THE storied Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City, besides being a house of God, is an artist’s haven.
The Spanish Modern Style church, constructed by the Dominicans in 1954, was designed by José Ma. Zaragoza, the preeminent architect of the postwar era. Italian sculptor and expatriate Francesco Monti designed the giant bas-relief of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, the founder of the Order of Preachers.
Santo Domingo’s life is depicted in eight vibrant murals by National Artist Carlos “Botong” Francisco in the nave of the church, while Galo Ocampo’s stained-glass windows depict the 15 Stations of the Cross, and the Battle of Lepanto and La Naval de Manila.
The church also holds a secret vault that contains ivory icons and wooden images of saints dating back centuries.
The church’s centerpiece, however, is the shrine of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary of La Naval, sculpted in the 16th century by a Chinese artist, who later on converted to Christianity. It is said to be the oldest Marian icon in the country, and is much celebrated because her Oriental features make her a uniquely indigenous Virgin.
In Spanish, she is called the Nuestra Señora del Santísimo Rosario de La Naval de Manila; in Filipino: Mahal na Ina ng Santo Rosaryo ng La Naval de Manila; and locally as Santo Rosario or Our Lady of La Naval de Manila.
This image of the Blessed Virgin Mary is venerated in the Philippines because devotees believe that she interceded during the Protestant Dutch invasion in the Battles of La Naval de Manila in 1646, just as she ensured victory for allied Christian forces in the Battle of Lepanto of 1571 against the Islamic Ottoman Empire.
On October 4, 2012, coinciding with the enthronement rites for Our Lady of the Rosary of La Naval, the church was declared a “National Cultural Treasure of the Philippines” by the National Museum, citing that the church “possess[es] outstanding historical, cultural, artistic and/or scientific value, which is significant and important to the country.”
In his acceptance message for the honor, Fr. Gerard Francisco Timoner III, OP, prior provincial of the Dominican Province of the Philippines and vice chancellor of University of Santo Tomas, said: “Although the entire Santo Domingo Church and its liturgical objects are declared national cultural treasures, the image of Our Lady of the Rosary La Naval de Manila is the main treasure of this church.
“Our Lady makes us one people. We can pray the rosary in the privacy of our room, but it sure feels a lot better to pray it with others in this beautiful church, where we know and feel we belong. When we do so, we are not just in communion with everyone here present.
“For when we prayerfully gaze upon the image of Our Lady of the Rosary, we are looking at the very same image those soldiers beheld after the miraculous battle four centuries ago; the same image in whose presence the Dominican missionaries, including San Lorenzo Ruiz, prayed the Salve Regina before going to missions in China and Japan; the same image beheld and prayed to by countless devotees through the centuries. When we lovingly look at her beauty and grandeur, it is as though we are in communion, we become one with all those who looked at her with love and devotion through the centuries, who gazed at her the way we do now.”
So it was that when fine-jewelry designer Mila Imson saw the Our Lady of La Naval, she could only marvel at her magnificence. She was asked by her friend, socialite-philanthropist Elaine Villar, a Santo Domingo parishioner, to help clean and polish some of the church’s vast collection of artifacts.
An ardent devotee of the Virgin, Imson expressed her wish to donate something for the icon. “I’d be happy to design a crown,” she told the Dominican priests and Villar.
What she thought will only take three months of voluntary work stretched to a year, when her design became more and more intricate. The rostrillo in front of the Lady, the halo and the crowns of the Lady and Baby Jesus are all made of brass dipped in 24-karat gold and encrusted with Russian stones.
The Virgin’s new accoutrements were unveiled on October 9 at Santo Domingo Church in the “Solemn Enthronement of the Image of Our Lady of the Rosary La Naval de Manila.”
The image is usually kept at the left side of the altar all year, except during October, when she is perched on a platform and canopy behind the main altar. She will remain on this special place only until October 31.
Fr. Roland Mactal, OP, said of Imson’s gift to the church: “The Dominican community of Santo Domingo Church is grateful to Mila Imson for the new crown and halo of the image of Our Lady of the Rosary La Naval de Manila. The workmanship of the crown is called filigree, though new for the image, it matches with the whole impact of the well-loved Virgin. She has maintained her elegance and royalty, the qualities of the Queen of Our Lady of La Naval.”
For Imson, the expenses were the least of her concerns. It’s a conservative estimate that the art pieces cost about half a million pesos. “I’m a devotee of Mother Mary and the Madonna and Child since I was young. I was influenced by a pious aunt,” she said. “I want to help spread this devotion, and my donation is one way of doing so.”
In every collection that she does for KitSilver, her acessories store at Shangri-La Makati and at Greenbelt 5, and her fine-jewelry business, there are always pieces depicting the Mother and Child or Mother Mary.
“I always want to emphasize a mother’s love to her child no matter what. That’s how I am as a mother. Even if my children are married, I still want them to be close to me,” the humble Bulacan native said.