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San Sebastian Church: Gothic Architecture

Angelo is an active church volunteer and is fascinated by church architecture, especially old architectural churches in the Philippines.

Façade of San Sebastian Church (Photo by the author)

Façade of San Sebastian Church (Photo by the author)

The Basilica Menor de San Sebastian, or simply, San Sebastian Church is the only church made entirely of steel.

It is located in Quiapo, within the City of Manila. It is currently under the management of the Order of the Augustinian Recollects, or simply known as the "Recolectos" who happen to manage a school adjacent to the church, the San Sebastian College-Recolectos.

Its present structure was completed in 1891, and the purpose of this church being constructed out of steel is to the structure to be able to withstand fires and earthquakes.


History

The First Structure was built in 1621 using wood, with the material being locally produced in the country. But it was destroyed by a fire in 1651.

It was rebuilt several times but was destroyed by multiple incidents of fire and earthquakes that happened in 1859, in 1863, and in 1880.

It was in the 1880's when Engineer Genaro Palacios was commissioned to design a structure with the main purpose of making it resistant to fires and earthquakes. He hired a team of experts from seven different countries to help him perfect the design.

The present structure of San Sebastian Church under construction in the 1880's (Photo credit: Google)

The present structure of San Sebastian Church under construction in the 1880's (Photo credit: Google)

The final result was astonishing, they had come up with the idea that the church would be built using steel. It ended up being a disaster-resistant structure built entirely of steel, and they completed the project in 1891.

These are the members of the design and construction team:

  • Genaro Palacios (Spain) - Design / Team Leader
  • Frederick Henry Reade Sawyer (Great Britain) - Foreman
  • Societe Anonyme de Travaux Publics (Belgium) - General Contractor
  • Henri Oidtmann (Germany) - Stained Glass Makers
  • Magin Pers (France) - Foundations
  • Quintin (China) - Floorings
  • Academia de Dibujo, Pintura y Grabado (Philippines) - Interior Finishers
San Sebastian Church in 1945 (Photo credit: Skyscrapercity.com)

San Sebastian Church in 1945 (Photo credit: Skyscrapercity.com)

The prefabricated steel sections were manufactured and imported from Binche, Belgium, and all the interiors were hand-painted in order to look like stone.

The Filipinos had their contribution by designing and building the interior finishings of the church. how cool is that?

On June 24, 1890, it was raised to the status of Minor Basilica by Pope Leo XII and in 1891, upon its completion, it was consecrated by Bernardino Nozaleda y Villa, OP, the then Archbishop of Manila.


Gothic Architecture

San Sebastian Church is styled in Neo-Gothic Architecture.

Gothic Architecture is an architectural style that originated in 12th-century France and flourished between High and Late Middle Ages, which occurred between the 12th century and the 16th century.

It evolved from the Romanesque style of architecture but the structures were modified to be perceived as tall, stronger, and complex.

Architectural features found in a Gothic Church (Illustration by the author)

Architectural features found in a Gothic Church (Illustration by the author)

It prominently features stained glass windows and rose windows, which were extensively used, pointed arches and pinnacles around the structure.

The pinnacle serves as a crown of a buttress as both ornamental and structural, and its appearance is like a small spire.

The pinnacles are just some of the structures distinctive features as the entirety of Gothic architecture features pointed architectural features such as the stained glass windows, arches, and the pinnacles.

Another of its features is the flying buttresses which serve an important purpose, to further strengthen the structure and to support the walls from the outside.

Ribbed vaults on the ceiling of San Sebastian Church (Photo by the author)

Ribbed vaults on the ceiling of San Sebastian Church (Photo by the author)

Gothic buildings prominently feature ribbed vaults at the ceilings, this is also one way to determine that this building is styled in Gothic architecture, and also to distinguish this type of architecture from the others.

The purpose of having ribbed vaults is to give the building flexibility in roof and wall engineering.

