How to tell the icon in the basilica is original 4-century-old gift of Magellan
From peasants to Presidents, those who have faith come to venerate it.
Encased in glass in a side chapel, the four-century-old wooden image of the Sto. Niño de Cebu draws the most number of visitors in the days leading to its feast day, which falls this year on Sunday, Jan. 15.
A question that recurs has to do with authenticity.
Is the image displayed in the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño the real icon? How can you tell?
Even among the most pious devotees, stories still circulate about how the “miraculous” image of the 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. Tito Soquiño, OSA, who heads the religious order’s environment advocacy and social foundation.
“It is in the chapel,” he said, referring to the figure of the Child King in red and gold robes under bullet-proof glass.
“There was a time when it was kept in the rooms of the friars for safekeeping. Now the chapel is the permanent place of the original Sto. Niño,” he told Cebu Daily News.
In 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 stretching for more than an hour, to gaze at the icon, touch its glass case, meditate, beseech it with prayers, wipe hankerchiefs on the surface and often leave items of gratitude—flowers, money in the coin box, letters and sometimes toys.
Ben Chua, a researcher on Cebu heritage and a devotee, said the Augustinian fathers are required to display the original image of the Sto. Niño for public veneration. This was a requirement stated 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 Church convent.
Chua, who holds a post-graduate degree in Cebuano heritage studies from the University of San Carlos, said they took photographs of the original image so for the printing of 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, a day before or the day itself of the grand foot procession.
The “ilis,” a Cebuano word of “change,” is the ritual changing of the Sto. Niños. 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 NIñO
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 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 Cebu’s 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.
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 (the 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 explained.
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 totally shattered,” said Chua.
Chua 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 were able to found out that the Sto. Niño’s (coating) had a second layer,” Chua siad.
After telling Fr. Moran about it, the Augustinians decided to restore the original color of the Sto. Niño.
Dr. Rosario “Mimi” Trosdal, who was a linguist, pianist, and artist, was requested to repair and repaint the image, restoring its original flesh color.
Chua said he was able to interview Trosdal before she died in 2005. When the Sto. Niño regained its original skin tone, Chua 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 Sto. Niño 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.
The wooden orb in the left hand of the Sto. Niño signifies a “ball of energy” he said.
According to Fr. Soquiño, the original image of the 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. A great ocassion, like a visit of the pope may be a cause for bringing the Sto. Niño outside of the shrine,” Soquiño said.
He said the original image is taken out of the bullet-proof glass case in the chapel once a year for the “ilis” or ritual changing of clothes.
Chua said the ilis takes place a day before or on the day itself of the grand procession.