The Story of the Philippine Relicario

Spanish influence in the Philippines dates back as early as 1521 when Ferdinand Magellan first landed on Philippine shores. It was a rather unique era of the Spanish empire where both Church and State had the power to rule. This rare participation of the religious was in-part a result of the Spanish King’s guilt in pillaging Central and South America, and perhaps by allowing the Church to partake in major decisions, he could find absolution. As a result, Catholicism became the mainstay of Spanish sovereignty over the islands. Friars represented both the Spanish empire and the kingdom of God.

The conquest changed everything. From religion to culture, the mark of Catholicism was prevalent across the islands. Jewelry, in particular, served as a symbol of faith that led the missionaries to martyrdom. Men of such passion and purpose condemned ancient amulets and talismans, slowly replacing them with the crucifix. Leveraging the indigenous peoples’ belief in healing amulets, the friars imbibed similar stories among Catholic jewelry. Catholicism meant not only the recognition of Jesus Christ the Son of God, but the veneration of a host of saints. Each saint possessed certain qualities and powers, serving as models for emulation and embodied in religious jewelry bearing their image. They were objects of panata (vows).

It was brand management. By commercializing religion, the move raised the revenue needed by the religious by way of patronage, alms, sale of indulgences, scapulars, habits, prints, and various other services and objects.

The veneration of images became a way of life, reflected in devotional jewelry from rosary beads to the use for religious ornamental necklaces such as tamborines and relicarios (reliquaries). Tamborine beads range from florecitas (flowers), plain spherical granules, pineapple shapes, and granada or pomegranate (1300 to 1950AD). Hanging from these gold bead necklaces, aside from crosses, were Agnus Dei or reliquary pendants. They usually contained paschal candle bits, relics from saints, and a detached openwork panel with a cross, a chalice, or monstrance design.

Through most of the Spanish era and well into our century, religious jewelry echoes the same passion and purpose shared by the zealous missionaries and conquistadores. Like ripples in the sand, they constitute a record of the tides of the last 500 years of conversion and conquest. At the same time, they are the insights of the pride and power of societies riding from the ruins of ancient ways of life.

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