I you look closely, these feature pointed arches which are noticeable in Gothic buildings (Photo by the author)

I you look closely, these feature pointed arches which are noticeable in Gothic buildings (Photo by the author)

Another architectural feature that is found in Gothic buildings is the pointed arch, known as "ogive", which is actually one of a few main characteristics of Gothic architecture that distinguish it from the others.

The pointed arch is also prominent on the stained glass windows. So if you go visit any building that is styled in Gothic architecture, look closely at the shape of the stained glass windows, it is a unique feature as it makes it more distinguishable.

Pointed arch-shaped stained glass window (Photo by the author)

Pointed arch-shaped stained glass window (Photo by the author)

Also, check out the details that were inscribed on the stained glass windows as these may be abstract or do tell stories about the life of a saint or stories from the Bible. It is better to study how intricate the designs a.k.a. the placements of the colored glass panels to form the final image.

For sure, you'll be amazed by how incredible the craftsmanship of the artists are, that they who designed each of the stained glass and joined them together to create this artwork.

Clustered columns inside San Sebastian Church (Photo by the author)

Clustered columns inside San Sebastian Church (Photo by the author)

Another interesting feature of this architectural style is the clustered columns, or compound columns which are mostly connected to the ribbed vaults of the building.

A clustered column is made up of several different columns which are grouped together and are physically connected to form a single column, they are joined together so that they act as a single structural element.


Restoration and Conservation Efforts

Today, nearly 2 centuries after it was built, the present structure is currently facing deterioration especially rusting steel material, hundreds of leaks, and corrosion brought by sea breezes from nearby Manila Bay.

So to maintain the structural integrity, the church is currently undergoing repairs and restoration works. And the project is receiving contributions by several organizations.

Altar section of San Sebastian Church (Photo by the author)

Altar section of San Sebastian Church (Photo by the author)

To help facilitate in the restoration and conservation works, a non-profit organization was formed, it is known as "San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation Inc."

The team involved is tasked to raise awareness to save the structure from crumbling by means of tours, whether by schools, parishes, or just small groups, and through surveying of the damages.

Other tasks of the team include raising funds for the success of the project, and coming up with the appropriate solutions on how to repair those damages and further strengthen them, and prevent deterioration in the coming years.

Rose window of San Sebastian Church (Photo by the author)

Rose window of San Sebastian Church (Photo by the author)

The Recollect community has likewise expended funds for the church's maintenance and restoration. It means that they are the ones leading the restoration project since they are the ones who manage the institution, which is the church itself and its adjacent school.


How Can We Help?

Today, San Sebastian Church is facing a threat that tends to obstruct the heritage landmark's historical impact to the community, and its structural integrity. A 31-story condominium is currently under construction behind the church, and it would act like a "photobomber" to obscure the tourists' view of the majestic church.

This condominium will be called "University Home Recto".

When completed, it would have hurtful effects on San Sebastian Church. One of which is destroying the chances of it being named a "UNESCO World Heritage Site", and it might decrease the number of tourists that intend to admire the majestic beauty of this centuries-old church.

For more information on this, please read article:

Why we need to save the San Sebastian Church, according to heritage conservationists


Now going back to the conservation and restoration efforts of the church. We can organize a tour or a pilgrimage to this church to help us learn more about the history and how we can help in saving one of our heritage churches.

We can also help in the fund-raising projects to aid in the cost of work, we can also donate cash as well, no matter how big or how small the amount is, it would go a long way, and the foundation will thank you for that.

Lastly, we Filipinos should unite to save San Sebastian Basilica from deterioration due to the lack of funds and maintenance. After all, we might only be able to appreciate its beauty and cultural impact when it's already gone or when it's already in ruins.

We should never let that happen, let us make our contributions now before it's too late. Let us help SAVE SAN SEBASTIAN BASILICA.




For more information, and to help in the conservation efforts,

visit the website: San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation Inc.

Or its official Facebook Page: San Sebastian Basilica Conservation and Development Foundation, Inc.

San Sebastian Church is located at: Pasaje del Carmen St, Quiapo, Manila, 1001 Metro Manila.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on March 19, 2021:

This is an interesting, well-written and well-illustrated article.

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