PAETE, Laguna—Generations of artisans have made a living out of the chisel in this town that carries the tool in its name.
And the symphony of gouges carving faces and hands, shaping wood into laments or smiles, becomes ever more vibrant in months like these, when Catholics turn to the town’s shops to find pieces of art that symbolize their faith.
Lent is peak season for wielders of paet, or chisel, in Paete, where woodcraft is as much a labor of devotion to the art as it is to the images they represent.
“There’s still a big demand for religious images. As the population grows, even if there are other religions, there are still more Catholics. If you just get
1 million clients out of all the Catholics in your lifetime as a carver, I don’t know how you could handle that,” says Justino Cagayat Jr., a carver for almost 30 years.
With more than 86 million Filipino Catholics, according to the US-based Pew Research Center, carvers are assured of a steady income.
“In a good year, you could get 100 clients, including parishes, schools and private individuals. A hundred to 200, that’s already a lot,” says Cagayat, head carver at JAC Jr. Woodcarvings, one of the more popular shops in this town of some 25,000.
Cagayat, a third-generation carver who followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, says work doubles at his shop during the run-up to the Holy Week every year, with orders coming in from different parts of the Philippines and even from other countries.
Popular images include those in the story of the Passion of Christ, including Maria Magdalena, Maria Cleofe and Maria Salome, and the crucified Jesus.
“I encourage clients to make their orders even before Christmas. Usually, I end up turning down orders and only take on what my shop could handle,” says Cagayat, whose shop has 17 craftsmen working eight hours daily.
Sociologist Clifford Sorita says the veneration of saints and the images that represent them is innate among Filipinos, with local patron saints “normally reflective of the local community and local values.”
“They look up to patrons as their role model and as guides for their way of life,” Sorita says. “It gives people a sense of fidelity in ones’ faith.”
A devout Catholic himself who takes his handmade “Virgen Maria Alegria” (The Virgin of Joy) to procession around town every Lent, Cagayat refuses to put a price on his work.
“There are carvers in Manila and Pampanga, but we are taking care of maintaining our standard. Only a few people could afford the expensive ones. There are cheaper ones which are made of different materials, like resin and fiber glass. I am in the middle,” says the 52-year-old carver who learned the craft right out of college in 1983.
Those were tumultuous times, Cagayat says. Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. had just been assassinated, sparking a public outcry to oust dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Cagayat, who has a mining degree from Mapua Institute of Technology, decided to go into the family business.
He was later commissioned by then President Corazon Aquino to redo a mold of her late husband’s face for the commemoration of his 10th death anniversary.
Cagayat, who has made images for chapels at San Beda College and Ateneo de Manila University, has sent his work to clients in the United States, Argentina and Australia.
“It’s an honor that people from other nations also like my work,” Cagayat says, recalling that the family patriarch, Dionisio, won first prize in wood carving during the Manila Festival in 1924.
Because of a log ban, Cagayat uses fruit trees, like santol and mango, which he plants to replenish his supply of wood.
He laments that wood-carvers have become a vanishing breed. “There are only a few children who know how to carve. My contemporaries are already old. But somehow, during summer, children of my carvers come here and learn,” he says.