The Statue of Santo Nino: Popular Symbol of Devoutness

The Philippines are deeply influenced by Roman Catholicism and the icon of Santo Nino can be found at many places in the country: i.e. in churches, many little house-altars, sales areas, restaurants, doctor’s offices and dangling at the rear-view mirror of jeepneys. Considering still the large number of pictures of the Redeemer, statues of the Virgin Mary and portraits of Saints, then it is possible to say: "The catholic religious symbolism is everywhere."

The doll-figure of the Christ-child appears all-year in hundreds of versions. The child is presented as statue, in pictures and stickers. The material, from which the statues are produced, can be polished ivory, ebony, gold braids, damask, velvet or simple plastic.

There is a conical basic version of Santo Nino regardless of all variability especially in the color spectrum. The basic figure was developed by Flemish artisans towards the end of Middle Ages. So it is surprising, that the design is "foreign"-European. The doll-like Nino is smiling in a gentle kind. Sometimes it is pretended that he has a feminine features. He has bright curled hairs flowing under a golden crown. Sometimes the crown has precious diamonds, donated by rich catholic people. If the objections is raised, that the real Jesus was not owner of a golden crown, theologians answer with the argument that the crown is only a symbol for the future "king of the world".

In the pilgrim version the crown is replaced by a pilgrim brim. The foot-long, festive regulla has scarlet or green as primary colours. The robe can show a lot of double headed-eagles as symbol of the German Sacrum Romanorum Imperium (i.e. Santo Nino of Cebu), scallops, jewels, gold coins, pearls or ornament-ribbons. The small left hand is very often holding the golden world-apple with the cross (sceptre), while the right hand blesses the world. Santo Nino is standing or sitting on a podium.

The simpler version of Pilgrim-Nino can carry on the left side a water bottle made of a pumpkin and wheat haulms, the right hand holds a pilgrim-stick or a bread- or flower basket. He is barefoot or wears sandals.

We told already that the figure of Santo Nino has been "imported". As devotional object it was cultivated by the holy order of Silesians and Carmelites. It exists a kind of cousinship with the Infant of Prague and the Santo Nino of Atocha (Spain/Mexico).

Magellan presented a statue of Nino to the local queen after the landing on Cebu. The queen was very pleased and converted  later to the Christian belief. The Nino was integrated in the local traditions of "Anitos" or "Anting-Anting", small statues and amulets for the spirit and ancestor reverence. "The border line between happy idolatry and deep-religious feelings is fluent on the Philippines", so Sylvia Mayuga (1). Magellan’s first trial of colonization failed however. Approximately forty years later Legaspi landed on the Philippines. Cebu is bombarded and it was a great surprise, when the Spaniards discovered in one of the burning houses the undamaged Nino given by Magellan decades before. Without any delay a chapel was built in honour of Santo Nino.

Miracles occur or are arranged as divine interventions by the monks. The Santo Nino of Cebu is packed twice very solidly in crates and sent to Manila. But the Nino is returning again and again to Cebu in a inexplicable way. Another version tells about a mysterious return from Spain. It is also reported that Nino appeared once as a little boy fetching a fish from the market. The fact that the Japanese in 1945 could not bomb Cebu because of fog is regarded as intervention of Santo Nino as well as the fact that he was not hit by American bombs despite church-fire. Some miracles of the Senor Santo Nino of Cebu are recognized officially by the Catholic church. Each third Sunday in January the City of Cebu celebrates Santo Nino. In its context there is a "Sinulog" procession with a ritual dance. This dance requires to go two steps forward and one step backwards.

There are single attempts to intellectualize the Nino-figure. It is told that he is the reality of God’s incarnation. The adoration of Nino would be a God-pleasing confession of personal unimportance and weakness. The statue would communicate the childlike virtues of humility, sincerity and confidence. Some theologians succeed also with the link-up of future world reign (Royal sceptre) and childlike way of behaviour. Ruediger Siebert is writing, that the Catholic church "with its distinctive instinct for ceremonies, splendour and shows, that attract eyes and ears" discovered very early the special qualities of darling Nino :

"God is taken up by the theologians in a abstract way and is presented to the primitive people as a threatening, punishing, unapproachable super-father. The gentle child, however, protection-needy and strong at the same time, opens up himself even to the simpler mind ... The belief becomes tangible and sensual ... In the centuries of exploitation and suppression this belief offered a refuge which made earthly sorrows more bearable." (2)

Neu claims that in the religious instructions Santo Nino is not getting adult and that the period of preaching is faded out. Santo Nino is directly adjoined in religious consciousness with the death of Jesus Christ. "The child in the crib, the smartened up son of Madonna never matures to the man of Nazareth. (3)

Santo Nino is revered on the Philippines by many people in deep faith. Perhaps in the Visayas more than in Luzon, where the Holy Maria comes more in the center of attention for example in pictures, house altars, grottoes after the pattern of Lourdes and garden shrines (4).

Santo Nino is asked for help for example if the rain stays away from the fields, illnesses or epidemics break out. Santo Nino as a representative of the Holy Family is in particular an intercessor for an intact family life. On the Philippines the family has a exceptional function compared with other social institutions.

Santo-Nino-groups, which exist also abroad, cultivate the rites of Santo Nino. Every week a statue is brought to another family. The members of group are finding together in a common prayer, estimate the social contact and enjoy a good meal. May be that they say the following prayer:


   Dear Child Jesus,

   In my difficulties help me

   From the enemies of my soul: save me

   In my errors: enlighten me

   In my doubts and pains: comfort me

   In my solitudes: be with me

   In my diseases: invigorate me

   When others despise me: encourage me

   In temptations: defend me

   In difficult hours: strengthen me

   With your maternal heart: love me

   With your immense power: protect me

   And, into your arms, when I die: receive me


        © Wolfgang Bethge

(1) Sylvia Mayuga: The virgin and the child, in: Guide Apa: Philippinen, Munich, 1985, pp. 47

(2) Ruediger Siebert, 3 mal Philippinen, Munich, 1989, pp. 238

(3) Rainer and Maria Paule Neu, Südseetrauma - Eindrücke von den Philippinen, Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1993, p. 136 ff

(4) Sylvia Mayuga: The virgin and the child, in: Guide Apa: Philippinen, Munich, 1985, pp. 47