If you want to see a Belen or nativity scene that’s a lot extra, head on over to Casa Gorordo Museum in Cebu City. Each character figure in the diorama was handcrafted by Cebuano artisans, some from as far back as the 1800s.
Visitors can marvel at this antique Belen for free; in fact, those who pass by E. Aboitiz Street just peer into the museum’s glass window and identify which Magi is which from the sidewalk. The antique figures range from six to 10 inches in height. Some have parts made of ivory but many are made of plaster or ‘eskayola.’
Putting the whole exhibition together was a yearly family tradition for the Gorordos, it turns out. According to museum director Florencio Moreño, the Gorordo kids were even asked to help out “as a way to educate them about the Christian faith. It’s a form of catechism.”
The Belen scene is just one of 12 scenes adapted from the Bible’s New and Old Testaments. The exhibit begins with the Book of Genesis which features the figures of Adam and Eve flanking the serpent coiled around the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
“It is interesting that the Gorordo Belen takes the narrative back to the origins of mankind, and of its expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” offers Moreño. “This means that the Belen story is about imparting to the viewers the story of humanity's brokenness and their need for salvation, which would be fulfilled with the coming of Jesus, the Messiah.”
And of the “inocentes” set-up, depicting King Herod ordering his men to murder all boys in Bethlehem under two years old, Moreño says, “The collection does not shirk from informing people, even children, about a violent episode in the bible, resulting from the birth of the Messiah. It is a powerful lesson on the world’s rejection of Christ.”
Of course, the focal point of the exhibition is the birth of Jesus. Unlike the usual Belen arrangements, at the Gorordo House, the Holy Family is surrounded by God’s seven archangels made of ivory.
“We see in the Gorordo House tradition that the Belen is far more elaborate and complex,” shares Moreño. “A thing or a rite becomes a tradition when it is successfully passed on between generations and we see this essential character of tradition in the Gorordo Belen because there was a consistent intent to do so. It is an interesting study of how stories that matter to a society's culture is transmitted over time.”
About the museum, it used to be the residence of Juan Gorordo, the first Filipino bishop of Cebu. Built in the 1850s, it was originally owned by Alejandro Reynes y Rosales who later sold the property to Isidro Gorordo, a merchant from Vizcaya, Spain. When the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI) acquired the house from the Gorordos in 1979, the organization opened it as a museum four years later. It was declared a historical landmark by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines in 1991.
Covid restrictions disallowed the exhibition of the Belen in 2020. It’s showing was also canceled last year because the museum was converted into a relief operations site after typhoon Odette.
The Belen is on view until the 15th of January 2023. Best to view the show beginning at dusk so you can appreciate the full effect of the lighting design.
All photos from Ramon Aboitiz Foundation, Inc.