquake hit the church in 1863 and 1880, splitting the tower in two.

The trompe l'oeil dome at the transept crossing looks like the Renaissance churches in Europe. ©

The facade has a touch of Baroque by the ornately carved wooden doors that depict floras and religious images. Baroque is also evident in the carved niches that quietly reside between the paired lower columns. The church is bequeathed with Chinese elements in the form of fu dogs that emphatically guard the courtyard entrances." (excerpt from the Heritage Conservation Society)

Large glass chandeliers adorned the church's interior. The chandeliers were installed in the 19th century and were imported from France. © A Muse Astray

San Agustín measures 67.15 meters long and 24.93 meters wide. Its elliptical foundation has allowed it to withstand the numerous earthquakes that have destroyed many other Manila churches. It is said that the design was derived from churches built by the Augustinians in Mexico. The façade is unassuming and even criticized as "lacking grace and charm", but it has notable baroque touches, especially the ornate carvings on its wooden doors. 

Inside the nave, glass chandeliers adorned the church's interior. According to Fr. Pedro Galende, O.S.A., curator of the San Agustín Museum, the chandeliers were purchased and imported from France during the 19th century. The chandeliers survived the 1863, 1880 earthquakes and recently survived the Battle of Manila in World War II. 

In 1863, a devastating earthquake hit Manila which led to the destruction of most buildings. Only San Agustín was left undamaged. Then in 1880, a series of powerful earthquakes struck Manila. But this time, the earthquake left San Agustín with a huge crack on its left belfry. The belfry was eventually repaired, but soon after, it was permanently removed as it appears at the present time.

San Agustín after the devastating 1880 earthquake which left a huge crack on the left belfry. © Arkitekturang Filipino

In 1898, San Agustín became the place of surrender of the Spanish troops after the mock battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War.

San Agustín with its left belfry removed. © Intramuros Manila

47 years later, San Agustín became a target of artillery pieces. During the final days of the Battle of Manila, the Japanese retreated inside Intramuros and used it as a defense barrier because of its thick and high walls. Long before the war, Intramuros was considered a 'holy city' because of the number of religious institutions situated in the 64-hectare city. San Agustín became a hospital and an internment camp.

The pews in the nave of San Agustín are in a mess. The church became a hospital and later an internment camp. © Flickr/dennis_raymondm19

After the liberation, all of Manila was reduced in rubbles. Important districts of the city were gone such as Sta. Cruz, Binondo, Ermita, and Tondo. Intramuros was the most devastated district with almost all buildings wiped out. Only San Agustín was left standing.

American GIs pause for a prayer in front of San Agustín during the Battle of Manila. © LIFE (photo retrieved from

San Agustín after the liberation. San Agustín was the only structure in Intramuros left standing. © Flickr/John Tewell

In 1993, San Agustín along with other four churches was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its contribution to Philippine history. 

San Agustín as it looks in the present time. © Philippine Weddings

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