Tracing the threads: Symbolism in the Santo Niño’s clothes

Published January 9, 2020, 12:00 AM

by manilabulletin_admin

By Minka Klaudia Tiangco

Everyone knows the story of how the Santo Niño was brought across oceans and eventually became one of the most well-known religious relics in the Philippines.


In 1521, explorer Ferdinand Magellan brought the Santo Niño de Cebu, the country’s oldest Christian artifact, as a gift to Rajah Humabon, ruler of Cebu Island, and his chief consort Hara Humamay, who later adopted the Christian faith.

The Flemish wooden statue measured about 12 inches tall and was dressed as a Spanish monarch — in a red cape, white inner garments, and carrying a crown, an orb, and a scepter.

Various interpretations have been made of the Santo Niño’s regalia. Some say that the crown represents the power of either the Spanish monarchy or Jesus Christ. The orb could symbolize both God’s dominion over the world of creation or the sovereignty of Spain over its territories. The scepter represents God or the Spanish monarchy’s power to enforce justice.

The colors that the Child Jesus is clad in are considered symbolic, too. The red cape represents the death, passion, and martyrdom of Jesus Christ, while the white robes symbolize the resurrection of Jesus.

After Magellan’s death, the statue disappeared, only to be found “miraculously” unscathed inside a box among ruins. A church was then built on the spot where the Santo Niño was found. Today, the Minor Basilica del Santo Niño in Cebu City still houses the statue inside a bulletproof case.

The image of the Child Jesus has been dressed in the traditional regalia in churches for hundreds of years. But in households, the Santo Niño dons other sets of clothes, including children’s clothes and uniforms of different professions.

Some Church officials have expressed their reservations about how devotees dress the Santo Niño, pointing out that the image is not a doll.

However, JR Susi, processions committee head of the Santo Niño de Tondo Parish, said they allow households to dress up the Santo Niño, as long as its clothes align with its image in history.

“‘Yung imahen, binibihisan namin kung ano ‘yung mismong katesismo nito sa loob ng simbahan. Ang Santo Niño kasi is representation ng batang Diyos (We dress the image based on church catechism, because the Santo Niño is a representation of the Child Jesus),” Susi, who is also a member of the research information documentation ministry, said.

“The households dressing up their Santo Niños must not go past their limit. The Child Jesus’ clothes must remain holy and/or representative of how it was depicted in history,” he added in Filipino.

Susi said some households treat their Santo Niño images as a child living in their houses. They bathe, dress, and talk to the religious relic as if it were a living thing.

Others who dress their Child Jesus statues in work uniforms do so to show the respect they have for those professions, Susi said.

“Nire-represent natin ‘yung Niño na kapamilya mo, eh. Kaya ‘yung iba diyan, nagpapaligo, tinuturing na bata, kinakausap (The Santo Niño is represented as a part of your family. That’s why others bathe, treat as children, and talk to their relics),” he said.

The Feast of Santo Niño will be held on Jan. 12, followed by the annual Sinulog Festival in Cebu on Jan. 19.