“For to Children Belong the Kingdom of God”: Infant Jesus

Originally authored on January 20, 2019

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Babies always signify purity, innocence, warmth, and new beginnings. They are instruments to break the barriers and boundaries. It was a sound judgement for Ferdinand Magellan to present the statue of the Infant Jesus as a gift to Princess Humamay upon landing on the Philippine islands. The gesture captivated her heart as a mother, which even disarmed the resolve of King Humabon and his tribesmen. Infants proved to possess the power of uniting which led to the natives’ baptism and conversion to Catholic religion.

Steeped in history and religious traditions, every January, the entire Philippines is abuzz with feasts that celebrate the Child Jesus which centers in Cebu. The Santo Nino traces its origin to the Holy Infant Jesus of Prague. In our country, this statue is the oldest relic. Years after Magellan’s miserable crew left the Philippines after a skirmish led by Lapu-lapu which took Ferdinand’s life, the returning Spaniards still found the natives worshiping the same image of the Infant Jesus. Due to Filipinos’ rich cultural background, they are known to be very loyal in their devotion to religious figures.

AUTHENTICITY OF SANTO NINO DE CEBU

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According to Ben Chua a researcher on Cebu heritage, the original Santo de Nino de Cebu was made in Flanders, a historical region of northwest Europe which includes parts of northern France, western Belgium, and southwest Netherlands. Statues from these areas have fair complexion with skin tone color.

During the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco in the 17th century, two religious images painted with black were brought to the country, the Black Nazarene and Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage of Antipolo which drew a multitude of devotees believing the black image was powerful. Realizing that black was more appealing to Filipinos, Augustinians in the late 1800’s ordered the statue to be painted black to make it more attractive to native converts. For almost 50 years, a black Santo Nino was venerated.

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When the icon fell from its niche on the later part of World War 2, its eyes were chipped and the right cheek was deeply incised. Fortunately, the fall was cushioned by a candelabra which prevented the Santo Nino from being shattered. After its face was wiped by a nun, it uncovered the coating had a second layer. Augustinians decided to restore the original color of the image.

People began to doubt the authenticity of the image after the restoration, thinking that Augustinians kept the original statue. However, there are noticeable features to distinguish the original: a visible scar or scratch on the right cheek, traces of black paint on the forehead and a steel bracket that supports the back of the image. The original icon did not carry an orb, which represents the world. Chua says, “when Magellan came to Cebu, he had not yet discovered that the world was round.”

Unknown to many, the Benedictine monks of the Philippines are the foremost promoters of the devotion to the Santo Nino de Praga. The current statue enshrined in their exquisite cider wood retablo at the Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat was carved by the celebrated santero Maximo Vicente, Sr. in 1909. The traditional procession held in the district of San Miguel, Manila with the Santo Nino placed on a vintage carroza always ends in a high mass celebration.

SANTO NINO DE ATOCHA

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The exact origin of the statue of Santo Nino de Atocha is not determined. But attention to some interwoven circumstances could easily be linked to its beginning. Since the 11th Century, communities of Portugal and SpainĀ in the Iberian Peninsula believed the Santo Nino aided the destitute and that it was a Spanish monk who sculpted the Infant Jesus of Prague somewhere in a desolated monastery near Seville, Spain, furthermore, since Saint Theresa of Avila, Spain was said to have given the statue to the Spanish-born royal wife of the Habsburg who ruled the Czech people, it is quite possible that the Infant Jesus of Prague which appeared three centuries later, is a copy of Santo Nino de Atocha.

The devotees felt that the Santo Nino walked the hills and valleys of Spain bringing food and drink to prisoners of war in Muslim-conquered Atocha and to Spanish refugees including Mexican silver miners trapped in a mine in Zacatecas, Mexico until the same copy of the image arrived in the Philippines with Ferdinand Magellan accompanied by the Augustinian missionaries in 1521.

 

INFANT JESUS OF PRAGUE

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When the House of Habsburg ruled the kingdom of Bohemia (the entire Czech territories) in 1565, they developed close ties with Spain. The statue appeared in the Lobkowicz royal family personally given by the Carmelite Saint Theresa of Avila herself. When Princess Polyxena von Lobkowicz married, she inherited the Infant Jesus and in turn donated the family heirloom to the Discalced Carmelite Friars in 1628.

Since then the statue remained in Prague which had drawn many devotees worldwide. Claims of blessings, favors and, miraculous healing have been reported by many who petitioned before the Infant Jesus.

It is not an exaggeration that Prague or Praha claims to be the jewel of all European capitals. Despite its turbulent history in the 20th century of foreign invasion, occupation, and over 40 years of enforced communism, visually little has changed over many centuries of its well-preserved medieval architecture. The Charles Bridge with sculpted saints, the cobbled streets, narrow lanes, and hidden parks all the more made our pilgrimage to the Infant Jesus serendipitous.

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Upon entering the the Church of Our Lady of Victorious in Mala Strana, we were struck by the ornate decor and brilliance of light striking the gilded gold of its various altars. The significance is not only for its extraordinary baroque interior decorated by the work of the best artists in the 17th and 18th centuries but also for the fact that the famous statue is kept and venerated within.

The church is open for visitors every day. Anyone who seeks blessing or prayer for a special intention can go to the sacristy. Copies of novena and prayers are free. It hosts liturgy in five languages and the museum of the Infant Jesus presents historical and contemporary robes of the statue from all over the world. The museum is open for free from 8:30 AM-5:00 PM, Monday to Saturday and 1:00-6:00 PM on Sunday.

The expressions, accessories, and hand posture of Santo Nino de Cebu is similar to the Infant Jesus of Prague and it is believed that both statues originated from the same European source.

On the feast of the coronation of Infant Jesus of Prague every First Sunday of May, He is dressed in a fine royal robe and taken on procession around the streets of Mala Strana district in joyous celebration when Praha comes to a standstill to worship and praise their savior and patron, not a far cry from how the Filipinos observe and express their faith every third week of January.

* – credits to the owner/s for the pictures

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