A glimpse into heaven: photographing the most beautiful church paintings in the Philippines

Flickr/Project Kisame


On October 15, 2013, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake rocked parts of Visayas and Mindanao, damaging Spanish-era colonial churches in Bohol and Cebu. Joel Aldor, who has been documenting heritage sites through Project Kisame since 2008, almost lost heart when he saw the damage wrought by the catastrophe.

But the disaster only made him realize the importance of the preservation, through images, of our country’s cultural heritage sites.

Aldor has recently been awarded by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCAA) a cash grant for the documentation of several historical churches. Along with a team of professionals from the fields of art, technology, and heritage conservation, Aldor has been travelling around the Philippines for what could be the most ambitious heritage documentation project to date.

Project Kisame’s official public launch will be held this coming September 22 at Intamuros, Manila. Pacifiqa talked to Joel Ardor, the man behind Project Kisame.


Basilica Minore de San Lorenzo Ruiz de Manila, Binondo, Manila


Why did you start Project Kisame?

I have been documenting and writing about church ceiling art since 2010 on a serendipitous trip to Bohol, when I went around the island doing heritage documentation work.  I realized how beautiful and majestic our ceiling artworks are, and at the same time, I recognized their dire state of preservation. It would be a pity if no one would write extensively about these heritage artworks, so I took the initiative to start this project since last year.


Tell us a little about yourselves. Who comprises the team? What kind of backgrounds do you have?

The core team behind Project Kisame is a group of impassioned people, composed of architects, archivists, art specialists, photographers, graphics artists, paint analysts, clergymen and other professionals with the same advocacy to promote and preserve these majestic ceiling paintings.


San Juan Bautista Parish Church, Jimenez, Misamis Occidental


How many volunteers have joined you since 2013?

I was fortunate enough to collaborate with a number of people who worked with me on a volunteer basis in the early days of Project Kisame, because they believed in this project. These volunteers helped me get up from the ground and make this project soar. As of the moment, the members of our core team were actually getting compensation for professional work, through the NCAA. We do have a big group of followers through, through our Project Kisame Facebook page, and we hope to come up with future activities soon where we will need volunteers to work with us.


Since Project Kisame’s inception, how many church paintings have you documented?

We just finished implementing a comprehensive documentation project on the ceiling paintings of 15 identified churches in Cebu, Bohol and Siquijor this year, with the help of the NCCA Competitive Grants Program.

Nuestra Señora de los Angeles Parish Church, Atimonan, Quezon


How are things coming along after the Bohol earthquake?

The recovery and rehabilitation phase is already in full swing. Many of the historic churches in Bohol and Cebu are already being rehabilitated by government agencies and the clergy. It may take about 10 years, however, to fully restore some of them.


In an interview with GMA News Online, you said that you also intend to restore less known churches in Bohol, not just the heritage sites. Do you also plan to do this in other parts of the Philippines?

We also have to place equal importance on other historic heritage sites that are lesser known in the tourist map of places around Bohol and other parts of the Philippines, so yes, doing restoration work for them could be a plan.  

But let me make this clear: I am NOT a specialized restoration/conservation architect, so I am not the right person to singlehandedly do such restoration work. I am actually an artist and a project manager, with extensive knowledge on heritage documentation. My expertise, then, is to conceptualize and manage heritage projects where we work with qualified professionals to do the actual job of conservation and restoration.


Nuestra Señora de la Santissimo Rosario Parish Church, Lila, Bohol


For you, what is the significance of church paintings and heritage sites? What do they stand for in our society?

Ceiling paintings are part and parcel of the fabric of our deeply religious Filipino culture. These artworks are manifestations of Filipino artistry and ingenuity, and they mirror the kind of faith that we have. In the same token, our built heritage is a manifestation of our culture and identity as Filipinos. Take these built heritage away from us, and our culture and identity are taken away as well.


Do you think our society values heritage sites?

In my opinion, the recent decades have shown how we have taken our cultural heritage for granted. We have seen several heritage sites being demolished, renovated, remodeled and reconstructed without preserving its old architectural details that remind you of the past, and effectively taking away the past and its historicity. In the past few years, however, heritage conservation has taken root, at least in the grassroots level, and has started to permeate the collective consciousness of the people, especially with the locals. With proper education, cooperation and understanding, our society can exhibit a sense of valuation and appreciation for our built heritage.


