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Looking Back

Santo Niño de Cebu

/ 09:54 PM January 29, 2013

Homesick Pinoys in Tokyo like myself attend Sunday Mass at St. Ignatius Church because Filipino food is available for sale from car boots in the street outside. Comfort food like lugao, pork barbecue, banana-Q, pancit, puto and kutsinta are readily available to warm heart and belly in the lonely winter. The sound of spoken Filipino alone lifts the spirit, and if you need other survival items like Green Cross Rubbing Alcohol or the rival brand made famous by the slogan “Di lang pangpamilya, pang-sports pa,” instant sinigang mix, Eskinol, Papaya soap, Purefoods hotdog and corned beef, bangus, tilapia, tuyo and daing, phone cards to call home or movie-star gossip magazines, you will find them here.

The other Sunday a special Mass was held to celebrate the Feast of the Santo Niño, which has a proper liturgical feast exclusive to the Philippines and Filipino communities abroad on the third (sometimes on the last) Sunday of January.

In 1565 Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived in the Philippines, four decades after Magellan was killed for interfering in the rivalry between Humabon of Cebu and Lapu-Lapu of Mactan, and wrote:


“One of the soldiers went into a large and well-built house of an Indian where he found an image of the Child Jesus (whose most Holy Name I pray may be universally worshipped). This was kept in a cradle, all gilded, just as it was brought from España; and only the little cross that is generally placed on the globe in his hand was lacking. This image was well-kept in that house, and many flowers were found before it, no one knows what object or purpose. The soldier bowed before it with all reverence and wonder, and brought the image to the place where the other soldiers were. I pray to the Holy Name of this image which we have found here, to help us and grant us victory, in order that these lost people who are ignorant of the precious and rich treasure which was in their possession may come to acknowledge him.”

In 1566, an unsigned printed document on the Legazpi expedition came off the press in Barcelona that made this reference to the image:

“In a poorly built house was found an image of the Child Jesus, such as come from Flanders, with his veil and globe in hand, and in as good condition as if it were just made… They began construction of a fort, outside of which they erected a church, wherein the Child Jesus was placed, and they called the church [Santissimo] Nombre de Jesus [Most Holy Name of Jesus].”

Based on the above and other contemporary documents, we all know the story of the Santo Niño de Cebu. Is the image venerated in Cebu today really the same one presented by Magellan in 1521 as a baptismal gift to Humabon’s wife? Humabon was christened Carlos in honor of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who as king of Spain was Charles I, better known to Filipinos as a Spanish brandy (“Carlos Primero”). The name of his wife is lost to history; she was christened Juana, for the Spanish queen known to history as Juana la Loca or Joanna the Mad.

The conversion of the Cebuanos, as recounted by Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of the Magellan expedition, transpired thus:

“After dinner our chaplain and some others … went on shore to baptize the queen. And she came with forty ladies and we led them to the platform, then we caused her to sit on a cushion … until the priest was ready. Meanwhile, we showed her a lady carved in wood, holding her child (which was very well made) and a cross. The sight of these gave her a greater wish to be a Christian, and asking for baptism, she was baptized, and named Joanna, like the emperor’s mother… Then she begged us to give her that wooden image to put in place of her idols, which we did.”

Some days later, the queen attended Mass with her ladies. Pigafetta not only described what she wore but also related that Magellan sprinkled rose muscat water over them then, “the captain knowing that the wooden image greatly pleased the queen. Gave it to her saying that she should have it instead of her idols, for it was the memorial and representation of the Son of God. And hearing this the queen accepted it, and warmly thanked the captain for it.”

From the above it seems that two images were shown the queen and don’t seem to be the Santo Niño as we know it today. The account above is taken from the French edition of Pigafetta’s account. Other versions give basically the same story with slight differences in the details. The Ambrosian Codex, reputedly the most authoritative, says the queen was shown three images; she asked for the Santo Niño but left empty-handed, and Magellan later presented her with it.


What became of the other images? Were these brought back on the return voyage to Spain or taken as booty after Magellan’s defeat in Mactan? The story leaves us with many questions. Since the Cebuanos did not speak Spanish or Latin, did they understand what baptism meant or did to them? Was the Santo Niño kept as a replacement for an idol from our old religion or was it kept as a doll? Does the Sinulog go back four centuries or before the arrival of Magellan, or is it what anthropologists call an invented tradition?

An old story inspires new questions and is a way to understand how our ancestors were and how we have since changed or remained the same.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, column, Ferdinand magellan, Miguel lopez de legazpi, santo niño de cebu
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