During my daily commutes from my home in Quezon City to Manila where I worked, I would walk along Aurora Boulevard from my apartment to the LRT-2 (Light Rail Transit) Anonas Station. During those walks, I would notice the interesting airbrushed jeepney art that were appearing on these “kings of the Philippine road”. And when I started documenting public art and historical sites in 2015, I also began to notice the many religious imagery painted on these jeepneys, and the sometimes absurd combination of religious and pop icons in the same picture plane. This has caused me to also start documenting the jeepneys with religious themes on, and study the reasons behind these unusual pairing of images.
Religious art, specifically Catholic art has been a part of Philippine culture since the Spanish colonizing of the Philippines in 1565. Although Catholicism was introduced by the Spanish with the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan (Fernão de Magalhães, 1480-1521), and the subsequent conversion of Rajah Humabon and his wife Hara Humamay, in 1521; the true evangelization started when Miguel López de Legazpi (1502-1572) set up the first Spanish outposts in Cebu and Manila. Now there are more than 80 million Filipinos who identify themselves as Catholics.
The conversion of the native populations of the Philippines was done through replacing the many gods of the animistic pantheon of gods of these cultures with Catholic saints that supplant the roles of these gods, along with the connecting rituals of these deities. For example, a harvest god would be replaced by Saint Isidore the Farmer (San Isidro Labrador, 1070-1130), and the harvest rituals become festivals in the name of the saint, such as the Pahiyas Festival, of Lucban, Quezon Province. And in holding a ritual to the spirits for deliverance from an epidemic is changed to praying to Saint Roch (San Roque, 1295-1327), patron saint against diseases. And since many Filipinos are superstition and still believe in other worldly creatures, instead of calling on a shaman to drive away an evil spirit, they are told to pray to Saint Michael, the Archangel.
Philippine religious art started as the making of santos, or religious sculpture, that replaced the wooden anitos (wooden idols) of the natives. Soon these santos and other religious objects, such as rosaries, were used as talismans against any evil or problem that may come their way.
The religious art on jeepneys serve a similar purpose. The religious character is usually painted on the doors of the jeepney driver and his right side passenger as a form of protection from harm on the road, a daily prayer for a dream or the success of the family, a prayer of thankfulness, and devotion to a particular saint.
The use of the image of Jesus Christ is not a replacement of any ancient god; rather that Jesus is a symbol of the greatest sacrifice of love; his death and resurrection for the sins of man. To the jeepney driver, this is a reminder that his daily grind through traffic is his own loving sacrifice for his family.
The image of the Saint Joseph (San Jose), Christ Child (Santo Niño) and Holy Family (Sagrada Familia) also connect with the Filipino’s strong family orientation and love for children. The use of these images enforce the driver’s resolve to provide for his family, while under the protection of the Santo Niño, Saint Joseph, or the Holy Family. Saint Joseph is also the patron saint of laborers, which also resounds with these hard working drivers, who may cover up to twelve hours of driving in a day.
One interesting jeepney I had documented features Jesus and the Lenten celebration of the Moriones Festival, in Marinduque Island, that commemorates Saint Longinus, the one-eyed Roman centurion who had pierced Christ’s side, at the cross. When the blood of Christ fell on his blind eye, it restored Longinus’ vision, and he converted to Christianity. Longinus assisted in the cleaning and burial of Christ, while his fellow centurions searched for him and later decapitated him. The use of this image on a jeepney may tell that the drive’s family had originated from Marinduque, or the sacrifice of Chirst and the faith of Longinus are inspiring stories to the driver.
I have also documented two jeeps with the images of Jesus Christ that is combined with a scene of Noah and the Ark. The combination of both images on one plane symbolizes salvation.
Another recurring theme is that of Jesus Christ or the Blessed Virgin Mary being pair with an image of a Guardian Angel guiding Children across a Bridge. This image was popularized around the world in 1900, through a prayer card with the painting of the same image by Bernhard Plockhorst (1825-1907). This image evokes the protection of Christ (or Mary) and the angels over troubling times, as symbolized by the wild river passing under the bridge.
There are not many female saints who have become popular with the general Filipino Catholic population, this happened because the Spanish and later American missionaries did not replace a female deity with a female saint, instead they chose an of the many reincarnations of the Blessed Virgin Mary. If there was no variation of Mary that would fulfill a certain community’s need, then it would be also easy to create a new one, such as the Our Lady of Manaoag in the Province of Pangasinan and the Our Lady of Peñafranca in the Province of Camarines Sur.
The use of generic angels or guardian angels also serves to replace any nameless lares familiares or house god. The idea of having a personal angel to watch over you alone is a very comforting thought.
The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary shows the strong influence of the Franciscans in the evangelization of the Philippines. It’s modern devotion is seen as the foundation on which to build the kingdom of God in the hearts of individuals, families, and nations, as declared by Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, 1876-1958).
During the course of my documenting religious jeepney art, I have been able to photograph more than two hundred jeepneys with religious art, just as I am walk along Aurora Boulevard. There are many more that I have been unable to photographs, as many of these jeepneys are zooming past me. I also did not document the jeepneys with beautiful art, but have no religious imagery painted on. The next article will further explore how these jeepney owners relate the religious iconography with their families.
I am also sharing some drawing I made in 2015, which correlate religious iconographic poses with the experience of the daily commute on a jeepney.
PS, part 2
I am also sharing a photograph of an artist’s attempt to portray Jesus Christ as a tank-top wearing motorcycle rider.