My friend, Rebecca Agoncillo, was well into the late second half of a wonderful, fulfilling, independent and charmed life when she sprang a surprise on me – she got engaged! Another shock followed. “For my wedding gift, I want a face of Christ carved by the master artists at Talleres de Maximo Vicente, ” she cajoled.
I didn’t have the heart (nor the largesse!) to disappoint her so with her dream wedding gift, I tucked a piece of my pained humor coupled with a word of warning: “Every inch of this image chewed a big chunk out of my retirement bourse so you’d better stay put in this marriage!” It was worth it. My “Jill-come-lately” friend will likely be one of the last few and proud owners of a Maximo Vicente original.
Having been spooked by my own doom-and-gloom prediction, I quickly asked my former classmate, Meldy (Hernandez) Gabriel-Merchan, if the story could be told of the only remaining, authentic taller in the Philippines, makers of religious images, holy crosses and hand-embroidered garments and vestments and builders of altars, church pews and silver carrozas, by the second generation and the heirs of the master craftsman himself (Maximo Vicente, Sr.), her uncle Maximo Vicente Jr. and her aunt, Soledad Hernandez-Vicente. The response came back quickly.
The first thing that struck me about Talleres de Maximo Vicente was how its trade sign looked so outdated among the others next to it in a discreet, shady section of Malate, Ermita; it was the only one written in Spanish. The shop was quiet like a monastery, broken only by the sound of an oscillating floor fan dispersing warm, recycled air. It resembled a curio shop without the fancy trinkets, only images in wood with soft, pensive and gentle features. Looking around, more statues lined each wall that served as samples of the fine craftsmanship that has differentiated the shop from any other similar shops over the past nine decades. Some of the sculptures have actually acquired a patina of age just by being there. One life size statue of the Virgin of the Assumption, however, was genuinely old. The owners kept it mainly for sentimental reasons; it was lovingly carved by the patriarch himself, Maximo L. Vicente, Sr. in 1908, the same year that the shop first opened for business.
Soledad Hernandez-Vicente (“Call me Tita Sol”) reclined in her lounge chair while Maximo Vicente Jr. or Tito Max, sat nearby and smiled as he stirred old memories. He began, “When Manila was surrounded by lush and wild rain forests, my father, Maximo, Sr., spent his childhood in Bulacan with an uncle who was a scout ranger.” (I didn’t know such a profession even existed in the Philippines). It was natural for the young Maximo to feel an affinity to plants and trees that grew abundantly in their extended backyard. He decided to try his hand at making something out of wood and for some reason, he chose a crucifix. The parish priest was so impressed by the finished product that he offered to buy it with a promise to order more. That inspired Maximo Sr. to return to Manila, confident that he finally found his true calling. He set up Talleres de Maximo Vicente and invited his half siblings, the Santiago brothers Luciano, Felix, Rafael, Dionisio and Roberto, to be his associates. It proved to be a wise and profitable venture.
“During the good old days,” Tito Max reminisced, “The shop was a bee hive of activities. We were chiseling and carving wood almost around the clock to meet job orders. The most popular wood used was the baticulin because it was fine-grained, resistant to anay or termites and it didn’t easily crack, chip or break.” They also got lots of orders for images carved from ivory and marble. (Today, aside from the traditional medium, fiberglass has also been used). Tito Max continued, “Because of my father’s exacting standards, practically every major church in Manila had at least one or two images bearing the hallmark of Talleres. My profession as an architect came in handy, too, as I was asked to design and build churches and altars.”
Tita Sol continued, “We employed full-time wood carvers, carpenters and embroiderers or bordaderas who were kept very, very busy.” Tita Sol’s expertise in the fine art of needlepoint and embroidery proved to be an ideal tandem to her husband’s profession. She not only took charge of the day-to-day management but split her time between buying or scouting for the material and accessories and teaching bordaderas how to embroider and set a high standard of quality for themselves – what she called their “personal best.” Only the finest of material were used for these vestments: precious gems, gold thread, gold crowns, cut glass, crystals and the smoothest, most exquisite velvet, satin, silk and laces from exclusive houses of accessories in Europe and Asia. It was not unusual, in fact, to have clients who changed the vestments of their images to correspond to the various church feasts and family anniversaries.
Making a “curio” tour of some of the old and exclusive homes in Metro Manila, I found that there was always a Talleres opus gazing down at me. However, a commissioned statue doesn’t come cheap. Talleres raised the art of carving wood to the no compromise, no short cuts, meticulously European artisan level. It takes anywhere from three to twelve months or longer to complete one job order with no two images ever the same. It was therefore easy to understand why each statue has been delicately and lovingly passed on from one generation to the next. You get an heirloom from the very start. If the price, however, is beyond the reach of one’s household budget, one can still enjoy their many works by visiting some of the magnificent churches or places of worship around Manila and provincial cities. Among them: The Santuario de San Antonio Church in Forbes Park, Makati, The Church of Mount Carmel in Broadway, New Manila (designed, built and supervised by Tito Max), the Santo Niño image found at the San Beda Chapel in Mendiola, Manila (built by Max Sr. at a princely compensation of P40), the chapel and the statues found at the Assumption Convent in San Lorenzo Village, Makati, the Alfonso de Liguori Church in Magallanes Village, South Superhighway, as well as those found at the Cathedral of Lipa City, Batangas, and many more.
For Tito Max, what started out as a sterling legacy from his father blossomed into a lifetime commitment of keeping religious art alive and available. Their strong affiliation to the church made it so.
Having made a name in this highly specialized trade, it was interesting to read through several of the published interviews and pictorials on some of the shop’s famous clients from the caviar and champagne circle. Former first lady, Madame Imelda Marcos either owned a Maximo Vicente or received them as gifts. When the much-venerated image of the Infant Jesus of Tondo was stolen in the early1970’s, Mrs. Marcos immediately brought back the recovered pieces to Talleres for restoration. She knew that she was dealing with the best. Another client (a government official convicted of assault and abduction) maintained a devotion to the Virgin Mother. He commissioned three of his favorite saints from Talleres and had them delivered to his prison cell.
What about those religious groups who criticize and don’t believe in keeping statues and other holy images? Tito Max has a gentle reminder, “Our images are not icons or idols to replace God. They are meant to inspire the devotees to keep their faith strong and steadfast.”
Sadly, it is not business as usual for Talleres. Wooden, hand-carved images are not that much sought after anymore. There are plenty of santos made out of wood, resin or plaster that have been mass-produced by small-to-medium-sized factories, therefore cheaper and affordable. There is also the alarming issue of the dwindling supply of the wood baticulin. Add to this the ironic but amusing observation that Tita Sol made: “Our statues were so well-made that they outlive the original owners. We therefore don’t get repeat orders from the same clan! The younger ones merely come back to the shop to have their inherited statues cleaned, repaired or restored.”
Despite these setbacks, this gentle and retiring couple is not discouraged. They have made the difficult choice of staying open, for now. Tito Max remarked, “Even if business is soft, as long as there is that far-fetched desire for a hand-carved image, we will be here to make it.”
But for how long? “We honestly don’t know. My wife and I are way past 40 karats, you know!”
Are we seeing the sunset days of the only remaining, honest-to-goodness taller in the Philippines? Secretly, I made a wish: May there be more unexpected and happy surprises like what my bosom friend got herself into. Maybe that would dispel the worry and prove me wrong.
Originally published by Philippine Star in 2001
Note: Talleres de Maximo Vicente designed and built the beautiful altars, the pulpit and and the pews of Santuario de San Antonio, including some of the holy images in it. Tito Max and Tita Sol have completely retired after closing Talleres in the second decade of the new millenium.