Arts & Culture
This House Holds the Largest Private Collection of Christian Art in the Philippines
The magnificent collection of the P.J. Lhuillier Museum is a line to heaven and a window to the soul.
IMAGE MIGUEL NACIANCENO
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Philippe Lhuillier, Philippine Ambassador to Spain, stands before a painting of the hermit Benedict, later Saint Benedict of Nursia, preaching to a group of monks at the start of western monasticism.

“What is this guy thinking?” he asks thoughtfully, gazing at a scene of bald pates gathered under a gnarled tree. The men, with their downy beards and flowy robes, have been given an expression of serene contemplation, and that’s what’s got Lhuillier itching about their state of mind.

“I like to put myself in it. What things are they talking about? What did they say? They can’t all be thinking the same thing,” he muses. The ambassador points to a monk who is craning his neck sideward. “And this guy,” he continues. “He wants to see…”


The Early Christianization of the Roman Empire, greets visitors in the new wing of the P.J. Lhuillier Museum. The addition houses experiential installations such as a mirrored maze hung with portraits of Mary.

FOR MORE, FOR ALL

The ambassador is in one of the wings of the P.J. Lhuillier Museum, his once private hobby that became a public endeavor in 2008. Located in a refurbished building across the main museum, the extension houses an overflow of religious art and artifacts from Europe and, more important, introduces interactive elements to visitors of what is arguably the largest private collection of Christian art in the country.

On the second floor, there is an audiovisual room that introduces the collection or screens educational films. Found behind The Early Christianization of the Roman Empire, a gigantic mural that rises from floor to ceiling, the Freedom Walk is a short corridor filled with passion images of Christ, including several Stations of the Cross, and a clear acrylic panel where you can scribble down your thoughts.

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Finally, tucked in the corner, The Womb is a place for reflection, literally, as the maze-like space, which is no bigger than the dressing room of a boutique, is fitted with mirrors on its walls and ceilings. Here, images of Mary are hung along the mirrors, creating a kaleidoscopic dialogue between you and the Virgin.

It’s as if Lhuillier has tapped into the psyche of the social media generation, giving them experiential installations to keep them tuned in to art. After all, he wants the museum to become a form of “new evangelization” that will strengthen the faith of its visitors, young or old, or, at the very least, serve as a window to Europe.

“I believe [the collection] is not for me. It’s for the people, so they can appreciate what is European art, what is religious art. That’s my purpose,” he says. “This is for the public to see.” The reaction has been positive. Young people, says curator Joseph Renta III, “are surprised to see such a collection like this in the country, because it’s like in being in Europe.”


Relics, the size of splinters, are grouped together in a pendant-like holder that comes with an unbroken Vatican seal.

Lhuillier’s vast collection of European art, mostly from the 15th to 18th centuries, includes over 1000 pieces of paintings, ivory pieces, and relics of different saints, blesseds, and martyrs. And these are just the pieces that are on display right now. There are more objects sleeping in storage, enough to create an extension of the extension in the future. The ambassador shares that there is, in fact, already a door—a gateway to a new wing—on one of the walls for this very purpose.

“For anyone who would come here, I hope they would appreciate [the works] one by one,” he says. Lhuillier points out that every piece is different, every artist has his interpretation, and every part of a painting tells a mini story. It is these nuances that draws him to sacred art. He motions to a painting of the Virgin Mary in procession. “You can go detail by detail with a piece like this,” he says. In the scene, set in Monte Cassino, Italy, black-robed Benedictine monks precede a chariot-borne Mary; the twins Saints Scholastica and Benedict, their patrons, stand like sentinels ahead; and the Holy Trinity float from an illuminated sky with Jesus presenting a crown to his mother. “What did the artist think when he was painting this? It’s really fascinating,” he remarks.

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Sculptures at the entrance of the main museum include this ‘cross-within-a-cross’ piece by Filipino artist Rene Robles.

SACRED ART

“It’s all feeling,” proclaims Lhuillier. That is how he determines what pieces to acquire for the museum. In s previous post, as the Philippine ambassador to Italy for 11 years, he forged friendly relations with many art dealers in Europe.

“Whenever they find something religious, they call me because they know that I like it,” he says. Sometimes, he even buys paintings that have been blackened by smoke and dust, trusting his feeling that there may be, as in one case, beautiful angels underneath the grime. But there are also “many pieces that I reject.”

For example, works that do not depict “a nice, nice face” like a murky painting of Saint Joseph and Jesus from the 1800s is deemed as “not really my favorite.” An adjacent painting of the same figures, this time dressed in the sorbet shades of melon and a coral red, is judged “beautiful, fantastic for me. You can look at it and make a story out of it.”


