An Afro-Spanish religion uses the Czech statue of the Infant of Prague to represent one of its key figures
One statue, two religions. The Infant of Prague is of course a world-famous Roman Catholic icon, and the original can be seen in Prague’s Church of Our Lady Victorious.
But Santo Niño Jesús de Praga has also worked its way into the Afro-Spanish religions of Santeria and the closely related Santerismo, where Catholic statues and images are used to take the place of African-based spiritual beings called Orishas. Practitioners of Santeria and Santerismo would seem to be devout Christians to outside observers, as they had shrines to popular saints in their homes. But these shrines served a hidden purpose known only to the initiates.
Santeria and Santerismo are popular in the Caribbean and other Spanish-speaking parts of the Americas, including Hispanic areas of New York and other large cities. Botanica shops, which sell candles, incense, beads, sacred herbs and other esoteric items, often carry small versions of the Infant of Prague for use at home and also on car dashboards, along with other statues of saints.
The Infant of Prague is one of several Catholic images that can be used to stand in for Ellegua, the Orisha of roads. All ceremonies done in Santeria must first have approval by Ellegua before progressing. He holds the keys to the past, present and future. Ellegua is seen as an old man and conversely a young boy; likewise he can be a positive and negative force. In Haitian Voodoo, the corresponding spirit is Papa Legba.
Aside from the Infant of Prague, other statues used for Ellegua are the Infant of Atocha (another depiction of a young Jesus), St Anthony of Padua, St Michael, St Expedite, St Simon Peter (San Simon) and St Martín Caballero. The Infant of Prague is not the most popular, but has been catching on as the statue is readily available and quite ornate.
According to one popular interpretation, Ellegua is one of the Seven African Powers, each of which has an analogous Catholic statue. Ellegua — also called Elegua, Elewa or Elegba — is the most important of the Orishas, and controls all doorways and roads as well as crossroads. He allows all of the aches in the world to flow, and can change fate. He facilitates communication with other spirits, even to the highest ones, and divination.
Ellegua is everywhere at all times, and also tests people’s faith and commitment to their beliefs. In this role, he can at times be a trickster. In entering Santeria, Ellegua is the first spirit people must embrace. His colors are red and black, and his numbers are 3 and 21.
Believers can give offerings to the statue. He likes any food except pigeon. His favorites are goat, rooster, bushrat and smoked fish. The younger version of Eleggua can be offered wrapped candies and toys, while the older version likes hard candies, toasted corn or popcorn.
There is debate and confusion over the term Seven African Powers, and some Santeria scholars claim the Seven African Powers are not the Orishas themselves, but are spirit guides. Many followers of the religion, especially since the 1970s, have conflated the Orishas and the Seven Powers.
Scholars make a distinction between the pure form of Santeria as a religion with strict rules and initiation rites as opposed to Santerismo and related folk traditions that are open to personal interpretation and individualized practices.
A popular image of the Seven African Powers using the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and saints originated in Puerto Rico and spread to the US when citizens of Puerto Rico were allowed to move to the mainland United States in the 1950s. Santeria scholars say this image, which can be found on candles and all sorts of items in botanicas, is not an authentic interpretation of Santeria, and it instead belongs to Santerismo. This image uses San Simon as Ellegua.
The same set of Catholic statues are used for Ellegua and the other Orishas, regardless of whether they are the same as the Seven African Powers.
The original wax statue in Prague, called Pražské Jezulátko in Czech, also has its share of legends. The 47 cm tall statue of a 4- or 5-year-old Jesus is made of wood with a molded and colored wax covering. Canvas shows through the wax. The infant blesses with his right hand and his left holds an imperial orb topped with a cross. The statue is dressed in embroidered royal robes in a variety of colors to reflect the religious season or other events.
Devout Catholics come from all over the world to ask the wax statue for miracles, and the walls surrounding the statue are covered in plaques offering thanks. People and even governments have donated jeweled and embroidered robes for the statue to wear. Requests for divine intervention can now be made online through the church website, and the list is presented each week at a service, but not read out loud.
The Infant is particularly popular in the Philippines as well as South America. The reason for this is that it came to Prague from Spain. The statue was originally much darker, with Moorish features, but centuries of repairs to the wax have left it lighter in tone.
It was probably made in Spain sometime in the second half of the 16th century or earlier. Legend says that it miraculously appeared in a vision to a monk, who re-created his vision in wax. A different legend says it was owned by St Theresa of Jesus who promoted the veneration of the Infant Jesus throughout Spain.
The statue was brought to Prague by Duchess Marie Manrique de Lara y Mendoza, who married Vratislav II. z Pernštejna in 1556. Later she gave the statue to her daughter Polyxena z Pernštejna as a wedding gift when she married into the Lobkowicz family and became Polyxena z Lobkovic.
Polyxena donated the statue to the monastery of Discalced Carmelites at the Church of Our Lady Victorious.
In 1631, the Saxons seized Prague and the Carmelites fled. The monastery was plundered and the damaged statue was discarded as junk.
The monks returned to Prague in 1637. Father Cyril of the Mother of God, originally from Luxembourg, found the statue among old junk. Both its arms had been broken off. During prayer he heard the Infant Jesus say: “Have mercy on me and I will have mercy on you. Give me my arms and I will give you my peace. I will bless you as much as you will venerate me!”
This leads to another legend. Father Cyril invited wax artists and puppet makers to fix the statue. But every morning, the new arms had fallen off. The repairmen were all sinners. One day a young man showed up and asked if he could try. He knelt and said a prayer first, made the repairs and left without asking for payment. Those hands stayed in place. The man’s name is not known.
From this time forward, the statue is credited with curing many illnesses and with saving Prague during the Swedish siege in 1639.
There are other legends. One winter there was an epidemic in Prague and the church was turned into a hospital, as hospitals were full. The prior of the church, affected by illness, returned to the church at midnight to find the statue surrounded by candles and seven praying angels. The next morning he ordered the candles replaced, but they were still burning and no matter how long they burned, they got no smaller. The epidemic began to subside.
The devotion to the statue grew, and it had to be moved out from the choir, where few could see it, to a side chapel and finally into the main part of the church to accommodate crowds.
Empress Maria Theresa donated an embroidered robe to the statue in 1754. The veneration of the Infant of Prague then spread across the Austrian empire. Her son, Joseph II, however, took a dim view of such populist religious superstitions. The monastery was abolished and the shrine went into decay. The altar was restored in 1879 due to contributions from convents. Reports of new miracles began again, and word of the miraculous statue began to spread worldwide especially into Spanish-speaking countries.
Veneration of the statue fell during the communist era, though people still did visit from other countries. In 1993, the Discalced Carmelites came back to the Church of Our Lady Victorious and the veneration began again. A large gift shop selling copies of the statue and related rosaries and pictures was built near the church entrance, and a museum showing the various robes opened on the upper level.
Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2009. He said the Infant of Prague showed God’s love through his childlike tenderness. The pope gave a new crown as a present, and the crown is the one used now above the statue.
The Church of Our Lady Victorious is a bit unusual because it faces the opposite direction of most churches. The entrance of Our Lady Victorious is on the east side and the altar is on the west. This was because the hill behind the church, Petřín, was associated with pagans from the very earliest days of Prague.
The builders of the church didn’t want people to see the pagan hill as the first thing upon leaving.
There are also some tunnels under the church with the mummified remains of more than 300 people, but this is almost never open to the public due to the delicate state of the bodies.