I'm not sure if visitors of San Agustin Church in Intramuros Manila have ever wondered why there are Chinese lions guarding the church.
For the devotees of the San Agustin, the stone lions displayed at the main entrance of the church have been part of the landscape since the time of the Spanish Colonial Period.
I've always thought that the San Agustin lions were unique to the church. When I moved to Cebu years ago, I was surprised to discover that there were a couple of sculpted stone lions standing guard at the main doorway of the Basilica Minore del Santo Nino. They somehow looked like the ones found in San Agustin. But, this pair of lions in the Santo Nino church is smaller compared to the ones in San Agustin.
Seeing these guardian lions and wondering why they are found in churches piqued my curiosity. Why would Philippine Catholic churches have Chinese guardian lions on their properties? One reason would be that during the course of construction and renovation of these churches during the Spanish period, Chinese artisans were aplenty and they were hired to work on these projects. Thus, they've influenced the design and craftsmanship of these buildings.
Basilica Minore del Santo Nino
Dedicated students of Chinese art will be able to distinguish the dynastic style depending on how the Chinese stone lions looked like. Considering the time period when the Spanish were in the Philippines, the Ming and Qing dynasties were ruling in China. It would be great to have experts study these heritage statues and for us to know more about them.
The Spaniards also have an affinity with lions. A lion symbolizes the Spanish kingdom of Leon. One can see it on the Spanish coat of arms. Even the seal of the City of Manila has a sea-lion on it. The old mortuary chapel of La Loma Cemetery, St. Pancratius has a pair of conventional lions guarding its front door. The chapel was opened in 1884.
I've also found out that four other Spanish heritage churches have Chinese stone lions safeguarding them. The Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Paul in Vigan, Ilocos Sur has Chinese lions incorporated on its facade. Church historian, Regalado Trota Jose, also listed the Archdiocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Caysasay in Taal, Batangas as having Chinese lions on their premises as well. The church was established by the Augustinians during the 17th century.
St. Jerome Church in Morong, Rizal was founded by Franciscan friars, they used to have a pair of these guardian lions but in the early part of the 21st century, the female statue was stolen by looters who thought that there was buried treasure inside it. While the stone lions of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Cebu are painted black which covered the details of the statues.
A black-painted lion at the entrance of the Cebu Cathedral
Reading through the different resources that mentioned these lion statues, one would be able to observe that most of the church structures that exhibit these carved lions were either built or renovated during the late 18th century to early 19th century. In the records of San Augustin, piedra de china or granite stones were placed on the front courtyard in 1787. It could also be the time when their famous Chinese lions were carved. In a watercolor painting of the facade of the San Agustin Church made in 1858 by Carl Johann Karuth, the stone lions are clearly outlined.
I soon discovered that what I thought were ornamental statues are actually Chinese symbols of protection and prosperity. We commonly refer to them as Fu/Foo dogs but this term is actually incorrect. In Chinese culture, these lions are seen protecting imperial palaces, tombs, and even the houses of the elites and the wealthy.
San Agustin's Chinese Guardian Female Lion
Typically, a pair of lions would be made-up of a male depicted as clasping a ball and a female holding a cub. The male lion looks after the physical structure while the female takes care of the people living inside these buildings. One or both of the lions would have an open mouth to symbolize life.
What could be the basis on why both the Santo Nino Church and the Metropolitan Cathedral in Cebu have male Chinese lions in front of the main door instead of the traditional male-female pair?
In the case of the Basilica del Santo Nino, one of the security guards told me that there were a couple more lion statues guarding the stairway going to the convent. I have not seen the other pair and could not confirm if these could be the female lions. Could it be that at one point in the past, all four lions were located in one place?
Fascinating what historical tidbit one can unearth when visiting churches.