The spot was familiar but mostly for the wrong reasons. Manila commuters would often be seen quickening their pace as they navigated the broken pavement littered with trash and only the sturdiest of greens.
On a typical day, it held an assortment of urban cast-offs: the homeless, the ambulant vendor, and the occasional street drunk. Every once in a while, a brave tourist would linger to photograph the impressively restored National Museum of the Philippines across the street. Hardly anyone noticed the gem of a sculpture hidden within.
That spot, however, was not completely forgotten. In 2017, the Intramuros Administration reasserted it ownership over the area. IA partnered with the National Museum to undertake a restoration project that would not only clean and improve the site for pedestrians, but also to give three national heroes, a stunning sculpture, and its artist the honor and respect they deserve.
With a modest budget of P15 million, the herculean effort to improve the Liwasang Gomburza was launched in August 2018.
Over a year later, the result was anything but modest. The expanse of the plaza could be fully appreciated with a simple and clean design meant to remove all the distractions and highlight Solomon Saprid’s Gomburza. The sculpture of the three heroes—Fr. Mariano Gomez, Fr. Jose Burgos, and Fr. Jacinto Zamora—is at the center of a low fountain and set elegantly against the green field and historic walls of Intramuros.
The transformation was dramatic. Commuters and tourists alike now have a safe and well-illuminated space to walk on. And while doing so, they would be in the perfect position to appreciate the Spanish-era fortification of Intramuros, the Neo-classical architecture of the National Museum, and the artistry of Saprid.
The Gomburza Monument is considered among Saprid’s most important accomplishments. The martyrdom of the three priests was a watershed moment in Philippine history.
A native of Imus, Cavite, Solomon Saprid’s artistic genius first gained notice in the 1970s. He worked with seemingly disjointed scraps of metal to fashion some of the most dynamic sculptures that are simultaneously harsh in construction but delicate in composition. He became more known for his interpretation of Filipino mythical creatures, particularly the tikbalang—a giant being with the head and hooves of a horse and a powerful, human-like body.
“A Saprid sculpture has a kinetic quality to it…a sense of arrested action,” National Artist Alfredo Roces once wrote about him. “The effect is one towards which the artist strives. He refers to it as ‘frozen motion.’ I’m sure you experienced it as you viewed his work.”
A number of his significant works can be found in some of the world’s most important institutions: “ASEAN Birds” in Bangkok, a mural in Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation Building, the “Bull Cancer” fountain at the Triumph International in Germany, “Statue of Christ” at the Indiana University Museum, and a copper statue for the Australian Biennale in Sydney presently in the collection of Westinghouse in Philadelphia to name a few.
In the Philippines, however, the Gomburza Monument is considered among his most important accomplishments. The martyrdom of the three priests was a watershed moment in Philippine history.
The three men fought for equal treatment among priests in a system that favored Spanish friars lopsidedly over locals. They were executed at Bagumbayan on Feb.17, 1872 on false charges of treason and sedition. Their brutal deaths by garrote lit the flame of nationalism. National Hero Jose Rizal dedicated his second novel, El Filibusterismo, to the three martyrs. His two novels inspired the Philippine Revolution leading to the declaration of independence in 1898.
Commissioned in the ‘70s to honor the three martyr priests, Saprid’s study for the Gomburza Monument stood out for having the “greatest sculptural potential.” It was inaugurated at the front of the Manila Cathedral by then President Ferdinand Marcos in January 17, 1972.
The poverty of the city left no area untouched by deterioration. The sculpture was vandalized, the pool used for bathing and washing clothes, and the entire area was swallowed by urban decay.
“As a Filipino, I gave the most of my talent to the making of that statue because I sincerely believe in what the martyr priests died for,” the sculptor said of his masterpiece. “Their death actually started the nationalist movement in the Philippines, and what Filipino, artist or not, would not rise to such clarion call as theirs?”
There was a period in the ‘80s when a confusing “restoration” initiative in Intramuros led to the piece being moved to Plaza Roma after being replaced by a sculpture of King Carlos IV. The latter was seen as an inferior figure given that the historical figure was an incompetent ruler unworthy of acclaim. Having the statue of the heroes of the revolution replaced by a colonial master was viewed as an insult by the public. At some point there was even a suggestion to move the piece to Cavite—site of the Cavite Mutiny that eventually led to the three men’s execution.
Eventually, it was moved to its present site in proximity to the Manila City Hall, Intramuros, Rizal Park, and across the National Museum, along a road that was named after Fr. Jose Burgos. Architect Jose Ramon Faustmann prepared the move by constructing a 20x20-meter pool where the sculpture would arise from the center.
Unfortunately, urban decline set in. The poverty of the city left no area untouched by deterioration. The sculpture was vandalized, the pool used for bathing and washing clothes, and the entire area was swallowed by urban decay.
The clarification of the jurisdiction of the area, as well as the partnership between the Intramuros Administration and the National Museum, led to a true restoration of the site. The project was completed just before the pandemic began and the lockdown declared. Thus, not as many people have had the chance to visit and see the improvements.
But now, Filipinos have been given another opportunity to appreciate both the historical and artistic significance of the Gomburza Monument.
On Feb. 17, 2021, Saprid’s Gomburza was included in the elite list of National Monuments by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. As part of the commemoration of the 150th year of the martyrdom of Frs. Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora, a historical marker was unveiled, and the new designation was announced.
“The National Museum’s primary concern also was to restore proper respect and appreciation due to this monument not only for what it represents but for the outstanding landmark of modernist Philippine art that it is one of the greatest pubic works of a major figure in the visual arts, and especially in sculpture, Solomon Saprid,” explained National Museum director Jeremy Barnes.
In naming the piece a National Monument—only the seventh to be given that honor— Barnes believes that it will be “justly cherished and admired by all Filipinos.”
Banner photo from the National Museum of the Philippines’ Facebook page