CEBU CITY—From peasants to presidents, those who believe come to venerate this tiny image of the Child Jesus.
Encased in glass at a side chapel, the 400-year-old wooden image of the Sto. Niño de Cebu draws the most number of visitors in the days leading to its feast day on the third Sunday of January.
But is the image displayed at the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño the real icon?
Even among the most pious devotees, stories still circulate about how the “miraculous” image of Sto. Niño is actually kept by its Augustinian caretakers in a private room of the basilica where it is venerated by a fortunate few, and that a replica is used in the chapel.
Not so, says Fr. Pacifico “Jun” Nohara Jr., OSA, rector of the basilica.
“It is in the chapel,” he said, referring to the figure of the Child King in red and gold robes kept in bulletproof glass. The image is at the right side of the basilica’s main altar inside the church.
On Jan. 21, 2002, then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was given a special viewing in a private chapel on the second floor of the basilica, where she prayed before the image, and kissed it.
For ordinary citizens, the icon remains behind a glass barrier.
Devotees fall in line, sometimes waiting for more than an hour, to gaze at the icon, touch its glass case, meditate, offer prayers and often leave items of gratitude—flowers, money, letters and even toys.
According to Ben Chua, a researcher on Cebu heritage and a devotee, the Augustinian fathers must display the original image of Sto. Niño for public veneration.
This was a requirement expressed when the former San Agustin Church was elevated to the status of a minor basilica (Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño) by Pope Paul VI in 1965, marking 400 years of the Christianization of the Philippines.
“It is kept in the place where we kiss the glass case. And I can prove it,” said Chua, who photographed it in 2009 after having the privilege of a close encounter.
He and some companions were present when the Sto. Niño image was brought out of its glass case in the chapel and brought to the basilica’s library at the second floor of the convent.
Chua, who holds a postgraduate degree in Cebuano heritage studies from the University of San Carlos, said they took photographs of the original image so they can be used in postcards.
“I saw the Sto. Niño up close. It’s different. I was allowed to touch it and hold it. I fulfilled something important in my life,” he recalled.
The only time the icon is taken out of its glass case is when its clothes are changed in January, days before the grand foot procession.
The “ilis,” a Cebuano word for “change,” is the ritual dressing of the Sto. Niño. The privilege is reserved for the “camarera,” a select group of pious women selected by the Augustinian order to act as ladies-in-waiting of the Child King.
Black or white?
Based on his research and interviews, Chua said the original Sto. Niño de Cebu was made in Flanders and had a clear complexion on its face with “skin tone” color.
Flanders is a historical region of northwest Europe, which includes parts of northern France, western Belgium and southwest Netherlands along the North Sea.
Statues from these areas have fair complexion although old documents about the Sto. Niño de Cebu did not mention the color of the image presented to Cebu’s Queen Juana.
The Sto. Niño, whose fiesta is the religious root of today’s Sinulog merrymaking and festival, was given as baptismal gift by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan to Queen Juana in 1521.
In the late 1800s, according to Chua, an Augustinian priest ordered the icon’s features to be painted black to make it more “appealing” to native converts.
2 religious images
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 the Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage in Antipolo.
“When they (Nazareno and Birhen ng Antipolo) reached Manila, they drew a very big number of devotees. The Augustinians realized that black was more appealing to Filipinos,” Chua said.
He said island folk believed that a black image was powerful.
“For almost 50 years, we venerated a black Sto. Niño,” he said.
During the later part of World War II, he said, the icon fell from its niche, leaving one of its eyes chipped and its right cheek heavily scratched.
“Luckily, the fall was cushioned by one of the candelabra. If not, the Sto. Niño would have been shattered,” Chua said.
He said the wooden image was transported for safekeeping to the Redemptorist Church in Cebu City, which was then under the supervision of the Americans.
Augustinian priest Leandro Moran asked a nun from St. Theresa’s College to wipe the face of the Sto. Niño.
“They found out that the Sto. Niño’s (coating) had a second layer,” Chua said.
After telling Moran about it, the Augustinians decided to restore the original color of the image.
Rosario “Mimi” Trosdal, a linguist, pianist and artist, was requested to repair and repaint the image to its original color.
When the Sto. Niño regained its original skin tone, Chua, who interviewed Trosdal before she died in 2005, said people began to doubt the authenticity of the image.
“People were asking why the Sto. Niño’s color became fair. They thought the image they venerated was just a replica and that the original one was kept by the Augustinians,” he said.
Chua said there are noticeable features to distinguish the original Sto. Niño de Cebu: 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.
He said the original icon didn’t carry an orb, which represents the world.
“When Magellan came (to Cebu), he had not yet discovered that the world was round,” Chua pointed out.
‘Ball of energy’
The wooden orb held by the Sto. Niño signifies a “ball of energy,” he said.
According to Nohara, the original image of Sto. Niño wasn’t used during the annual solemn foot procession, which takes place a day before the feast of the child Jesus.
“The original image is fragile. We don’t want any untoward incident,” he said.
But why do multitudes visit and pray before the Sto. Niño?
“To people who have lots of problems, who no longer know what to do, the Sto. Niño is their refuge. And when their prayers are answered, they return to give thanks,” Nohara said.