Santiago el Mayor Parish Church, Dapitan City, Zamboanga del Norte


How have the communities received your work thus far?

The parishes, diocesan commissions and local heritage groups have been very supportive of us so far. They were able to understand the value of the work we’re doing for them, and we want to assist them in ensuring a longer state of preservation for these ceiling paintings. The national agencies like NCCA and National Museum have also shown support as well, and the general public who have known our project through our social media efforts were keen in knowing how our output will turn out to be.


Name 5 of your most favorite ceiling paintings.

There’s actually a good number of them, mostly found in the Visayas. I like the Raymundo Francia paintings in Sibonga, Cebu, as well as the paintings found in the Bohol churches of Jagna, Anda and Panglao. The ceiling paintings of Betis in Pampanga are really magnificent for its well-done execution of the trompe l’oeil technique.


Santiago Apostol Parish Church, Brgy. Betis, Guagua, Pampanga


Tell us about an unforgettable experience while on the job.

There’s just too many memories to recall, and a lot of them were very pleasant. There would also be days where things could get frustrating and that our team morale gets affected. Of course, there would be days like that, just like any other project would. But I’d say the most unforgettable part of our work while in Bohol was when we presented our work to Gov. Edgar Chatto at the Governor’s Mansion in Tagbilaran City back in July. We saw how the Governor was happy with the work that we did, and that was one of those rare times when we felt totally proud of ourselves.


Why does Project Kisame put such a bold emphasis on documentation?

Because documentation should ALWAYS be the first step towards restoration and conservation efforts for our cultural heritage. Through a good documentation work done by a qualified professional, we understand its original materials, mode of construction and causes of deterioration, and what proper method could be done using internationally-accepted restoration techniques suited in a tropical country like ours. All too often, heritage sites undergo “restoration projects” without proper consultation and guidance with the experts, and therefore the results would usually be worse than prior to the restoration. So you can see how I can’t stress this enough.


Santa Monica Parish Church, Angat, Bulacan


One of the themes cited in your page is “bridging information technology and heritage conservation.” How is technology helping your restoration efforts?

I came from the IT industry, with a background on computers and information technology. We understand that there’s available technology today to be used for more detailed documentation works such as our project, and therefore we use information technology as the forefront in our documentation efforts. We use 3D high-definition laser scanning to get a very accurate architectural survey of the ceiling of the churches, plus special 3D modeling software and techniques in post-processing high-definition photos, and we use cloud storage to do redundant backups.

All the digital output are placed under Creative Commons licensing, ensuring that there’s greater flexibility for people to use our work for any purpose they have. The result is a very high-resolution digital archive of these ceiling paintings, assuring them of preservation in perpetuity (at least in the digital domain). A project of this kind of scale is something that has never been done yet in the country, and we are proud to be the first to spearhead this.


Nuestra Sra. del Santissimo Rosario Parish Church, Lila, Bohol

After the Visayas leg of your project, what else is in store for Project Kisame?

We have several plans, of course. We want to continue the work next year, this time doing the documentation work on identified churches in Manila, Luzon and Mindanao. We are in the process of putting all our documentation output online through our official Project Kisame website, expected to go-live this September 22. We are also planning to come up with on-site exhibition projects that would spread further awareness to the public, and raise funds to do a special project for the youth of Cebu and Bohol to educate and raise awareness about the importance of heritage conservation, and what these ceiling paintings mean to them.


San Miguel Arcangel Parish Church, Jagna, Bohol

What do you want, ultimately, to achieve with your work?

This is quite a moonshot, but what I really wanted was to do restoration work for a number of important and culturally significant church ceiling artworks in the future. If these plans would push through, we’ll have to wait for around 5 to 10 years down the line. Today, however, we’re already taking the first steps toward that goal.

But that’s just half of the picture. What we also want to achieve is to create a collective consciousness for preservation and promotion of these treasured artworks. We are pushing for several activities and allied projects in order to instill to today’s generation the value of these ceiling paintings to them, and how they could take care of these treasures inherited from their forefathers. We realize it’s an uphill battle in today’s society because we are changing today’s mindset of the youth, in the age and nexus of technology and anything that doesn’t exactly concern heritage. But we strive to make progress even if it’s slow at times. We believe that we will reach that point if we work hard enough.




Project Kisame welcomes interested people, groups and institutions to work with them and raise funds for their future projects and activities. You can reach them through their e-mail address [email protected], or through their Facebook page.