Envoys Amelia “Mellie” Ablaza and her husband Luis Jr. pose for a Facebook post in their living room in front of a curved glass table, atop which solemnly stands a monstrance.
A vessel for the Eucharistic host, the monstrance is traditionally only seen on special church occasions. This one, in silver, with exquisite rays, was used in religious processions. The son of the creator of the Ablaza, Luis Romero Ablaza III — Junjun to Friends — proudly made it a centerpiece alongside intricately carved silver candlesticks.
The Ablaza collection of religious art is impressive in size. It took three houses to display the pieces, and many are still in storage. The most important ones, which include travel souvenirs, can be found in the Ablaza Residence in Makati. The family heirlooms are in Quezon City. The almost life-size statues paraded in large processions before the pandemic are stored in the family estate of Cavite.
Mellie remembers that when the Makati House was built, she envisioned it as a home for the Santos. The residence currently houses a wide variety of ivory heads of the Holy Family placed on a Lalique table in the foyer and the Sto. Niño in a velvet robe on the stairwell with paintings and other pieces of sculpture in a second-floor gallery, reliefs lining the hallways, and an ancient altar in a prayer room.
The collection reveals not only the enthusiasm of the Ablaza for the collection, but also the dynamic mother-son. Mellie and Junjun were prone to making unplanned shopping expeditions during their travels before COVID.
When a vendor presented an object of interest – an icon or a religious accessory – mother and son invariably consulted with each other, although then and now, Mellie and Junjun had distinct motivations for collecting. While each piece is an expression of faith for Mellie, Junjun sees it as a keepsake or decorative art. Neither is of the research-oriented type; they are both fueled by pure passion.
The part of the current collection that we see today consists of pieces ranging in character and style from rough folk art and touristy kitsch to classic and finely crafted. These contrasts generate visual excitement. Santos are like puppets that come to life in Junjun’s hands thanks to his magical arrangements.
Altar panels and stripped santos that look like generic mannequins are juxtaposed against modern living room furniture.
On the second floor, the formality is suggested by the orderly display of the 10 iterations of the Sto. Niño. Each is individually placed in a niche and painstakingly framed in carved cattle bones with beef bone inlays made in India.
Against a hardwood wall of African wenge, each niche reinforces the uniqueness of the icon within. A Sto. Niño is clad in a robe with silver filigrees, another is clad as a centurion, and yet another is clad in hammered brass “softened” by an ostrich feather on the back.
Then there is the one who wears a pure gold crown and holds a gold orb. Perhaps the most valuable are the solid ivory icons, one of which is called Sto. Niño de la Familia Ablaza.
Junjun says the oldest is five feet tall, wears a halo of rays, draped around the waist, and holds a golden chalice. Installed in Cavite, it was a staple of past processions.
Another wall is dedicated to paintings of the Blessed Virgin purchased from a souvenir shop at the airport in Peru in the 1990s. Junjun remembers his mother and sister Czarina each wearing one of these paintings sewn onto their dresses. during the Philippine Centennial Parade in 1998.
Rare sculptures are on display alongside travel memorabilia, such as Russian folk art of saints and French tapestries of the Madonna and Child. Among the unusual finds are religious tapestries from Myanmar. A few years ago, Mellie, who is Honorary Consul of Guatemala (Luis Jr. is Honorary Consul of Zambia), was invited by the wife of the Myanmar Ambassador to participate in a cultural trip. The Filipino contingent stumbled upon a community of artisans who were making special embroidery with religious subjects. She bought several, fascinated that a Buddhist country could produce Christian-inspired crafts.
The Czarina’s bedroom has also become a repository of treasures, such as 13 vignettes of Christ, of the holy family in agony in the garden. The works are encrusted with tiny precious stones.
Another corridor is lined with reliefs and woodcarvings from the Sto. Niño and the Blessed Virgin, which Junjun bought from a store in Boracay.
Her personal favorite is a mother and child relief made from exotic hardwood. He doesn’t know his origin, but says he was drawn to the manual labor and the peaceful vibe it exudes.
The prayer hall can overwhelm any visitor with the cornucopia of santos and candlesticks meticulously grouped on tables and in strategic corners for a tasteful overall composition.
Naturally, the focal point is the antique silver altar with a carved tabernacle from Sariaya, Quezon and an antique crucifix.
If Ablaza House were a gallery, Mellie would be its patron and Junjun the curator.
The designer cultivated his taste for religious art with his mother. He accompanied her to antique shops and flea markets where he could not help noticing that she was instinctively shopping.
He started collecting on his own when he moved into a condo in Greenhills in the late 1980s. “I had altar facades, life-size statues of Saint Joseph and Our Lady of Fatima, and Sto. Niños, ”he recalls. “My house looked like a chapel.
Only a few months ago, he and his mother acquired a 4 inch 18k gold crown for one of the Sto. Niños.
Mellie also donated her collection of gold crosses, which Junjun, who studied at the Gemological Institute of America, turned into trendy curvy earrings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets.
Vibe more than visual
Mellie has a heirloom santo collection that reflects her roots. She grew up in an environment of devotion with her praying mother and grandmother, who implored the miraculous intervention of the Santos, certain that God would listen to her.
The more the vibe of a religious work of art resonates with her, says Mellie, the more attractive she finds it. “The visual is secondary; it is the energy that touches my heart. I pray a lot, that is why I am willing to collect religious icons and paintings.
Like her mother and grandmother before her, she has faith in the powers of saints and religious objects as the fruit of their connection with God. “I feel like they’re always with me, guiding me by letting me know what’s good and what isn’t,” she says.
Mellie is fascinated by the Sto. Especially the statues of Niño. She feels that each evokes their own quality or power. One of his first personal acquisitions in the early 1970s was a pure ivory Sto. Niño, who captivated her with the way he radiated purity.
Both Sto. Devotees of Niño, she and her husband have served as Hermano and Hermana mayors of the Congregacion del Nombre Santissimo del Niño Jesus processions for 30 consecutive years. They had their own carroza built for this great event which was held in January.
Mellie cites the statue of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal – also known as Our Lady of Graces – as another of her favorites as it dominates the prayer hall. The recorded feast day of this delineation of the Blessed Virgin is November 27, Mellie’s birthday. On November 27, 1830, Mary is said to have appeared for the second time to a novice of the French convent, now St. Catherine Laboure, showing her a medal which “would pour out abundant graces on whoever would wear it with confidence.”
More recently, a study that linked religiosity to happiness found that people who are actively engaged in religious practices are more satisfied and optimistic than others, and more likely to find purpose in life.
Even in this pandemic, as they halted acquisitions, the Ablazas’ collection of religious art continues to be meticulously cared for.
Mellie said looking at her Sto. Niños makes her look younger than her 80s. “Their faces are the reason I smile a lot and stay discharged. “—FIN CONTRIBUTED