Nostalgia of the Empire: the arrival of the portrait of Ferdinand VII in Manila in 1825 [1]

Ninel Valderrama Negrón [2]

VALDERRAMA NEGRÓN, Ninel. Nostalgia of the Empire: the arrival of the portrait of Ferdinand VII in Manila in 1825. 19&20, Rio de Janeiro, v. X, n. 2, jul./dez. 2015. [Español]

 *     *     *

1.      The territorial figure of the Immaculate Conception, as a renovated Leviathan, composed its body with all domains of the Hispanic world, whose maritime connections reached its superior part, the Iberian Peninsula [Figure 1]. It is important to note that the etching we here observe was the cover of a thesis published in Manila. By means of this image, a strong idea of an ensemble was produced in the archipelago. Despite its remoteness, the Philippines was trying to reaffirm its Hispanic identity.

2.      Bearing in mind the notion of a total State, the subject matter of this research is the watercolours which show the events concerning the arrival of the portrait of Ferdinand VII in Manila in 1825. The watercolour plates were produced by a group of military engineers, formed by both Spaniards and local artists, amongst whom we find Thomas Cortés,[3] Antonio Chacón y Conde, Vicente Castro, and Celedonio Ocampo. In total, there are 25 plates, currently preserved in the library of the Royal Palace of Madrid, since they were offered as a gift to the monarch at the end of the ceremony. In some of them, the name of the author is known, usually those by the Spanish engineers Thomas Cortés and Antonio Chacón y Conde. However, there is another group of drawings that could have been done by their Philippine students, although they are not signed. In these drawings, the perspective of the pagodas does not correspond to Western standards. Instead, they follow an oriental standard of composition and have a quite distinctive colouring.

3.      This work aims at studying the similarities and differences between celebrations in the Captaincy General of the Philippines and in other parts of the Hispanic world. I would like to emphasize the particularity of the Asian scene, that is, how some components of Chinese influence (such as the keepers of the door, dragons, lanterns, candles and inscriptions) operated mostly by their articulation within a festivity in the form of “triumphal arches” or “pagodas” that aimed at confirming Western power.

4.      As a first approach, these watercolours of the arrival of the royal effigy were intended to endorse the Spanish throne. Nevertheless, with a more judicious approach, we can see that the oriental symbols in the drawings suggest another level of analysis, clearly interweaving an imperial and a colonial project, as we will see in the last part of this work. What is important is that these inquiries are only happening within the images themselves, and have not been highlighted in the text that accompanied the plates.   Consequently, it is crucial to pay more attention to the symbolic significations that occurred within the images and which required the understanding from both the Western viewers and the Asian inhabitants.

5.      This essay examines which remains or traces of the iconographic traditions of the ancient Hispanic Empire were used in the preparation of these plates. Presumably, this research will clarify the reasons for the reuse of obsolete and archaic languages, including that of the Habsburg dynasty, in the choice of ornaments for the arrival of the image of Ferdinand VII. These graphic records evoke the pretention to recover the notion of Spanish Empire as the legitimate heir to the throne of Jerusalem as well as its Universalist mission. As expressed by Victor Mínguez, it is important to note that political Solomonism was a device used by the Austrian House in different iconographies of the sovereign.[4] Following this idea, my belief is that these images aimed to reframe and transfer the throne of the Hebrew king to Manila. This symbolic act was an instrument for restoring the political doctrine of Solomonism in practice under the Habsburg dynasty. It is due to these pretensions that in pagodas / triumphal arches converged an ambivalence of elements sharing a western background, re-signified in an oriental setting so as to be understood by the Philippine public [Figure 2]. As a whole, the plates generated a representational apparatus assuming part of the vice-royal power ceremonial, where not only the primary role of the sovereign within the political structure was endorsed, but also the pretention of maintaining the image of “World Empire”, where the coexistence of different peoples was possible under the tutelage of an absolute king. This is the reason for the inclusion, and the importance, of these two watercolours of pagodas as integral components of the commemorative remembrance of the portrait’s arrival [Figure 3].

