Santo Niño in the Louvre | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Santo Niño in the Louvre

Contrary to popular belief, the Spanish colonial period in Philippine history does not begin in 1521 with Ferdinand Magellan’s arrival in an archipelago he named the “Islas de San Lazaro.” The islands were sometimes called the “Islas del Poniente” or “Isles of the West,” and the name “Filipinas” did not come about until 1543. That was when the head of the Villalobos Expedition named what are now Leyte and Samar “Filipinas,” in honor of Felipe, Principe de Asturias, later King Philip II of Spain.

“Islas Filipinas” has since been Anglicized into Philippine Islands (“P.I.,” of course, can sometimes stand for something else) and shortened into Philippines, RP or PH, but the people are still called Filipinos. Imagine, if we had retained the former names given the islands, we would be “Lazareans” today or, worse, “Ponientans”!


The Spanish period properly begins with the arrival of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and Andres de Urdaneta in 1565, and this year is significant to Cebu because last April 28 it had a triple celebration: the “Kaplag” or the 450th anniversary of the finding of the image of the Santo Niño de Cebu; the 450th anniversary of the Augustinian presence in the Philippines; and the 50th anniversary of the elevation of the Santo Niño church as a minor basilica.

In a nutshell, one of Legazpi’s men, Juan de Camus, while exploring the ruins of a burnt house in Cebu, found a pine box that contained the painted wooden image of the Infant Jesus. He presented the image to Legazpi and Urdaneta, who saw the image as a relic of the Magellan expedition of 1521.


In Antonio Pigafetta’s relation of the Magellan expedition, we have a detailed account of the mass baptism in Cebu on the morning of Sunday, April 14, 1521. Humabon was christened Carlos in honor of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who as King of Spain was known as Charles I, or Carlos Primero (better remembered in the Philippines as a popular brand of Spanish brandy). Humabon’s wife was christened Juana, in honor of the mother of Charles V, better known in history as Juana of Castille or Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad).

Depending on the source you are reading, there are other baptismal names to be found: Kolambu was christened Juan, Kolambu’s wife Isabel, one of the rajahs was called Fernando in honor of Magellan, his wife became Catherina, another rajah became Juan, and a Moro trader from Siam who happened to be in town during the mass baptism was christened Christoforo or Cristobal, perhaps in honor of Christopher Columbus.

What is of interest to us in this 450th anniversary is not so much the finding of the image as how it got to our shores. According to Pigafetta, after the baptism of Humabon and 500 of his men, it was the turn of Humabon’s wife:

“After dinner the priest and some of the others went ashore to baptize the queen, who came with 40 women. We conducted her to the platform, and she was made to sit on a cushion, and the other women near her until the priest was ready. She was shown an image of our Lady, a very beautiful wooden Child Jesus, and a cross. Thereupon she was overcome with contrition and asked for baptism amid her tears… Counting men, women and children, we baptized 800 souls. The queen was young and beautiful, and was entirely covered with a white and black cloth. Her mouth and nails were very red, while on her head she wore a large hat of palm leaves in the manner of a parasol, with a crown about it of the same leaves, like the tiara of the pope; and she never goes any place without one. She asked us to give her the little child Jesus to keep in place of her idols; then she went away.”

From that account we know that there were three images presented on that day: the Virgin Mary, the Santo Niño and a crucifix. Only the Santo Niño is accounted for. What happened to the Virgin? Is this the Virgin of Guadalupe venerated in a separate church in Cebu, or is it another image allegedly kept as an amulet by a powerful political family? What about the crucifix? Is this the same image of the “Ecce Homo” or a wooden bust of Christ now displayed in a side altar in the basilica?

Recently acquired by the Louvre Museum in Paris is an image of the Santo Niño without the vestments described in a restoration report as being in the “style, materials and production techniques typical of Mechelen production in the former Southern Lowlands. The statuette and its plinth are in good condition… The modelling of the body is now finer, the flesh tones restored to their delicate ivory color, and the hair has a golden shine, but above all the face has recovered its original mischievous expression, laughing eyes, and small pursed mouth. Because of the similarities with other Mechelen statues whose plinths bear the Brussels hallmark [BRVESEL], the refined execution of the polychrome of the Enfant Jésus leads us to conclude that, although carved at Mechelen, the work was later colored in a Brussels workshop, which occurred frequently in the period around 1500.”

The Santo Niño de Cebu has a twin, or at least a half-brother, now on display in the Louvre that should be visited by Filipinos who wish to trace the origin of that brought by Magellan in 1521.



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