The Bonifacio Monument: Hail to the Chief!
by The FHL Research Team
After what seemed to be hours of traveling through EDSA, I caught a glimpse of my destination: a tall shaft of grayish concrete in Kalookan City, seemingly cornered by a swarm of automobiles puffing noxious gases and rendered diminutive by tall, dusty buildings on all sides.
Anyone not familiar with the Bonfacio Monument has either been away from the country since the 1930s or is totally disinterested in what goes on here. Through the years, the Monument has evolved into a landmark in more ways than one. Interest in it was recently renewed, thanks to a proposal to transfer it to a remote location in the same city. (The recent conferment of National Treasure status by the National Historical Institute bars such a move.) The issues raised only show how passionately some still are about commemorative structures, and what little regard others have for their historical icons.
The first structure to have been identified as the Bonifacio monument was made by the sculptor Ramon Martinez sometime after 1905. The Grito de Balintawak, the first sculpture in the country to be done in reinforced concrete, featured a solitary figure with outstretched hands, in an apparent call to arms, summoning the people to revolt. In the figure’s left hand is a Katipunan flag; in the right, a revolver. While the figure is not actually Bonifacio but a nameless Katipunero, onlookers associated the figure with the fallen Supremo. From then on it was referred to as the Bonifacio Monument. In 1968, the Grito was transferred to its present site in front of Vinzons Hall in UP Diliman, with layer upon layer of paint covering the crumbling figure.
In 1930, a time of patriotic fervor, a competition was held for a monument to be built in honor of Bonifacio. Entries poured in, with the artists using aliases. The design by Guillermo E. Tolentino, even then a renowned sculptor, emerged as the judges’ choice.
In 1933, Tolentino’s masterpiece was unveiled to the public. The monument was heralded by some as the first public statue of note by a Filipino sculptor, and is regarded as the apex of Guillermo Tolentino’s artistic career. It survived the war unscathed, and stands as proudly today as it did seven decades ago.
The multi-figured sculpture in the area everyone calls Monumento features a 45-meter pylon topped by a winged figure of Victory. At the pylon’s base is an octagonal obelisk symbolizing the eight provinces that first took up arms against the Spaniards. Surrounding the shaft are 23 figures in darkened bronze, depicting scenes of injustice, suffering, and resistance.
At the fore is the Supremo, sporting a barong Tagalog, wielding a bolo in his right hand and a revolver in the other. He is dignified yet defiant in his stance, in contrast to Martinez’s Katipunero. Immediately behind him stand Emilio Jacinto, the brains of the revolution, and another Katipunero waving the society’s flag.
Flanking the triad are two bolo-wielding Katipuneros: the one on the left with arm thrust forward, the other flung backwards. These figures embody the spirit of the Cry of Pugadlawin, which is both a call to arms and the answer to the call.
Other figures complete the ring of the shrine, each group representing an important event leading to the Philippine Revolution. Opposite the Supremo’s figure are those of the three martyred priests—Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora hooded, in their final moments at the garrote.
The Bonifacio Monument is more appropriately described as a montage rather than a straightforward representation of a single event. Movement is towards the onlooker, with the bodies of the figures thrust forward. The figures are arranged symmetrically, as in a dance. Continuing the symmetry set by the five fore subjects, and immediately behind the bolo-wielding Katipunero on the left side of the monument, is an old man raising a clenched fist. His other arm supports the limp body of a woman which, compositionally, echoes the fallen man on the right.
Tolentino’s commitment to classicism is evident in the Monument, from the faithful manner in which Bonifacio is portayed, to the detailed execution of every vein, fabric, and accessory. Even the calm yet defiant representation of Bonifacio falls within the dictum of propriety. It has also been noted that the monument alludes strongly to various western masterpieces, such as Rodin’s Age of Bronze and Delacroix’s Massacre at Chios.
The monument is a masterpiece, regarded by some as one of the best sculptures in the world. As Napoleon Abueva, a student of Tolentino in the UP, puts it, “…the legacy of a promising tomorrow gleaned from a cruel and troubled past, the accounts and instances of utterly depressed feeling, buoyed up and transformed to lofty feelings of inherent pride and enrichment of the Filipino soul, are experienced in contemplating the monument executed by Tolentino.”
He adds: “…the hooded head with the ever-tightening garrote about to nip a life, the hapless mothers and forsaken children in Tolentino’s monumental masterpiece, allow us to relive the sufferings and dire consequences of the times… The tragic related events and corresponding feeling of desolation, of hopelessness that Tolentino’s figures evoke, contrasted by the stance of soaring confidence and hope in Bonifacio’s expressive gesture, together with the defiant bolo-wielding compatriots, provide a reassuring promise of eventual success at all costs—reminding us of an old saw which goes this way: Great was the sacrifice and great was their reward.”
Since the 1933 unveiling, the Bonifacio Monument has meant different things to Filipinos. For a long time, it has been a beacon of sorts for the weary traveler, signaling the end of his long journey back to the metro. For the historically passionate, it is a tangible symbol of valor and nationalism, an enduring and powerful representation of the Filipino’s yearning for freedom. For everyone else, I believe, it is a fitting tribute to the man to whom we owe our freedom.
What does the Bonifacio Monument stand for? Given its present position in Caloocan, is it still a rightful tribute to the Supremo? Register your thoughts in the Talakayan Board
Ruben D.F. Defeo. “The Phenomenon That is Tolentino.” The Carillon, vol 14, no. 12, (August 1973), 5.
Kayumanggi: Biographies of Philippine Visual Artists. Peso Book Foundation. 2000. edited by Jane Stangl
Commemorative Folio on National Artists. Cultural Center of the Philippines. 1974.