Ferdinand VII, the rightful heir to the throne of Solomon

6.      In the old regime, the portrait of the monarch would frequently supplant his physical presence in certain public events such as the taking of oaths. When a new king ascended the throne, his image would equal his presence when he was absent, and this was a mechanism through which the subjects could come to know his face [Figure 4]. In our case, the remoteness of the Asian archipelago required the replacement of the royal person, and the first lines of the chronicle accompanying the plates expressed that

7.                                    Ferdinand VII, in order to reward the Philippine Islands for the constant loyalty they had always shown him [...] sent a portrait, specially painted by his first chamber painter Vicente Lopez, as a gift to the city of Manila and asked for the portrait to be treated as if it were His Majesty.[5]

8.      Thus, on the evening just before the presentation of the painting, it was placed on a throne set up in the Wine Administration House. The portrait of Ferdinand VII was very similar to the one previously painted by Vicente López Valencia. However, the medals that adorned the sovereign strongly attract our attention. On the one hand, he carries the dignity of the Order of Carlos III Collar and, on the other, a Greek cross that could well be the Cross of Jerusalem, suggesting he was the Hebrew king. Granted this attribute, as suggested by Jaime Cuadriello, the arrangement of the image in the traditional Spanish throne flanked by rampant lions could be a simplification of the very throne of Solomon [Figure 5].[6] As studied by Victor Mínguez, the inheritance of the biblical chair was a recurrent theme in Spanish painting between the 17th and the 18th centuries. By means of several large canvasses, the Austrian House sought to recreate the symbolic legacy of the Kingdom, being the similarity of the Hispanic and the Solomonic thrones its core argument.[7] Because of this, the author suggested that the Philippine throne’s layout was not casual, but was assisted by a political program of the Reconquista so as to claim its old domains, reinforced by the presence of the World’s two globes, as shown in the watercolour.

Ferdinand VII, the universal sovereign

9.      The plates retrieved the two “triumphal arches” or pagodas ordered by the inhabitants of Binondo, district of sangley or Chinese origin: one was located in the downward slope of the Puente Grande [Figure 2] and the other at the exit of the Binondo Bridge [Figure 3].

10.    Due to the extension of this work, I will focus on examining the Pagoda Bridge in Binondo and the allegorical carriage. The first body of the Pagoda is the central part and it was flanked by feline guardians reminiscent of the Fu Lions, whose meaning, since the Han Dynasty, was to ward off evil spirits from the thresholds of Buddhist temples, palaces and imperial tombs. In turn, the position of these animals might have a confluence with the rampant fierce lions that generally appear guarding the Hispanic throne. For this reason, we assume there was a reorganization of Western elements into Eastern ones with multiple possible meanings. The Book of Kings describes how “the throne of Solomon had six steps, and its back had a rounded top. On both sides of the seat there were armrests, with a lion standing beside each of them” [Figure 5].[8] As mentioned above, the title of King of Jerusalem was transferred to the iconography of the throne, widely used by the Austrians. Moreover, as we can see, the standing lions and the Hebrew temple’s candlesticks on either side are identification components that individualize it, and are even today operative in the Bourbon dynasty.

11.    Following this organization, the main fraction of the body corresponds to an altar, and in its centre a curtain unveils the portrait of Ferdinand VII [Figure 6]. Let’s recall its expression in The Book of Kings: “Solomon also ordered all the items for the Lord’s temple: the gold altar and the table on which to place the candlesticks”.[9] Juan Bautista de Villalpando, author of the recreation of the Escorial as the second Temple of Solomon, expressed the role given to the tabernacle, which in Hebrew means “immolate, sacrifice, offer in sacrifice” as a reference to the altar of the holocausts.[10] Given this connotation, the location of a tabernacle facing the effigy of Ferdinand VII is interesting because the image had been conceived earlier, in Guatemala, in the platform for taking oaths. In the Guatemalan frontispiece, five of the Kingdom’s matrons were painted, offering their hearts to an altar facing the portrait of the sovereign [Figure 7]. By making use of this device, the authors of the platform declared that the provinces of Guatemala were daughters of the monarchy, whose head was His Majesty. By offering their heart, their most treasured possession, they reiterated their condition of obedience and geographical domain.

