Art, history and religion under the Betis Church

AS WE enter the season of Lent, it is that time of the year when we do pilgrimages and go to retreats. Church visitation is one of the practices that we observe.

Whenever I travel, I always see to it to visit places of worship, especially churches. One particular church in the country that comes to mind is the St. James the Apostle Parish Church, which is more popularly referred to as the Betis Church.

Betis Church is located in Guagua, Pampanga, and the title “Sistine Chapel of the Philippines” is often attached to it. Although the original church was built in the 17th century, it was in 1770 when a structure using concrete materials was built.

Before I take you through the church itself, you might have not heard of Betis before. Given that the church was built in 17th century, the town has been around before the Spaniards arrived on Philippine soil. Carving is a big thing in Betis and they really have great artisans.

I was with a tour group when we visited Betis Church. I felt excited as our organizers talked about the background of the church. Its main attraction is the murals on its ceiling. My great-uncle has painted artworks in the church of the now-defunct Bacolod-Murcia Milling Company.

His home has intricate paintings on the ceiling. The thought of getting inside a church with beautiful paintings in it just brought me back to that part of my childhood.

As we arrived in Betis Church, we were given enough time to see the church inside-out. We entered by the side entrance and spotted the artesian well that was fenced by steel. There was a statue of St. James riding a horse just beside the well.

A short distance from that church feature are statues of the Holy Family in their workshop, showing the young Jesus helping his father Joseph, a carpenter. This also underscores the woodcarving industry in this part of the country.

The façade showed the belfry at the right corner of the church. A statue of Jesus underneath what looked like a giant crown stood in front of Betis Church. The carved wooden doors are very detailed. One has the Virgin Mary carved on it, while another has the image of Jesus Christ.

The interiors are breathtaking. As we stood at the wooden floor, we looked up to the murals at the ceiling that were repainted by Victor Ramos and his team, based on the originals made by his mentor and uncle, Macario Ligon, I learned.

One that caught my eye was Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Others were scenes from the Bible where there were other elements, like angels and saints. The octagon-shaped dome looked like the heaven is opening up. The artworks were really breathtaking. No wonder it is called the Sistine Chapel of the Philippines.

The main altar was very elaborate. There were statues at the retablo with angels on top of the columns. The pulpit sort of reminded me of a chalice, but an artful one. I look around the church and everything just came together so beautifully.

Betis Church is truly a Natural Cultural Treasure as declared by the National Museum and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. But more than the marker installed at the church, it is a valuable piece not just for the people of Betis but also for us, Filipinos.

As you plan your church visitation, it would be nice to know a bit of the background of that church you are visiting. Moreover, appreciate the devotion of its parishioners to the faith.

All photos are by this author. Claire Marie Algarme blogs at Follow her as @firsttimetravel on Twitter and Instagram and like her Facebook page First-time Travels blog.
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