GUAGUA, Pampanga — Religious craftsmen, known locally as “santeros” and “imagineros,” have been helping express the Roman Catholic faith in visual form for centuries.
Their “retablos,” “pasos,” “santos” and altar tables grace churches, processions and family altars, making these artisans the equivalent of silent, unseen catechists.
Willy Layug stands out in this iconic league of craftsmen, many of whom operate in Paete, Laguna and the Betis district in Guagua, Pampanga.
He was decorated with the title Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice in 2016 for his works and service to the church, particularly his “Ecce homo,” or realistic sculptures on the passion and life of Jesus Christ.
“Catechism in art” was how Layug described his passion when reached by telephone on Monday in Spain where he is spending his annual Lenten pilgrimage.
Layug’s retablos (multilevel alcoves behind a church’s main altar) have been reputed for lending a “Vatican-like” atmosphere to the St. John Cathedral in Dagupan City and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Concepcion in Urdaneta City in Pangasinan; the St. Joseph Cathedral of San Jose City in Nueva Ecija; and the San Sebastian Cathedral of Bacolod City in Negros Occidental.
His retablos also grace the Sto. Niño Parish Church in Tondo, Manila, and the St. Peter de Verona Church in Hermosa, Bataan.
“The Catholic hierarchy of the Philippines holds him in high esteem for his exceptional talents and sculpture blended with humility of disposition,” said Archbishop Socrates Villegas, former president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.
“For me the outstanding quality of his sacred sculptures and retablos is their ability to move the people to prayer, to reach out to the divine, to that which can bring them close to God,” Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Manila archbishop, said in comments included in a book on Layug’s works that was edited by Laya Boquiren-Gonzales.
Layug’s “trompe l’oeil,” was called a “huge procession piece featuring Jesus exhausted with translucent red blood oozing from the forehead, the distended bluish veins on his arms and hands, and the glistening tears dropping from his pleading eyes staring straight to the viewer overburdened by the weight of the cross,” said Eric Zerrudo, director of the University of Sto. Tomas Graduate School’s Center for Conservation of Cultural Property and Environment in the Tropics.
While wood carving skills has brought him acclaim, Layug also applies his talent in estofado, a painting style that makes garments appear real, and “encarna,” which helps create the illusion of layers of flesh.
These techniques were evident in Layug’s 5-foot tall “Our Lady of Hope” that is enshrined at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lord’s Transfiguration at Palo, Leyte.
The statue was one of the central pieces displayed in a Mass held for victims of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” during the 2015 visit of Pope Francis.
At the Mass celebrated by the Pope at the Quirino Grandstand, Layug produced a 10-foot cross with the figure of Christ displaying anguish and pain.
Layug has incorporated Filipino elements in some of his creations — bamboo or banana plant images and the brown skin tone in the high relief of San Lorenzo Ruiz and San Pedro Calungsod, which he installed at the Pontificio Collegio Filippino in Rome in 2012.
Pilgrims commemorating Holy Week will find Layug everywhere.
Layug carved the heavy door and “relleves” depicting the Stations of the Cross at the Boac Cathedral in Marinduque, which were commissioned by the late Gov. Carmencita Ongsiako Reyes.
He sculpted the El Encuentro tableau showing a Holy Week paso (carriage) for Agoo town in La Union at the behest of former Tourism secretary Jose Aspiras. Layug also made the Beso de Judas for Agoo.
Layug carved the neo-Gothic altar for the Nuestra Señora de la Naval de Manila inside the Sto. Domingo Church and Mary Queen of Peace statue at the Edsa Shrine on Ortigas Avenue.
He decorated the altar of Saints Peter and John Parish in Potrero, Malabon, and worked on the altar, side altar and chandeliers of the Sto. Niño de Tondo Parochial Church a year before the 1995 visit of St. John Paul II.
His sculptures are housed in the Espiritu Santo Parish in Tayuman, Tondo, and the Santa Clara de Montefalco Parish in Pasay City, the St. Peter Metropolitan Cathedral in Tuguegarao City and the Shrine of the Five Wounds of our Lord Jesus Christ in Las Piñas City.
His 12-foot tall Christ statue stands in front of the Christ the King Parish Church in Green Meadows, Cubao, Quezon City.