12.    The sequence of the ritual of taking oath before the royal banner and the unveiled portrait in display represents, as expressed by Minguez, a gesture of blind loyalty to the ruling institution, i.e. going beyond the monarch in power.[11] The unveiling of the Philippine oil painting signified the presence of royal authority, an issue that was highlighted with the placing of the image exposed before a tabernacle. In this event, five vessels organized as a Buddhist offering and objects such as incense, fruit and water, were typically provided, appearing drawn below Ferdinand VII. In this sense, the offerings acquired a double dimension, since in Exodus the need to build the temple altar to burn thymiama, fragrant incense, is stated.[12] On the other hand, it is significant that the Spanish monarch is placed on the altar, where the Buddha should be. This fact expresses the substitution of the traditional location of the structure of a Buddhist temple. This transposition was highlighted with Chinese ideograms, placed above the portrait, which gave account of the honorific place that corresponded to kings.

13.    Having the Solomonic architecture as reference, the Philippine tabernacle was framed within the typical structure of a Buddhist temple with four columns; on the ones farthest of the portrait there were inscriptions in Chinese, and on those nearest there were two green dragons. Here it is important to note that, even in formal terms, there is an intimate connection between the undulating serpentine mythical monsters and the enunciation of Solomonic order. A comparison with the Eastern tradition is suggested, inasmuch as the green dragons have been associated with the emperor. Even the characters on either side of the image refer to four elements, water, fire, earth and heaven. This representation can be connected with the popular notion of “the reign of the Heaven’s Son” attributed to the emperors in the Chinese dynasties. However, at this point it would be worthwhile to ponder on the magnitude of the meaning assigned to the monarch. On the one hand, the connection of Ferdinand VII with the concept of “emperor” is important, since by 1825 the so-called Hispanic Empire was frankly in decay and nothing was further from reality than that term. Because of these reasons, it seems that this architectural structure sought to be established as a kind of nostalgia and simultaneously summon the lost imperial power.

14.    In the last body of the pagoda, a lotus flower situated below the king, iconography that has been linked to the life of Buddha, calls our attention. Finally, I would like to emphasize the importance of the pagoda’s finial, apparently very similar to a dharma wheel acting as “the law of the right order of things”, validating the whole structure with a Buddhist symbol.

15.    Therefore, the design was a mixture of western components in the form of an arcade in the base, above which rose the three superior levels of the pagoda, here described. Given these characteristics, we can infer that in this construction there is an overlapping of buildings: triumphal arches and pagodas. The base reminds us of the Castile Emblem and, therefore, the pagoda resting on the Spanish State could be an allegory of Spain’s geopolitical domination over the archipelago.

16.    As far as its symbolical importance is concerned, the placement of the objects is not fortuitous; it offers a straightforward connection between the teachings of Buddhism, the representation of Eastern power and its syncretism with the Spanish king. The equalling of the site stipulated for Buddha with the one attributed to the Spanish monarch was followed by the reformulation and transference of the throne to Manila in order to embrace the entire globe, as suggested by the Chinese cardinal signs on either side of the royal image of the central body.

The assembly of power: the affirmation of allegiance

17.    Indeed, this connection of all territories of the Hispanic world around the royal figure was the purpose of the arrival of the portrait in Manila in 1825; for in his absolutist period, Ferdinand VII was called to re-establish his ancestor’s place of power. The aim was to resume the old inclusion of the East Indies as part of the so-called “Indies”. For this reason, it is important to analyse the iconographic circulation between Asia and America concerning this celebration.

18.    In this paper, I particularly intend to consider these watercolours depicting the arrival of the portrait as part of another campaign – a more ideological one – where the monarchy sought to heighten the loyalty and fidelity of these domains with visual representations which showed that they belonged to the Empire. Such campaign was a response to “the attitude” of the American colonies.

