Investigating the Spanish Roots of Filipino Catholic Devotion through the Santo Niño de Cebú
Through the generous funding of the Artes-CEEH Travel Scholarship, I was able to conduct invaluable research not only for my Courtauld History of Art MA dissertation but also for a future publication. By visiting the cities of Barcelona and Madrid, I enriched my investigation into the material and devotional history of the Santo Niño de Cebú, a sixteenth-century statue of the Christ Child brought by the explorer Ferdinand Magellan to the Philippine islands in 1519. As a native Filipino, my inquiry stems from an interest in this object’s role in fueling the Spanish Empire’s colonization of the archipelago and its contemporary veneration by Filipino Catholics.
In April 2022, I travelled to Barcelona to visit the exhibition, Santo Niño de Cebú: An Icon of Philippine Culture and History. The show was staged in celebration of the quincentennial of Magellan’s, and, therefore, the Santo Niño’s, arrival in the Philippines. Organized by the Filipino Catholic church and the Consulate General of the Philippines in Barcelona, the jewel of the exhibition was an exact replica of the Santo Niño de Cebú statue. It was displayed in the eighteenth-century office spaces of the Philippine Consulate General along with paintings and informational texts explaining the Santo Niño’s history and the ways in which Filipinos celebrate the icon today. The island nation’s reverence for this statue is rooted in an idealized version of history that honors Magellan’s act of gifting the Santo Niño icon to the local rulers of Cebú Island. This positivist view overlooks the 333 years of colonization that ensued from the Spanish arrival. Today, Magellan’s act of gifting is remembered through two major festivals called Sinulog and Ati-atihan. Celebrated in Cebú in the month of January, Sinulog begins with a grandiose fluvial procession, during which the Santo Niño statue is sailed through Cebú’s coastline and then carried through the streets by the annual Sinulog queen, a role that commemorates the native Cebúano queen Humamay, who received the original statue from Magellan. The latter festival, Ati-atihan, commemorates the Santo Niño’s acceptance by the Aeta, a term for indigenous Filipinos. The festival’s name means ‘to be like the Aeta’ and is celebrated through street processions for which Filipinos paint themselves black to mimic the dark features of their indigenous ancestors.
I was led through the exhibition by Philippine Cultural Ambassador Bernardo Bagalay. He answered my questions regarding the Santo Niño’s history and confirmed my hypothesis that the statue was originally produced in Mechelen. Known as enfants des Malines, these statues were produced and sold for private devotional use, especially by nuns. Bagalay also informed me of a ceremonial mass that was held to commemorate the Santo Niño’s symbolic ‘return’ to Spain in the form of the exact replica. This mass was held in the renowned Basilica de la Sagrada Familia and Bagaly showed me images and videos of the event. I also learned from him that, after the exhibition, the replica statue would go on to be displayed at the San Agustin Church, which is frequented by the Filipino community of Barcelona. This move was based on making the statue more accessible. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Bagalay stories of visitors who were moved by the exhibition. For example, the day before my visit, a group of Filipino women from Cebú stumbled upon the show and began singing local Cebúano canticles around the statue.
To further investigate the contemporary veneration of the Santo Niño de Cebú, I visited the San Agustin Church in Barcelona and listened to a Filipino mass. I also did the same in Madrid’s Paroquia del Santo Niño de Cebú, which has its own replica statue. These site visits and engagement with Filipinos abroad proved to be crucial fieldwork for my dissertation. In addition to the site visits that focused on Filipino Catholic devotion, my trip to Spain coincided with Semana Santa. It was insightful to witness the processions of pasos through the crowded streets of Madrid. I was able to tap into my childhood memories of participating in similar processions in the Philippines. Seeing these traditions in Spain allowed me to better understand just the influence of Spanish Catholicism on its Filipino counterpart. Overall, the Artes-CEEH Travel Scholarship made my dissertation possible and has laid the foundations for me to develop my project into a longer, future publication, which I will write after visiting the Philippines at the end of 2023.