One of the greatest and oldest relics to be handed down by our Spanish colonizers to the Filipinos is the revered and ancient image of the Santo Niño of Cebu, an image intimately linked with the Christianization of our islands.
Ferdinand Magellan, the intrepid voyager and discoverer of the Philippines had sailed on to Cebu after sighting the coast of Samar and setting up camp in Homonhon in 1521. Arriving on 7 April 151 in the port of Cebu, Magellan was welcomed by the friendly chieftain, Rajah Humabon. After provisioning his ship, Magellan paved the way for the evangelization of Cebu with the holding of the 1st Mass in Cebu, which saw the baptism of Humabon and his queen, who was re-named Juana. In Pigafetta’s account, Juana was said to have shed tears upon seeing the image of the Holy Child Jesus which was shown to her together with a statue of Our Lady and a Crucifix. She asked for the Child image and was granted her wish.
The Spaniards fled Cebu on 1 May 1521, after Magellan’s death in the battle of Mactan. They were to return only to Cebu after 44 years, with the successful expedition of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565. This time, the natives, under Rajah Tupaz, were not as friendly;. Legazpi, thus, dispatched a party to take over Cebu. The natives, howvere, had burned the settlement and fled to the mountains. When Spaniard Juan Camus went to survey the burnt and deserted ruins, he found a box that contained the image of the Child Jesus, the same image donated to Juana 44 years earlier. Filled with awe, Camus was said to rush and shout , “Para el cuerpo de Dios, Hijo de Maria, hallado has!”. Apparently, the image was kept by the natives as an anito, as it was found with flower offerings.
It has been established that the Santo Niño image was typical of those statuaries made in Flanders during the 16th century. By then, the devotion to the Child Jesus was deeply entrenched in Spain, and Belgium exported such statues to the country. The image must have been bought in Seville prior to the trip to the Philippines. No document exist if the Santo Niño came from Flanders as a black image, but a story exists of a convent padre painting the image black in a moment of boredom and melancholia.
When found, the image was covered with a white cloth. Its nose tip and encarna paint had somewhat rubbed off. Only a red velvet bonnet remained of its original vestment. Legazpi ordered the building of a church to house the image, with the name Santisimo Nombre de Jesus. It was erected in 1571 by Augustinian missionaries. The image was kept here, until it was taken for safekeeping by a certain Dña. Catalina Jimenez in the early 17th century, It was returned to the church, which was burned several times in history, reposing finally in the present church of San Agustin, finished on 16 January 1740. In due time, Cebu became the primary center of devotion to the Holy Child in the Philippines. Today, devotion to the Santo Niño remains strong and widespread throughout the country.
Legendary miracles have been attributed to the workings of the Santo Niño, including saving Cebu from a fire in 1631, the safe delivery of a ship from a deadly storm in 1629, and the rendering of Cebu invisible to invaders several times. People believed that the image’s regal cape gave the islands protective invisibility before the eyes of predatory invaders.
During World War II, the holy image was guarded by Augustinian fathers and remained unscathed, even though it had fallen from its altar and hanged precariously on one the electric candle bulbs in its niche. Its ebony face was repainted in pale yellow by an artist commissioned to restore the santo.
Some vestments and accessories of the Santo Niño date back to the 16th century and are still preserved at the church museum. In 1965, the 4th Centennial of the Christianization of the Philippines was observed, and the celebrations were centered in Cebu. The church was given the title of a Basilica (Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu) and the image was canonically crowned.
1. The Santo Niño of Cebu, by Mrs. Rosa C. P. Tenazas, 1965. San Carlos Publications.
2. Santo Niño, The Holy Child Devotion in the Philippines, ed. By Abe Florendo, published by the Congregacion del Santisimio Nombre del Niño Jesus. Manila, Philippines © 2001.