19.    Among the designs that form the narrative, the first plate distinguishes itself by having an allegorical carriage made specifically to transport the image of His Majesty [Figure 8]. The carriage contained columns with the motto “Non Plus Ultra” and two world globes girded by a crown. In the centre, a matron symbolizing Manila pointed towards the portrait and further ahead there is a gold lettered sign reading “Loyalty to your king”.

20.    The tradition of using these territorial personifications in the ephemeral architecture of royal celebrations was a usual practice. What surprises is the very personification of the city of Manila, dressed with all the attributes that had belonged to America. What is the traditional iconographic representation of America doing in an Asian allegorical carriage?

21.    Let us remember that the rhetorical figure of the New Continent from Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia begins with the description of America as a “naked woman, of dark colour, mixed with yellow[Figure 9a].[13] Its most important features are clearly maintained in Manila’s personification: the plume, the quiver and the feathered kilt. There is no doubt that Manila is symbolized like America [Figure 9b].

22.    To solve this iconographic enigma, the following conclusions can be advanced: Manila was conceived as an extension of the Americas. Let us remember that during the colonial period the jurisdiction of the captaincy of the Philippines corresponded to the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Probably, its formulation comes from the eminent threat posed by Portugal concerning the spice trade, and, by means of various arguments, amongst which the iconographic one stands out, this justified Manila’s belonging to America. However, beyond any deductions, it is interesting to note that the visual connections between Latin America and Hispano-Asia were present when conceived as the same territorial image.

23.    It is also essential to emphasize that the image of the city was related to the sign “Loyalty to your King”, and another one reading “Loyalty Award”, a response to the events in the New World; Manila was upraised with this title. The Asian city was hoisted as a faithful city and, at the same time, as an example of a stronghold for the insurgent viceroyalties. This purpose can be checked with other decorations recreated in the plates such as, for example, the choice to appoint the virtues of Love and Loyalty as the companions of the effigy on the throne in the House of Wine (Casa del Vino). At the same time, the inscriptions “El Amor” (Love) and “Fidelidad” (Loyalty) can be clearly read on the façade of the house of the Lieutenant. Furthermore, the poem in the shrine around the statue of Carlos IV in the Plaza Mayor [Figure 10] summarizes the celebration’s explicit proposal: “Although in the Champs-de-Mars / Manila does not give proof of its loyalty / with more glory and more art / in the fields today flutters / the banner of peace /. On the other side, it read, Full of satisfaction Manila says indeed / that its love and loyalty / is a model for all Nations [...] Long live Manila, centre / of loyalty and honour”.[14]

24.    Probably “the Champs-de-Mars” referred to the internal wars in the American continent, hence Manila recognized itself as blazon of peace and model for other nations. For these reasons, I conclude that the approach behind these ephemeral architectures was to promote an imperial visual project that endorsed the construction of a loyal city in the collective imaginary.


25.    In this case, the polysemic function of the ephemeral architecture caused an empowerment of the figure of Ferdinand VII in several spheres; this requirement was imperatively pursued with this series of watercolours. Hence, we believe it is possible to speak of a tangible imperial and colonial project in these plates, materialized by a diverse interpretation of signs of both Eastern and Western traditions that expressed the symbolic transfer of power within the entire Hispanic State.

26.    Therefore, we establish that this iconographic syncretism (America / Asia-Manila) and the idea of incommensurability of the domains known as the Indies operated as a statement of the desire of regaining the old Empire. Such nostalgia can be identified with the recovery of a language such as Solomonism, in disuse at the time, but whise functionality used to be a guarantee of stability in the past. In turn, this intersection also showed another aspect: a clear disruption of the form of representation of the royal figure in which the resumption of previous models was essential.

27.    In this construction of the Empire, however, by means of these images, a local formulation, or the archipelago’s vernacular discourse emerged, placing the emphasis on these “peripheral areas” identified as the only one that were really loyal to the monarchy. Consequently, the rearrangement of the so-called peripheral states of the Hispanic world also assumed rhetorical functions in shaping a political discourse: the idealization of other loyal regions belonging to the Monarchy.

