Jewels of the Virgin
Since 1646, the feast of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary has traditionally been celebrated in Manila with novenas, masses, processions, and partying. COVID-19 changed all that. Marian devotees had to content themselves with watching everything on an FB livestream this year.
She is known in Spanish as Nuestra Señora del Santísimo Rosario (Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary), an ancient image with ivory head and hands, also referred to as La Naval de Manila. Her intercession was believed to have led to the victory of the Spanish and Filipino forces against the invading Dutch forces in 1646. One of Nick Joaquin’s lesser known works, “Ballad of Five Battles,” narrates the story of the defense of the Philippines from March to October 1646, linking it to a similar triumph in 1571 of Catholic forces against the infidel Turks in Lepanto.
Each year during the Feast of La Naval, I remember the first time Filipinos in Manila had set their eyes on a king. Nobody had seen even the shadow of a Spanish monarch in the three centuries the Philippines was under Spain. To make up for this, oil portraits of the king were sent to Manila so his subjects half a world away would know what he looked like. We even have documentation of the festivities that accompanied the arrival of one such portrait in 19th-century Manila.
Norodom I of Cambodia was the first king to visit the Philippines. This was in 1872, the same year Gomes, Burgos, and Zamora were executed in Bagumbayan. He arrived with a large retinue on board a French vessel and stayed for two weeks. A whole bundle of documents on Norodom’s visit is preserved in the National Archives of the Philippines, providing details such as arrival honors, receptions, parties, even excursions outside Intramuros to visit Taal Volcano or attend balls in Bulacan and Pampanga.
In 1969, Norodom I’s grandson, then Prince Norodom Sihanouk, visited Manila and surprised his hosts by telling them about a Filipino colony in 19th-century Cambodia. It is not well known that there were overseas Filipinos working in the Royal Palace of Cambodia in the reign of Norodom I. Pleased with his visit to the Philippines, Norodom I, upon his return home in August 1872, granted an extraordinary promotion to all sublieutenants and lieutenants serving with his Tagalog bodyguards. He also brought back with him from Manila a group of Filipino musicians who formed the nucleus of what became the Cambodian Royal Brass and Reed Band. I wouldn’t be surprised if Norodom brought along some cooks aside from bodyguards and musicians.
One thing he was not able to bring back as a souvenir, however, was a jewel from Calumpit, Bulacan, named Josefa Roxas y Manio. The main source for this story is Felix M. Roxas, journalist and mayor of Manila (1905-1917) who wrote about it in one of his columns that ran in the Spanish newspaper El Debate from 1926 to 1936. Roxas wrote that Josefa was gifted with a solid gold jewel as big as a mangosteen, that her descendants used to refer to as the “gintong granada” (gold grenade). With this impressive gift, Norodom I was supposed to have proposed marriage through an interpreter.
Unfortunately, Norodom was politely rejected because of religion, as Josefa would not convert from Catholicism to marry a man entitled to have more than one wife. Josefa diplomatically excused herself by saying she couldn’t marry as she had to take care of her aging parents. She died a spinster in 1883.
During Norodom Sihanouk’s 1969 visit, he visited Santo Domingo church and was shown, not the gintong granada given to Josefa Roxas, but a small medallion Norodom I had given to Josefa’s younger sister, Ana Roxas y Manio. In 1892, this jewel was presented by Ana to the Virgin of the Rosary in gratitude for the recovery of a brother who was seriously ill. An old catalog of the Virgin’s jewels described this as: “A solid gold medallion in the shape of a shell encrusted with eight diamantitos, twenty-nine chispas, eight pearls, and twenty-four emeralds.” On its back was engraved: “S.M. El Rey de Cambodia a la Srta. ANA ROJAS, 1872” (His Majesty the King of Cambodia to Miss Ana Rojas, 1872).
One day, I will seek permission to see two of the Virgin’s many celebrated jewels: the Norodom medallion, and the National Artist award presented to her by Nick Joaquin.
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