December 2, marks the 106 anniversary of the Battle of Tirad Pass led by the youngest and what historians are wont to rhapsodize as "the most picturesque" Filipino generals of the revolution, Gregorio del Pilar.
It was at the peak of the mountain pass in Northern Luzon that 60 Filipino soldiers carried out a heroic stand against American troops in the morning of ..hus enabling President Emilio Aguinaldo to flee towards the "wilds of Lepanto." Sadly, however, 52 of them including Del Pilar, then 24, perished in what an American war correspondent dramatically termed as a "battle above the clouds."
The awesome story has been told and retold with epic grandeur, how Del Pilar stood with his valiant soldiers on the steep and solitary mountain Pass of Tirad, steadfast to repel the invader, or fight and die like honorable men. In a moving eulogy delivered on the occasion of the delivery of the remains of Del Pilar to the National Museum on Dec. 2, 1930 31 years after the historic battle, Benito T. Soliven, then Representative of the First District of Ilocos Sur, observed that the Filipino soldiers "stand against overwhelming odds has been fittingly compared by American contemporary writers to that of Leonidas and his Spartans at Thermopylae, and that of the embattled Afridis at Dargai Ridge. Even now, we are thrilled with the account of their courage. But the death of Del Pilar is something more than a soldiers death. It was the sublime protest of a patriot against the decree of adverse fate. He had yearned for death when he saw that all was lost for the Republic. He had wished for it when long before the battle of Tirad, he proposed to meet the pursuing enemy after the disaster at Caloocan. He felt its obsession when at midnight on the bank of the river at Aringay he woke up his soldiers and pointedly asked them this question: Brothers, which do you prefer, to die fighting or to flee like cowards?
"From morning till noon he repelled charge after charge, he tenaciously held on with his handful of men through the heat and agony of battle, till he himself fell dead among his slain soldiers. And well chosen and most fitting was the place where he offered the sacrifice of his life. It was on the mountain summit, overlooking the plains and the shores of his country, a massive and tremendous altar, built as it were for Titans, caressed by the rolling clouds of morning, lighted by the stars of dusk."
Admittedly, it was one of the darkest hours in Philippine history. President Aguinaldo was retreating to the mountains with only a few faithful followers about him. The young general could not bear to see the misfortune of his country. A man of iron who could not yield to the foe like Andrs Bonifacio and Antonio Luna, Del Pilar could accept no compromise.
Men of their caliber are worthy of our admiration. For noble and worthy causes that will enrich national well-being, they fight to the death with manly devotion and true heroism. In moments of need and times of great emergencies such as today, the entire Filipino nation can always draw lessons from their selfless sacrifices.
Art has a way of either lionizing heroes through copious commemorative monuments and/or murals or relegating them to almost a state of oblivion because of the paucity of visual materials on them.
Take the case of Gregorio Del Pilar. How has Philippine art treated him?
While it is a true that there had been a movie about him recently which starred the once-upon-a-time teen heartthrob Romnick Sarmenta, one can still count on his fingers the instances where his visage adorned nationally heralded paintings or sculptures. Of the few existing examples, two can be found at the University of the Philippines Diliman Main Library.
"Tirad Pass: Ably Defended by General Gregorio del Pilar" by Ramn Resurreccin Peralta reflects the orientation of the painter as a scenographer, Peralta being the leading scenographic painter after Toribio Antillon during the early 1900s.
Painted 32 years after the battle at Tirad Pass, the artwork is a vivid interpretation of the pass as described in history books. Its huge background shows the rugged terrain of Mt. Tirads trail. The figure of Del Pilar, in full military regalia and mounted on a horse, is rendered relatively minute in this painting.
In contrast to this painting is Carlos Perez Valino Jr.s "General Del Pilar at Tirad Pass" where the image of the fallen hero looms large in the composition.
Valino, best known for his history paintings that portray events like Lapu-Lapus victory over Magellan, Limahong, scenes of the revolution against Spain and the Japanese Occupation, was commissioned in 1964 by UP President Carlos P. Romulo, to paint Del Pilar a tribute.
The result was a huge easel painting, all of 198.5 by 346.5 cm, showing the young general on horseback and brandishing his sword depicting the general turning towards the narrow trail of Tirad Pass, visible behind him. The entire scene is enveloped in gray smoke.
Whereas Peraltas work is about the rugged Tirad Pass, with Del Pilar as a gallant knight exploring what the trail offered, Valinos work is about the harsh reality of an insensitive war, devoid of human compassion.
Another painting dealing with the same subject is Vicente Alvarez Dizons "Battle of Tirad Pass." Sadly however, the paintings provenance remains unknown until the present. When it was first shown, it generated quite a controversy because it depicted Del Pilar shooting an American soldier, which, according to historians, was never recorded in history books. Dizon reasoned out, however, that he relied on personal accounts of eyewitnesses and participants he himself interviewed prior to the painting of the work. In fact, many of the faces included in the historical painting are portraits of those who survived the encounter to tell their stories. The painting, done in 1931, is contiguous to Peraltas "Tirad Pass: Ably Defended by General Gregorio del Pilar," also done the same year.
The same image and narrative are also committed to sculpture. The likeness of Gregorio Del Pilar was executed in 2000 into an equestrian statue by history sculptor Apolinario Paraiso Bulaong.
The larger than life equestrian sculpture stands at the very site of the battle at Tirad Pass, ending the long drought to realize Joint Resolution No. 6 passed by the Philippine Legislature in 1939 providing for the erection of a monument on the spot where Del Pilar fell if only to preserve the glorious and historic event in the mind and memory of the Filipino people.
It was Mayor Anacleto Meneses of Bulacan, Bulacan who commissioned Bulaong to execute the sculpture. The piece was donated by the mayor to the municipality of General del Pilar in Ilocos Sur, formerly known as Concepcion. Concepcion and Bulacan are sister towns.
Aside from this equestrian statue and numerous bust portraits of Del Pilar, Bulaong also executed in 2001 a relief sculpture depicting the battle at Tirad Pass. The sculptural mural is installed at the plaza of Bulacan, Bulacan, where Del Pilar came from.
While working on the grand manner of history, art may have lost its popular appeal in contemporary times, but it still presents a challenge to young Filipino artists to continue with the tradition. One of the lofty functions of art that certainly will not perish is its poignant capacity to edify life. And for this, history painting and history sculpture remain the quintessential art forms to explore.