28.    For these reasons, this study approaches the relations between Latin America and Hispano-Asia as a way to turn our gaze to the Pacific in order to better understand the circulation of models between different parts of the Hispanic world. In the political context of the American independence movements, this essay attempts to explore what was going on in other corners of the Hispanic world with the aspiration of endorsing the construction of a loyal city in the collective imaginary. Within this proposal, we should note an important piece of news published in El Sol, on March 7th, 1825, reporting a conspiracy in Manila with the purpose of joining Mexico, that read: “The revolution will take place sooner or later, since Spain’s needed unwillingness [sic] to recognize our independence with no chance of reconquering us, puts her in the place of losing dominion over all her remaining possessions in America and Asia”.[15]

29.    Therefore, overall, the plates depicting the entrance of Ferdinand’s VII portrait had the intention to indicate loyalty in the captaincies; however, they accomplished a more transcendental meaning, the arrival of the images in Madrid envisioned a mirror exempla[16] effect, disqualifying the rest of the newly independent American continent with the intention of positioning the Philippines before the eyes of the sovereign.

Bibliographic references

AUTISTA, Juan de Villalpando, El Templo De Salomón. Madrid: Ediciones Siruela, 1991.

MÍNGUEZ, Víctor. El rey de España sentado en el trono de Salomón, In: Visión de la monarquía hispánica. Valencia: Universitat Jaume I, 2007.

MÍNGUEZ, Víctor. La ceremonia de jura en la Nueva España. Proclamaciones fernardinas en 1747 y 1808, In: Varia Historia, Belo Horizonte, vol.23, n.38, Jul-Dez. 2007.

Relación de la entrada de Fernando Séptimo a la ciudad de Manila en 1825. Archivo del Palacio Real, Madrid, España.

RIPA, Cesare. Iconología. Madrid: Akal, 2007.

El Sol, March 7th,1825.


[1] Translation by Elena O’Neill.

[2] I would like to thank Deborah Dorotinsky and Roberto Conduru, the coordinators of the Non-Western Traditions Seminar of the Getty Foundation Unfolding Art History project. I would also like to thank all the participants, whose contributions enriched my work, especially Maria José Esparza. Also, I must mention the importance of Jaime Cuadriello’s suggestions, contributions and support, which were the real arguments for this article.

[3] In graphic memories of the royal portrait’s arrival, engineers were particularly devoted to reviewing the ornaments and decorations of the main buildings. Tomas Cortés is the best known of the group, since he participated in various construction projects in the archipelago, such as the Royal Customs and a project for the Royal Palace. He was also involved in installing an Academy in the archipelago, which began to operate as a School of Drawing in 1823. From that institution emerged important exponents such as Damian Domingo and Jose Honorato Lozano.

[4] Víctor Mínguez, El rey de España sentado en el trono de Salomón. In: Visión de la monarquía hispánica, Valencia, Universitat Jaume I, 2007, p. 19-56.

[5] Relación de la entrada de Fernando Séptimo a la ciudad de Manila en 1825, Archives of the Palacio Real, Madrid, España, p.3

[6] This suggestion was the result of a personal conversation with the author.

[7] MÍNGUEZ, Op.cit.,p.19-56

[8] Libro de los reyes, 1:20.

[9] Ibidem, 7:40-50.

[10] Juan Bautista de Villalpando, El Templo De Salomón, Madrid, Ediciones Siruela, 1991, p. 267

[11] Víctor Mínguez, La ceremonia de jura en la Nueva España. Proclamaciones fernandinas en 1747 y 1808, In: Varia Historia, Belo Horizonte, vol.23, n.38,  July-December 2007, p.282.

[12] El Exodo, 3:35-40.

[13] Cesare Ripa, Iconología, Madrid, Akal, 2007, p.29.

[14] Relaciones, Op.cit., p.24

[15] El Sol, March 7th, 1825

[16] The term “mirror exempla” or mirror example was taken from the tradition of the “mirrors of princes” genre, which depicts the need for training the Prince in different artistic media, including the arts. The moral characteristics contained in such works of political instruction were transferred to the institutional body of the State in which the Kingdom’s subjects were included. Thus, a contrast was shown between the faithful and loyal colonies, as the Philippines and Cuba, and  the “rebel” independent nations.