El Camarín de la Virgen: Hidden Cultural Treasure of Santa Ana, Manila

Detail of the 18th-century oil-on-wood paintings of the Camarín de la Virgen, Santa Ana Church

Most of the well-known heritage gems of Manila are concentrated in the historic walled district of Intramuros, but the neighborhood of Santa Ana in the southeast portion of the city, near the Makati City border, hides a exceptional heritage structure also worth visiting.

Constructed from 1720 to 1725, the Santa Ana Church – officially the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Abandoned – stands out among other Spanish-era churches in the country – for having the Camarín de la Virgen, a special dressing room for the image of the Virgin Mary constructed around the same time the Baroque-style stone church was erected. Surviving World War II and the heavy remodeling of the church complex from 1977 to 1985, the Camarín, fortunately, remains largely as it was when it was built three centuries ago.

The church was built in honor of Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados, a Catholic invocation of the Virgen Mary as Patroness of the socially neglected, such as the orphaned, the convicted, the sick and the less fortunate.

Santa Ana Church was declared a National Shrine in 2021.
Interior of the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Abandoned with the retablo at the altar.

The Camarín is located behind the second level of the retablo, a large structure at the altar with niches that hold religious images, providing access to the original image of Our Lady of the Abandoned (Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados) in the central alcove. The 300-year-old Roman Catholic image was carved in Spain in 1713, arrived in the Philippines in 1717, and housed in the same church since 1725.

From the left side of the altar, stone steps made from piedra china, granite blocks used by the Chinese junks as ballast, take devotees the Camarín through a wooden doorway painted with life-size images of archangels St. Michael and St. Gabriel. Upon stepping inside, the exquisite oil murals on the ceiling warrant your undivided attention. Depicting the Virgin Mary in heaven and scenes from the lives of the Blessed Virgin and young Jesus, these 1720s artworks from the Estampita age of Filipino-Spanish art are believed to be the oldest datable oil murals in the Philippines.

Most sources describe these artworks as the country’s “oldest oil paintings”, however, the “Seven Archangels” oil-on-wood painting from 1604 to 1611, displayed at the San Agustin Museum in Intramuros, is actually the oldest of its kind in the Philippines.

The stone steps leading to the Camarín were constructed from granite ballasts of Chinese junks.
Painted wooden doorway leads the Camarín.
El Camarín de la Virgen is a second-floor chapel located behind the church altar.
Dating to the 1720s, the Camarín’s ceiling paintings are the oldest of its kind in the Philippines.
Ming Dynasty porcelain tiles of the Camarín.

The rear side of the hornacina, the octagonal vaulted niche housing the Virgin, stands in the middle of the room, resting on a semi-circular gilded platform said to be from the Santo Cristo de Burgos, the very galleon that brought the image to the Philippines. The hornacina is adorned with a large silver corona imperial (imperial crown), while the chapel floor is furnished in blue-and-white Ming Dynasty porcelain tiles.

During my visit, I chanced upon the current camarero or head caretaker of the Camarín, Philip Escudero, who started learning the ropes since he was 15 years old. The accommodating 60-year-old chamberlain invited me to join him in the hornacina to see the venerated image up close. Standing face to face with Our Lady of the Abandoned, I could clearly see her gold-embroidered robe and bejeweled ornaments, including the gold-and-crystal cane or bastón de mando bestowed upon the image in 1720 by Archbishop of Manila and Interim Governor General Francisco de la Cuesta.

The original image of Our Lady of the Abandoned photographed from inside the hornacina (niche).
Head caretaker Philip Escudero kisses the 18th century image.

For more information on the church’s history, I highly recommend purchasing a copy of Santa Ana Church: A Historical Guide (₱350) from the shop outside the Camarín.

How to Get There

From Pedro Gil LRT Station, one can take a jeepney to Santa Ana. If coming from Makati City, it’s more convenient to just take a taxi cab or motorcycle taxi (eg. Angkas or JoyRide apps). Alternatively, one can also take the Pasig River Ferry to Santa Ana Ferry Terminal, 250 meters away from Santa Ana Church.

The Camarín de la Virgen is currently only open on weekends at specific times. On Saturdays, it is open to visitors from 7:00 to 9:00 am, then 4:00 to 6:00 pm. On Sundays, 7:00 to 11:30 am then 4:00 to 7:00 pm. Donations for the upkeep of the church are encouraged.

Location Map

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