A collection of ivory crucifixes reveal the varied interpretations of Christ’s passion by artists from Italy and France.

The ambassador crosses the small courtyard toward the main museum. The structure was built in the style of a traditional bahay na bato, and its dimensions expressly made to fit another large painting, The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a 16th-century work from France that he bought in 1987. During construction, scaffolding fell onto the piece, damaging its lower half. It took two years to restore the painting and, even then, the signature of its artist was lost. Indeed, these precious works require careful maintenance. Pieces that need restoration are sent to Europe, because restoring them in the Philippines has proven to be more expensive. In the museum, there are humidifiers that suck out moisture in the air, preventing the development of mold and biological infestations and cracks. Also, lights do not emit much heat, while the temperature is kept at 18 degrees Celsius, the best for paintings. Still, the ambassador is dealing with a pressing problem on the second floor, where the intense heat from the sun has overwhelmed all these precautions. “We really have to solve the problem about the heat,” he says.

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MOST MAGNIFICENT

“The real museum is coming,” says the ambassador as he descends into the basement, where the museum’s most magnificent treasures are kept. The gold room houses icons (panels painted in tempera and gold with some dressed up with carved silver overlays), sacred vessels, vestments, and, most important, relics, while the ivory room holds a cache of ivory works, mostly crucifixes. A feeling of breathless awe may take over when viewing relics, especially when you find out that these are pieces of bones from holy saints. There is a relic of Saint Peter, the first pope of the Catholic Church, whose bones were found at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and later, after many tests and studies, confirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1968. “They had pieces of fine bone distributed to churches all over the world, and fortunately one of them is here in the museum,” says Renta.


Philippine ambassador to Portugal Philippe Lhuillier

Lhuillier picks up a small cross and slides open its face, revealing tiny squares of bones in separate compartments. “Many years ago, people would put this in their pockets. Some would wear them as necklaces,” he remarks. Here, you are likely to find a relic of your patron, too, as the museum carries over hundreds of relics of popular saints, including Saints Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and Therese of Avila. But most important in this collection is a relic from the True Cross of Jesus Christ. Lhuillier shows the unbroken seal of the Vatican found at the back of the case to show that it has never been opened.

The ivory pieces in the next room reveal a few secrets. A secular cross owned by a knight was not only for devotion, but also for protection as it was fitted with a dagger within its form. Lhuillier delights in showing another piece, an ivory chest owned by a mother superior that was found to have secret compartments. After sliding many panels on its sides, a key and keyhole are revealed. Personal possessions like an Italian prayer book, a wooden cross, and a pen are found within. But there is also a tweezer and, hidden beneath a flap of the box’s cover, a mirror. The nun may have been as fastidious about appearance as she was about prayer.

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The second floor of the main museum houses works that depict the Passion of Christ, including rare metal and wood pieces. Paintings in the museum are grouped according to salvation history and themes.

The ambassador turns to the crucifixes in the room. He is especially connected to these pieces because his fascination with religious art started with this Christian symbol. Lhuillier bought his first cross when he was young and then his acquisitions “got bigger and bigger and bigger” until he was able to fill up a room with all kinds of ivory crucifixes. Just as in paintings, he revels in the different interpretations made by the makers of these pieces.

“How did this guy see Jesus Christ die on the cross? It really fascinates me—every person, every piece,” he reflects. The French, for example, would include four nails, while Italians would create three nails only. Some crucifixes emphasize the sharp bones jutting out of Jesus, while others do not. “They are different because it depends on the person,” he says.

Passionate about his collection, Lhuillier obsesses, thinks, and asks, picking up pieces here and there, sharing another story, a new difference. Most of the time, however, he just stays still. Before he left for Portugal, the ambassador would visit his museum once a week and meditate. He’d look at one piece, pray before it, pray for the artist who made it, and move to another work. “I can stay here for hours. It’s a nice, nice, nice feeling,” he shares.

Lhuillier says he doesn’t get overwhelmed by these works—a collection that is vast and sacred and old and priceless—but he does find it difficult to describe why he’s so enamored with religious art. Standing among the many ivory forms of Jesus, all frozen in the passion that gave his people freedom, he says, “I just would really want people to see these, so that every person that sees them might improve their faith.”

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University Avenue, Ayala Alabang Village, Muntinlupa; Viewings by appointment only, 809.1835, 897.9194 local 227; pjlhuillierfoundation.com.

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About The Author
Clifford Olanday
Senior Fashion Editor, Esquire Philippines
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